Mariota, Ducks prepare to face Spartan D
September, 2, 2014
By Chantel Jennings | ESPN.com
EUGENE, Ore. -- Jameis Winston has already begun putting together a highlight reel of Heisman-worthy clips. The video of his touchdown run against Oklahoma State in the season opener went viral as he hurdled over his own teammate and juked opponents like a video game.
This weekend, Oregon QB Marcus Mariota will get his chance to do the same against visiting Michigan State (6:30 p.m. ET) -- a primetime game, a quality opponent, and a full four quarters (most likely) to pull a rabbit out of his hat for one play or another.
And the fact that it'll be against one of the nation's best defenses could look pretty good to Heisman voters if Mariota is able to put up some big plays.
Last season, Michigan State had the best defense -- statistically -- in the nation, holding opponents to just 251.9 yards per game, including just four yards per play. The Spartans allowed just 12 passing touchdowns and held opposing quarterbacks to a 47.5 percent completion rate.
"They're a great defense," Mariota said. "They're really good at what they do. They put their players in good positions to make plays."
Up front this season, the Spartans feature the reigning Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year, Shilique Calhoun, who goes by the nickname "Bane" (as in the masked villain from "The Dark Knight Rises"). The defensive line also features defensive end Marcus Rush, who's one of the Spartans' more underrated players.
The middle of the field saw some loss for the Spartans in Max Bullough and Denicos Allen, however, MSU returns Taiwan Jones as well as young talent in Riley Bullough (younger brother of Max) and Jon Reschke.
But the "No Fly Zone," which is what the Spartans' secondary has come to be known as, is what Mariota will go up against. Darqueze Dennard is gone but Trae Waynes hopes to be the next lockdown corner for the Spartans. And at safety, Michigan State features two-year starter Kurtis Drummond and R.J. Williamson.
Mariota said the Spartans' defense doesn't really remind him of any Pac-12 defense in particular, but he's expecting to see a lot of man coverage because Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi definitely trusts his defensive backs to make plays on the ball.
"We'll have to communicate up front and make sure we're good in our protections," Mariota said. "And try to take our shots."
Mariota certainly took those shots against South Dakota in Week 1, averaging 19.1 yards per completion. But the Coyotes' defense is nowhere near as tough as what the Spartans will present.
And with a younger crop of receivers, it'll be interesting to see how the Ducks divvy up the targeting among the players. Against South Dakota, Ducks running back Byron Marshall was actually the leading receiver, but 11 different players caught passes during the game.
That number will certainly decrease as the Ducks key in on go-to receivers as they prepare to face the Spartans, but how much the rest of Mariota's statistics decrease will be much more interesting and important for Oregon and the Heisman race.