Just a few weeks after completing one of the most successful seasons in program history, the Spartans were back at work, starting winter conditioning drills at 5:30 in the morning.
In seven years Mark Dantonio has transformed the culture at Michigan State, as powerfully as Chip Kelly did at Oregon. Last year's 13-win season was the second-ever in school history.
Daunting challenge: the same Stanford team that dominated the Ducks fell hard against Michigan State in the 2014 Rose Bowl, held to 11 first downs in a 24-20 Spartan victory (Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports).
The 57-year-old head coach is 64-29 at MSU. He's beaten archrival Michigan five of the last six times. Last year they went to the Rose Bowl for the first time in 26 seasons, clubbing Urban Meyer and the Ohio State 34-24 in the Big Ten Championship, then manhandling The Nerds 24-20 in the Granddaddy. Quarterback Connor Cook, back this season to command the Spartans, was named MVP of both games.
Fans are giddy after the 13-1 season and a number three final ranking, a little chippy that Auburn got preferential treatment for the national title berth. They've watched the former Cincinnati Bearcat coach churn out three 11-win seasons in four years and three bowl wins in a row. They're even more optimistic for 2014, believing the squad has a chance to qualify for the first FBS playoffs after starting with a preseason ranking in the top six. "Remember Oregon lost to Stanford," they're whispering on the message boards. "The Cardinal held them scoreless until the fourth quarter."
A win over the Ducks at Autzen would catapult MSU in the playoff race, the rematch with the Buckeyes slated for November 8th in East Lansing after a bye. Sparty faces Jacksonville State, Eastern Michigan and Wyoming in their other nonconference games. They have Nebraska and tOSU at home, face new conference members Maryland and Rutgers in November before closing the league schedule with Penn State at Beaver Stadium.
Like their historical counterparts, the Spartans do it with discipline and defense, ranked number four behind Alabama, Florida State and BYU last year while allowing just 274.4 yards a game. Led by a stifling unit that allowed just 13.2 points a game, Dantonio's green storm beat all nine conference opponents by at least ten points, the first time a Big Ten team had ever done that.
They lose six starters off the defense, but the five that are returning include Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year Shalique Calhoun, a powerful, lightning-quick defensive end. Defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi also has a commitment from 6-7, 290-lb. Malik McDowell, a five-star prospect who could make an impact right away, but his parents still haven't signed his letter of intent. At their urging he'll visit Michigan, Florida State and Ohio State before making a decision.
But the returning Spartans were up early after Signing Day, determined to ward off complacency. Dantonio told veteran reporter and radio host Mike Griffith of Mi.com, "We were in here at 5:30 in the morning. It's a chance to reflect and step back and reestablish who we are. I think we have to do that when we've had the success we've had this past year."
"You need to restart the engine, so you need to really back it up and find out why you were successful."
For the Ducks, the September 6th matchup at Autzen is a big, big game, particularly because it comes against the kind of opponent critics say they can't match up with, a big, physical team with an elite defense and a power running game. Even though Oregon has won those kind of games in the recent past, notably against Wisconsin and Kansas State in BCS bowls, national perception is still shaped by losses to Auburn, LSU, USC 2011, Stanford and Arizona, games in which the Ducks were physically dominated and lost the line of scrimmage.
Kirk Herbstreit and the pundits at ESPN will be ready with the familiar narrative if Oregon loses. If they win, the Ducks national title bid and Marcus Mariota's Heisman candicy reaches a whole new level of credibility. "This is a different Duck team." the panel at the Home Depot set will say. "They seem to have an edge they've lacked since Chip Kelly left."
The clash with MSU will be nationally televised, a day game, one of the marquee matchups of college football's first month.
Discipline and complacency seemed to be a problem for Oregon in 2013. In that way, Michigan State represents their ultimate challenge, a early test that could define their season and Mark Helfrich's identity as a head coach.
Dale Oregon lost by what 2 or 3 points, so I wouldn't say AUBURN Dominated anything, especially when you have a Heisman QB who SUCKED that day against our Defense who you have too admit played the best Defense over any of the BIG BAD SEC Ds did. No EXCUSES for Oregon's Coaching staff too not get it done this year, NONE whatsoever, because this Team is DEEP with Talent.
