In the written world of sports, no competitor, no matter how skilled, should ever overlook an opponent, no matter how inept. To be fair to the 2015 Western Michigan University football team, they are not an incompetent one. Picked by the media (by one vote) to finish second in the MAC West behind Toledo, the Broncos completed their second regular season under head coach P.J. Fleck with an 8-4 record before losing to Air Force in the 2014 Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, 38-24. With 16 starters returning, among them the MAC’s reigning passing efficiency king, Zach Terrell, it wouldn’t be wise to write them off especially when playing them in Waldo Stadium in Kalamazoo, MI…even if you are the fifth-ranked team in the country, coming off of 42 wins and 4 bowl wins in the last 4 seasons.
In the unwritten world of sports, Michigan State simply wanted to escape Kalamazoo with a somewhat resounding win and healthy team so they could finally, openly narrow their focus on the seventh-ranked Oregon Ducks. The same Ducks that soundly beat them 46-27 last season up in Eugene, OR, and put an early dent in the Spartans’ national title hopes. A Ducks team that would be traveling to East Lansing, MI, for this matchup, hopefully going home with their national title dreams seemingly all but lost.
MSU’s opponent on Saturday is definitely a strong one, but not quite as strong as the Ducks team that pasted them last year. The catalyst of those Ducks, QB Marcus Mariota, is set to begin his first NFL regular season with the Tennessee Titans, and Oregon lost CB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, DE Arik Armstead, and SS Erick Dargan among a few others to the NFL as well. Still, Sparty knows this is a matchup between two top-10 teams based on merit so to speak, and not just name.
Oregon could have certainly dealt with the loss of Mariota by promoting from within. Junior QB Jeff Lockie backed up Mariota for two years and had a clear advantage on the other returning quarterbacks before spring practice was to begin. Sophomore walk-on Taylor Alie, the team’s holder on field goal and extra-point attempts could have snuck in to win the job. Or, Oregon could take advantage of a somewhat quirky NCAA rule and scour the transfer market for a starting QB, like Eastern Washington graduate Vernon Adams, Jr.
Adams, Jr. spent the last three seasons terrorizing the Big Sky Conference to the tune of nearly 10,500 passing yards and 110 touchdown passes. Not quite the dual-threat QB Mariota was but still plenty dangerous outside of the pocket, Adams, Jr. also managed to scamper for over 1,200 yards at a 4.1 yard per carry clip. Eastern Washington did some winning with Adams, Jr. as the signal-caller, too. As a three-year starter, Adams, Jr. finished his career at EWU with a record of 34-9 and three first-place finishes in the conference.
Alas, Adams, Jr. is no Mariota. Hell, he may not even be close considering he racked up such ridiculous numbers against the likes of Cal-Poly, Idaho St., Portland St., and, sorry Spo, UC-Davis. I don’t intend to take away from what he accomplished, but rather provide context to the situation by explaining that in terms of football, the Big Sky Conference isn’t exactly a “Power 5” group.
Michigan St. head coach Mark Dantonio knows this. He also knows that Adams, Jr. is surrounded by far superior talent than what he was surrounded by during his time at EWU. There is also the issue of the MSU secondary, and whether it can recover from a rather subpar performance against WMU. Terrell completed 33 of 50 passes for 365 yards and receivers Daniel Braverman and Corey Davis both finished with over 100 yards receiving. It’s important to note that WMU was pressed into throwing the ball so many times because their run game (23 rushes, 18 yards) was basically non-existent, but it’s still worrisome that Terrell and Co. enjoyed the success they did. If the Spartan secondary had problems against WMU, it’s frightening to think of what Oregon’s QB and speedy receivers could do.
Hopefully, the game will come down to offense, which is a weird sentiment considering MSU still trots out a starting QB in Connor Cook who is seemingly afraid to complete 60% of his passes and one who didn’t even complete 50% of them against WMU’s defense. Making up for Cook’s inaccuracy is senior WR Aaron Burbridge and the two-headed monster at running back, freshman Madre London and sophomore Gerald Holmes. The three combined for 330 yards of total offense and 3 touchdowns in the season-opening win over WMU and will be counted on even more against Oregon tonight. MSU’s offensive line is still extremely stout in pass- and run-blocking situations and while Cook isn’t a surgeon in the pocket, he tends to not cost his team too many drives and scoring opportunities.
MSU won’t throw for 438 yards against Oregon the way EWU did, but Oregon also won’t run for 485 yards against a Sparty defense that for the last several years has been one of the nation’s best against the run. After sacking Terrell 7 times last week in what looked to be a pared-down defense of sorts, it could get extremely hectic very early for Adams, Jr. if MSU’s pass rush proves to be effective. And after beginning his Ducks career at home against a cupcake, Adams, Jr.’s first road game will be a nationally televised, prime-time event in the home of the nation’s fifth-ranked team.
The result of this game will obviously mean a lot for both teams, although it’s important to remember that the closer the final score, the less damage and good a loss and win would provide, respectively. A win for Sparty would immediately place them in the conversation of teams with a legitimate (albeit very early) shot at competing for a playoff spot and the national title. A loss for Sparty would…not be good. At all. So, with all due respect to Western Michigan University, a school I spent my first year as an undergraduate at and institution I still have very fond memories of… GO GREEN. GO WHITE.