News out of Michigan -------
There has been plenty of scrutiny on the Michigan State defensive backfield following a season-opening victory at Western Michigan last week.
It was an up-and-down game for the defense as a whole, but the young secondary was hurt in the second half by several long drives by Western Michigan, which had a chance to cut the Michigan State lead to single digits in the fourth quarter before a late interception.
And some of the depth at safety took a hit over the weekend as junior Mark Meyers was suspended indefinitely by coach Mark Dantonio.
The starters are solid with fifth-year senior RJ Williamson and sophomore Montae Nicholson. But who the next guy would be is up in the air heading into Saturday's matchup with Oregon.
Meyers saw some action against Western Michigan when Nicholson left for a handful of plays after banging his elbow. Now that substitute could be any number of players.
Reflections on last year's game ---------
EAST LANSING – Other than a couple of big plays through the air, the Spartans were stifling the Ducks through 40 minutes last season at Autzen Stadium — up 27-18, having yielded 213 total yards, seemingly on their way to an impressive bullying. Then something happened. The question of what, exactly, is a popular one this week, with No. 7 Oregon set to play No. 5 MSU on Saturday at Spartan Stadium.
"We weren't able to stop that snowball," senior linebacker Darien Harris said of Oregon's 28-0 run to end the game and win, 46-27. We had them on the throat, but they gained momentum," senior safety RJ Williamson said, "and once that momentum started to roll, it was hard to stop it."
Marcus Mariota happened. He made a couple of Heisman Trophy plays to extend drives and flip the game. MSU defensive communication issues happened, compounded by clever Oregon downfield routes. An MSU offensive stall happened, the Ducks figuring out the Spartans' rushing attack and getting after Connor Cook.
Royce Freeman happened, too. The freshman gained 75 of his game-high 89 yards in the final 18 minutes — including touchdown bursts of 38 and 14 yards to make it look like a laugher. "Just about anybody could have run through those holes," Freeman said, and maybe that's why all the attention after the game was on Mariota's magic, and maybe that's why there isn't as much on Freeman as there should be this week.
The 5-foot-11, 230-pound Freeman rushed for 1,365 yards, a Pac-12 freshman record, with 18 touchdowns. He was the best Duck on the field in last week's season-opening, 61-42 win over Eastern Washington, ripping through an inferior defense for 180 yards and three touchdowns. Still, most of the attention this week is on Mariota's replacement, Eastern Washington graduate transfer Vernon Adams, and whether he has enough mastery of the offense to engineer a win in East Lansing.
We've been fortunate enough to play against some of the best backs in the country. … Royce Freeman is up there," Harris said. "A mixture of speed and power is what you're looking for in a running back these days, and he definitely has that." Co-defensive coordinator Mike Tressel said Freeman "keeps his shoulders square, jump-cuts and gets vertical as good as we've seen." "It's gonna be tough," senior defensive end Shilique Calhoun said of stifling Freeman. "He's one of those guys that's speedy fast, but also hard to tackle."
Any attempt to stop Oregon is an extreme test of personnel and scheme. After the Spartans saw the Ducks in person last season, they realized their attempts to emulate Oregon's tempo between snaps were not good enough. Oregon also "switched some things up on us, kind of caught us by surprise," Harris said, with new formations in the second half. And the Spartans simply missed key tackles and miscommunicated in the secondary at times. But that's the point of what the Ducks are doing on offense.
The Oregon offense isn't going to function any differently with Adams at quarterback, though it's unrealistic to expect a first-year player in the system to have the nuances down the way Mariota did. The help around him will be key. The Ducks have speed all over the roster and remain college football's foremost experts at getting their players the ball in the open field quickly. Predictability never has been an issue for them.
"You better be ready for them to run the ball in a 2-minute situation," Dantonio said. "Because they're going to line up with 14 seconds to go and run a simple zone play. But they get the ball in Royce Freeman's hands, and he can make a 20-yard gain like that." He's soft-spoken and sometimes lost in all the flash of Oregon's "blur" offense. But Freeman is a different caliber, too, and the most difficult Duck to bring down. "That's the key to the game — getting guys on the ground," Williamson said. "We get a chance to go out here Saturday and rewrite our story."
Terry Wilson - Bye Bye Nebraska, Hello Oregon!
It was the weekend of quarterbacks both present and future in Eugene as Vernon Adams thoroughly silenced any naysayer that remained of his ability to adapt to Oregon’s system. Mere yards from the gridiron sat recent Nebraska commit, ala Mike Riley’s signal-caller of the future Terry Wilson (3-Star/Oklahoma City, Okla.).
Standing 6’2″, 185 lbs., Wilson balances excellent touch with the ability to take off on broken and drawn plays — the combination that has become the accepted essence of Helfrich’s game plan. Expect Wilson to shut down all other recruiting visits as his pledge to Oregon appears to be one of finality.
Along with Seth Green (4-Star/Allen, TX), Wilson brings the Ducks’ quarterback haul to a pair. It’s never been a question of depth with the remaining quarterbacks who will remain after Adams but rather separation. Helfrich and offensive coordinator Scott Frost’s insistence to take two quarterbacks in the class of 2016 and target several members of the 2017 class raise questions as to where the maturation of Oregon’s backups rests.
“Coach Frost said that I fit that offense and he likes that I can run fast enough,” said Kelley. “He said he’s been around the country seeing all of the quarterbacks and he knows I’m his guy. Coach Frost said I have a phenomenal arm and my decision-making was great.”
Kelley, once unknown to Oregon, rapidly sped past other potential targets and now could very well be a long-term option if he continues to excel. “It’s a great football program with great coaches. Oregon has a phenomenal campus and Eugene is a great area. I’ll probably get up to Oregon in October when they play Washington State. I have a bye that week and it’s fall break from school. I’m talking to my parents about putting that trip together.”