Hey Dale, yes your exactly right it was Nic Fairley who dominated the Line but if you watch that one sequence where Chip ran the Ball every down stubbornly and when that 4th and Goal came he didn't take the points and more frustrating was he ran pretty much the same play on that 4th down and of coarse Auburn stuffed it again to which I say, Chip lost that Game by his stubbornness in his play calling, and I'd say Oregon's D actually outplayed Auburn's D. Oregon should of won that Game, and Chip was the factor because of coarse he called the plays. Oregon will get bigger and stronger at both Lines this year and that should be the difference and they will need 1 of the 3 backup QBs to step up his play and be a factor if Marcus is hurt. I somewhat agree with you but I will never admit other than Chip cost his Team all those missed opurtunitys because it wasn't like they didn't move the ball on them because they did.
I personally like all this hot seat talk. It shows that this program has expectations from the fan base and from within. Back in the day we were always ok with a 5 or 6 win season. Now we expect to win. That's what makes successful football programs. We have arrived gentlemen.
I think you're underestimating the importance of this game. This is the most important game in Duck history. More important than the natty, because we lost, and more important than the Rose Bowl because it's not the natty. This game will determine whether MH, and staff, are contenders or pretenders. This game will determine whether the Ducks are relevant or meh. It will decide the Heisman Trophy for MM. It will decide if Oregon is one of the schools to be invited to the final four. If we can beat Sparty, we can beat all the rest of the teams on our schedule. The world will be watching.
Come on you cannot put AUBURN on this list because if Chip calls a good game we win that Game going away and He cost his Team that win with his stubborness and instead of going for it on 4th and Goal and kicking a Chip Shot field Goal we win that Game, because of all the so called BAD ASS SEC Defenses, that SCAM Newton shredded all year it was our Defense that held him in check the whole Game, and I certainly didn't see a guy in that Game worthy of a Heisman Trophy. Oregon lost that Game because of Chip and no other reason or do you need to get that Game Tape out and watch it again.
If you cannot get up for MS at Home and get the win then you don't belong in the TOP, and Oregon needs to get that Chip on their shoulders back as in WTD, So what I'm expecting is a Duck Team thats salavating to kick the SPARTANS BUTT Back to the Midwest, and after that win is ESPN saying Oregon does look differen't because there running up the gut again.
This is a make or break game for Helfrich! Based on the outcome of this game, a whole bunch of Duck supporters are going to decide whether the Ducks are flying or sitting. This one game will decide as much as the conference championship whether the Ducks make the final four championship series next year. Win it and Helfrich will have convinced more Oregon fans to see a rosy future sans Chip Kelly. Lose it and the year is gone as well as his chance for a much longer future as Oregon hc. The game is that important to him. It will also determine seats in the stadium as well which is incredibly important to Oregon's AD. If that is at all threatened, Helfrich won't be around long.
This is one game that can't be over-hyped, "Gameday" will probably be at Autzen, will Corso go Duck again? Oregon did drop dramatically in the Buzz sphere last season, but are ranked very high in the "Way Too Early" polls, so a win against MSU would put the Ducks in great shape in for the Final Four.
This impending, early challenge - in Autzen - ought to fire up and focus the Ducks. I can't wait, but have to.
Stanford lost to Utah, USC, MSU and should have lost to UW. They're notorious ball droppers and that's all I gotta say about that.
@DougMai It was a tough, close game with plays and calls that tilted the outcome, but Oregon had 32 carries for 75 yards, and Auburn 50 for 254. The Ducks lost in the trenches, even though they battled hard and kept the game very close.
@HappyGoDucky The expectations should always be high, and a good coach should invite them.
@duckified Df, that's strongly stated, but not out of line in any way. It's a pivotal game for Oregon football and the outcomes radically changes the path for the program's future. A win put them on the road toward contention and marks Mariota as the Heisman frontrunner. A loss cripples their hopes for either. It's a measuring stick game for Coach Helfrich, an indication of whether he can win big games and show improved command of the organization in year two.
The Ducks have had a handful of "most important games in school history" but there's nothing wrong with declaring the next important game as exactly that. Hopefully it motivates and focuses all their work for the next seven months.
@duckified Agree 100%. This game is a Must Win IF Oregon wants to stay in the hunt for the Final Four. Win it and they are definitely contenders and the talk about the Ducks will be how we like it. Lose this one and Oregon drops hard; not only nationally, but Helfrich is really going to be on a hot seat. In most cases an 11-2 season ending with a Bowl win would be cause for celebration, but the best it could receive here was a big sigh of relief.
