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Spartans break down title-game participants

1/8/2015

Michigan State's 2014 season will be remembered most for the way it ended: a furious fourth-quarter comeback against Baylor in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic, giving the Spartans a signature win.

But the Baylor triumph, combined with the results of the College Football Playoff semifinals that took place later on Jan. 1, provided Michigan State another distinction. No team in college football has better losses than the Spartans, whose only two setbacks came against the teams that meet Monday for the College Football Playoff National Championship Presented By AT&T.

"It's crazy how things work out," Spartans safety Kurtis Drummond said, "that your two losses come to national title contenders."

MSU fell Sept. 6 at Oregon and Nov. 8 against Ohio State at Spartan Stadium. The Spartans led both games for stretches before stumbling midway through. They piled up yards in both contests -- 466 against Oregon, 536 against Ohio State -- but couldn't slow down their opponents' potent offenses, which combined for 95 points and 1,059 yards against a typically formidable Spartans defense.

The Spartans aren't offering title game predictions, but they weighed in on several elements of the mega matchup.

Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota

Michigan State faced only half of Monday's quarterback pairing, as Ohio State's J.T. Barrett was still healthy for the game in East Lansing, Michigan. Mariota had 318 pass yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions and 42 rush yards in Oregon's Week 2 win against the Spartans.

"I remember his composure and his confidence," Drummond said. "He's not a guy who's going to make the first guy miss and just take off running. He can do that, but he's a guy who can still throw the ball downfield."

Mariota made the game's defining play with his feet, and then his arm. Michigan State led 27-18 in the third quarter and appeared to have sacked Mariota on third-and-long, but the Oregon star escaped several would-be tacklers before shoveling the ball to Royce Freeman for a first down.

Oregon converted another third down moments later and reached the end zone, sparking a 28-0 run to end the game.

"He's extremely gifted in terms of riding the fake-out," Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. "You can see a couple times in the film where our guys are sitting right there and eyes on the ball, eyes on him and we lose him. And then, in the pocket getting out of problems, he's a fast guy, he's extremely elusive."

The offenses

Both offenses fall under the spread canopy and have similarities in personnel and operation.

For years, Oregon's pace has staggered opposing defenses, especially when the Ducks get rolling. They lead the FBS this season in scoring percentage after the initial first down is gained, scoring on 66.2 percent of such possessions. Dantonio said Ohio State doesn't operate as quickly as it did with Braxton Miller at quarterback, but a tempo element remains.

"They both create run-pass conflicts," Dantonio said. "They both have coaches that are on the cutting edge of what we see now as offensive football."

The skill-position contingents are similar: fast and physical backs such as Ohio State's Ezekiel Elliott and Oregon's Freeman, big-play receivers such as Oregon's Darren Carrington and Devon Allen and Ohio State's Devin Smith and Michael Thomas. Oregon has six players with at least 20 receptions who average more than 13 yards per reception; Ohio State has four.

"Oregon has guys who ran track, Ohio State has guys who ran track," Drummond said. "They both have explosive-type players out there on the edges, guys who can make plays on the ball."

One difference, Drummond noted, is that Ohio State lines up its tight ends closer to the line of scrimmage. The Buckeyes' Jeff Heuerman is a strong blocker with the ability to catch passes. Oregon lost standout tight end Pharaoh Brown to a season-ending leg injury in November.

The defenses

There are more differences in scheme -- Oregon runs a 3-4, Ohio State a 4-3 -- and personnel with these less distinguished units. Oregon's height at defensive end with Arik Armstead (6-foot-8) and DeForest Buckner (6-foot-7) stood out to both Dantonio and MSU offensive coordinator Dave Warner.

Ohio State isn't quite as tall up front but boasts power inside with tackles Michael Bennett and Adolphus Washington.

"That’s going to be a test for both offenses, to try and establish the run game," Warner said. "They've both got some run-stoppers up front."

Offensive balance was among Michigan State's top goals entering both games, but the Spartans became pass-heavy in both contests, especially as they fell behind in the second half.

The Ducks' defensive backs also caught Warner's attention. Oregon safety Erick Dargan had the first of his team-leading seven interceptions against the Spartans.

"Those guys are playmakers, so you've got to be pretty smart as far as how you attack them in the pass game," Warner said. "We had a little bit of success but screwed up there toward the third and fourth quarter. Those guys don't let you get away with many mistakes."

Keys to the game

The offensive firepower on both sides has many anticipating a shootout. It's why Warner thinks conversion rates -- third downs and touchdowns -- will be so important.

Michigan State's inability to convert a red zone opportunity late in the first half against Ohio State -- a holding penalty nullified a touchdown run and the Spartans subsequently missed a short field goal attempt -- turned the momentum and MSU never recovered. Ohio State and Oregon rank third and fourth nationally in third-down conversions, so the team that better moves the chains will have a significant edge. Ohio State is better (20th nationally, 35 percent conversions) at preventing third-down conversions than Oregon (60th, 39.5 percent).

"Third downs become very critical, whether it’s third-and-short or third-and-long," Warner said. "When you get in the red zone, you want to get touchdowns, not field goals. Those things become even more important when you're going against a high-powered offense."

Dantonio expects turnovers and special teams to loom large. Oregon used three third-quarter takeaways against Florida State to pull away from the Seminoles. Ohio State committed two early turnovers against Alabama but rallied to win the turnover margin 3-2.

Oregon leads the nation in turnover margin (plus-20), while Ohio State is tied for 15th (plus-10).

"This isn't a game," Drummond said, "where it's going to be easy to win beating yourselves."