Three and Out: Mich. State avenges 2014 defeat with win over Oregon

Michigan State beat Oregon 31–28, putting the Spartans in prime position to make the College Football Playoff.
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EAST LANSING, Mich. — Michigan State outmuscled Oregon on Saturday for a 31–28 win. Here are three thoughts from the night that slow and steady beat warp speed.

1. Michigan State is in great playoff position

Michigan State now has the best out-of-conference win in the country. Whether it remains the best out-of-conference win is up to Oregon. But if the Ducks have a good season, the Spartans could find themselves in an enviable position. They have this win and—at least what appears to be—a tougher Big Ten West schedule draw than Ohio State. So even if Michigan State loses to Ohio State on Nov. 21, the Spartans still might have a chance to make the College Football Playoff.

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This is obviously all very premature, but Michigan State’s defense against Oregon on Saturday suggests that few teams outside the one from Columbus will be able to put up points on the Spartans when they’re fully engaged.

Giving up three offensive touchdowns—the Ducks also scored on an 81-yard Bralon Addison punt return—may feel like a lot for the Spartans, but not many teams can make it that difficult for Oregon to get in the end zone. Michigan State also stuffed the Ducks on the goal line in the second quarter when defensive tackle Malik McDowell blew up an inside handoff to Royce Freeman by knocking center Matt Hegarty into the backfield. In the fourth quarter, the Spartans stopped Adams on a fourth-down run for a turnover on downs.

If Michigan State can keep playing this way, the Spartans likely will be favored in every remaining game except the visit to Ohio State. Obviously, winning out would put the Spartans in the playoff. But even with a loss in Columbus, Michigan State might still have a shot thanks to this win.

2. Vernon Adams is a must-watch player

Adams is not Marcus Mariota, but he’s pretty exciting—for fans of the Ducks and fans of their opponents. Adams can make magic happen with the ball in his hands, but he also can make some terrible decisions under pressure. His first interception was the result of an amazing play by Michigan State safety Montae Nicholson to steal the ball away from Oregon’s Charles Nelson in one-on-one coverage. His second interception came when he threw a ball up for grabs deep, allowing Spartans safety RJ Williamson to swoop in from center field.

Still, Adams also helped keep the Ducks in the game. Facing fourth-and-seven from the Michigan State 30 early in the fourth quarter, Adams hit Byron Marshall down the left sideline for a 25-yard gain. Two plays later, Adams scored on a two-yard run, and the Ducks slashed Michigan State’s lead to three. Unfortunately for the Ducks’ offense, Michigan State’s R.J. Shelton and LJ Scott combined to rush for 65 yards on the Spartans’ next three plays and Michigan State pushed the lead back to 10.

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3. Connor Cook is among the nation’s best

Cook is either the best quarterback in the country, or he’s on a very short list. Michigan State’s defense, while good, is not the impenetrable wall it was during the Rose Bowl run in 2013. What has kept the Spartans among the nation’s elite is Cook’s ascendance. He has made Michigan State’s offense a tough out even when the running game isn’t working well. When it is, as it was in Saturday’s fourth quarter, the Spartans are nearly impossible to stop.

Cook showed just how cool he is under pressure in Saturday’s third quarter when the Spartans faced fourth-and-six from the Oregon 34-yard line. Cook stood tall in the pocket and threaded a 28-yard completion to Aaron Burbridge. On the next play, Scott ran for a six-yard touchdown that broke a 14–14 tie.

Cook completed 20 of 32 passes for 192 yards with two touchdowns and one interception. He also probably helped his draft stock in a game attended by dozens of NFL scouts.