Last season I thought Helfrich coached like he didn't want to touch anything, taking the "if it ain't broke don't fix it" philosophy much too far. He has to put his stamp on the program this season, just like Kelly did when he took over.
@DougMai The Ducks couldn't run the football against Auburn. They were stuffed at the goal line with four cracks inside the five. They suffered a safety. Auburn dominated the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. In my view, it was a significant factor in why they lost that game.
@sozeduck How is this make or break? Dude has been a head coach for 1 season, and won 11 games. Ridiculous unrealistic expectations and bandwagon entitled fans. Pretty sad. Just love your Ducks and give this guy a chance to actually put a stamp on the program.
@Ducko30 A win energizes their season and their prominence in the national discussion, and a loss leaves them with a lot of catching up to do and damages their national reputation while cementing all the tired criticisms about them. They need to beat MSU and Stanford this year, and not have any more "slip-ups" against lesser opponents.
When they announced the new playoff selection committee strength of schedule was one of the key factors. Winning a big national game like this puts the Ducks on the first page of playoff teams, and could be a decider if they finish with an equal record with a team that fattened its record with nonconference patsies.
@SonomaDuck Autzen will be loud and electric for this game, a great showcase for college football and a memorable experience for fans, one of the all-time games at the stadium.
@rgyle Always good to have one early test to focus a team in summer workouts and fall camp and sharpen them for conference play.
@HappyGoDucky About ball-dropping, that was a big difference for the Ducks last year. In the season's first 8 games they were creating a lot of turnovers and not making many, but in the last five, their turnover margin declined dramatically.
@Dale Newton @duckified Winning these kind of games is Oregon's only big hammer, recruiting wise. If we lose, we get weaker recruits and lose more games in the future, returning to a mediocre team. If we win, we get more talented, bigger recruits and continue to elevate our position in college football. Recruiting the most talented players is the only way Oregon can compete and winning big games gives us a chance to get the best recruits, losing them shuts the door on the Ducks.
@Ducko30 @duckifiedD30 at the time he said he didn't have a stamp, but now it's time for him to create one. Oregon has to be a better and more disciplined team in 2014. They have the schedule and the talent to contend for a national title. Maintaining the status quo isn't enough, and neither is another 11-2 season.
@Dale Newton @DougMai Actually, the Ducks were running at will in the fourth quarter when they made their comeback. If the game had gone ot, the Ducks would have won because of conditioning. The play allowing Auburn's rb to get them to field goal range was absolutely huge and completely a mistake by the officials.
@Greenbaaron @sozeduck Well, lack of preparation against Stanford and Arizona, lack of team discipline compared to prior year, complete mismanagement of DAT skills, mediocre recruiting class. All in one year. Pretty much had enough of Helfrich's stamp on the program. If he stamps it much more it will turn into a stomp. Duck program has come too far to allow a coach to crumble the program. The guy has virtually no resume, didn't call plays as the OC and doesn't call plays as HC meanwhile putting in an OC who is flat out questionable and a DC who is also questionable when well credentialed, well known alternatives were out there for the taking. Sorry, MSU game is make or break both for next years season and for Helfrich.
@HappyGoDucky I was pretty good in year one, and I made a lot less than two million dollars.
@HappyGoDucky No reasonable manager allows the exiting manager to pick his successor. That is a complete fools errand and one an immature AD made.
Chip Kelly picked him as a successor and groomed him. Criticizing him after a year is just a jab at Kelly. I'm just saying hold off on the meltdown until Helf, Frost and Pellum prove they're inept. How good were you in year one of whatever you did?
@HappyGoDucky Soze, GB, HGD--differing opinions here on the state of the program with Helfrich as a second-year coach, all well-stated. While it's true that it's just his second year, he inherited a team that had gone to four straight BCS bowls, won 12 games three years in a row and had a juggernaut system in place.
He was handed the keys to a Ferrari, and coasted and braked to an 11-2 finish. He needs to beat Michigan State, or people are going to start questioning if he's the right guy to take Oregon football forward. A team returning Marcus Mariota, Hroniss Grasu, Ifo Ekpre-Olomu and 107 starts on the offensive line SHOULD have very high expectations, and the head coach has to see that they meet them.