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Today the Ducks, Tomorrow the World: Michigan State Puts Its Playoff Cred to the Test vs. Oregon

Michigan State is a top-five team with a Heisman candidate at quarterback, a typically stout defense, and playoff aspirations. But if the Spartans fail to handle the Oregon Ducks for the second year in a row, those postseason dreams will fly away.

At their best, coach Mark Dantonio’s Michigan State quarterbacks are boring in the way that all basically competent but marginally talented people aspire to be. They’re the kind of guys you find lurking on the fringes of every pro roster, patiently biding their time until the celebrated, multimillion-dollar investment at the top of the depth chart begins to flame out.

That’s not an abstraction: When the 2015 NFL campaign kicks off this week, three of the league’s 32 teams are expected to start a former Dantonio product under center (Nick Foles in St. Louis,1 Brian Hoyer in Houston, and Kirk Cousins in Washington), the most protégés of any active college head coach. And yet no member of the Dantonio Three has completed a full season as an NFL starter, and it seems as likely as not that at least two of them will end the season back on the bench. Cousins and Hoyer are good enough in a pinch, but not good enough to inspire much beyond an interim stint in a role that was supposed to go to someone else; Foles was good enough to be a Pro Bowl offensive MVP, but not good enough to avoid being traded this offseason.


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Foles began his college career in East Lansing before transferring to Arizona.

Fifth-year senior Connor Cook, Michigan State’s current starter, is the latest incarnation. As a junior in 2014, he joined Cousins as the only Dantonio quarterback to eclipse 3,000 passing yards in a season, but he never threatened to rewrite the school record book or emerge as a household name. Scouting reports note that Cook can make most NFL throws, but also that his career completion percentage at MSU has consistently hovered below 60 percent. At 6-foot-4, 220 pounds, he boasts pro size. When the secondary coach for the Spartans’ Week 2 opponent, Oregon, compared Cook favorably to Tom Brady earlier this week, the first thought that came to mind wasn’t Brady’s Hall of Fame résumé with the Patriots; it was the photo of a young Brady looking like a random schlub off the street during his long-ago turn at the NFL combine.

“You can pull out my [high school] highlight tape right now, and it was just mediocre,” Cook told reporters last month, by way of explaining that even he wasn’t quite sure what Dantonio saw in a gangly, three-star prospect out of suburban Akron, Ohio, whose only other scholarship offers were from MAC schools. “I really wasn’t all that. I was sort of tall, I was skinny, didn’t have that strong of an arm, didn’t have the crazy numbers to back it up.”

Cook’s 2011 classmate, All–Big Ten defensive end Shilique Calhoun, recalled for reporters his first impression of the freshman quarterback more bluntly: “You guys didn’t see the goofy, bigfoot guy I saw when he first came in.”

True to the template, Cook’s most defining trait has been his efficient, by-the-book blandness. With 24 career wins under his belt for a team that logged consecutive top-five finishes in his first two seasons as starter, Cook was an obligatory presence on preseason Heisman lists — but only if you were willing to scroll down to find him among the dark horses and honorable mentions, guys who are “Heisman candidates” in the same way that someone like Lincoln Chafee is a presidential candidate. Too good to ignore, but not good enough to truly belong.

Michigan-State-Offense-ChartBy now, Michigan State fans should be well acquainted with that feeling beyond the quarterback position: Although the Spartans won 11 games or more in four out of five seasons from 2010 to 2014 and won major bowl games each of the past two years, they haven’t quite managed to acquire the aura of a perennially elite program. In 2013, skeptics derided the schedule, which didn’t feature a single notable victim until postseason upsets over then–no. 2 Ohio State (in the Big Ten championship game) and then–no. 5 Stanford (in the Rose Bowl); though the Spartans finished no. 3, they didn’t make their first appearance in the polls until after Halloween, two-thirds of the way through the regular season. Last year, pollsters showed considerably more respect, with MSU opening at no. 8 in the AP poll and never falling below no. 13, but the Spartans were unable to capitalize thanks to double-digit losses at the hands of Oregon early and Ohio State late, the two teams that would play in the national championship game. Again, MSU failed to topple a top-shelf opponent until the postseason, in a come-from-behind, 42-41 triumph over Baylor in the Cotton Bowl.

For a team perpetually on the brink of something bigger, the comeback against the Bears was pivotal in a couple of ways. First, after the losses to the Ducks and Buckeyes, it proved that Michigan State’s stodgy attack has the will and the means to keep pace with one of the nation’s most prolific, cutting-edge offenses in a shootout. Second, it raised the bar even higher for 2015: Michigan State opened at no. 5 in the preseason AP poll, its best start since 1967, and remained there this week after a routine 37-24 win over Western Michigan in the season opener. With a showdown against no. 1 Ohio State looming in late November as the only Big Ten game2 with any playoff implications, it’s no wonder Saturday’s rematch against no. 7 Oregon has the feel of a referendum — not only on Cook’s ceiling in his final college season, but on the ceiling for the entire program Dantonio has been grooming for this opportunity for nine years. If not now, when?


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Barring a colossal upset.

“We’ve lost three games out of the last 30, and we know the teams we’ve lost to,” Dantonio said earlier this week, alluding to last year’s defeat in Eugene. “Our M.O. is to reach higher, and to do that, right now, it runs through Oregon.”

And to a surprising extent for a coach whose stern visage and defensive background have helped define his program as a rugged throwback, it also runs through his senior quarterback. Judging from the defense’s struggles in big games in 2014, this game is very likely to unfold as another shootout, with the over/under in the neighborhood of 67 points, and if the Spartans are going to take the next step on a national stage, it’s almost certainly going to be by virtue of Cook shedding his within-the-offense reputation and emerging as the best Spartans quarterback of the Dantonio era.

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Oregon's Mark Helfrich and Michigan State's Mark Dantonio both have playoff hopes this season.

Chris Pietsch/AP Oregon’s Mark Helfrich and Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio both have playoff hopes this season.

Like most games involving Oregon, the only possible response to the Ducks’ 46-27 win over Michigan State last September was to marvel at the efficiency of an attack capable of putting so many points on the board in such a short period of time. At one point, Oregon scored three consecutive touchdowns in a span of a less than five minutes, the kind of trademark surge that exemplified its run to the national title game behind robot quarterback Marcus Mariota. Just before that run, there was a fleeting, awkward moment in the third quarter when the Spartans led by two scores, 27-18, and appeared to be on their way to a validating upset in a game they entered as two-touchdown underdogs. Instead, they were exposed as just another plodding Big Ten outfit that ran out of gas in the face of the spread, in line with the prevailing narrative at the time.

As it turned out, the Spartans’ flop in Eugene was arguably the most forgivable of a rash of high-profile embarrassments by Big Ten teams on the same weekend, and in retrospect, the obituaries for the conference’s playoff hopes that followed seem hilariously shortsighted. (Now that Ohio State reigns supreme, it’s easy to forget just how deep a hole the Buckeyes had to crawl out of to reach the playoff last year after their early home loss to unranked Virginia Tech, which sent them plummeting to no. 22 in the AP poll.) But Michigan State’s first setback did foreshadow one long-term trend: the demise of the Spartans’ formidable defense in big games.

Michigan-State-Defense-ChartOn a week-to-week basis, the defense has done just fine: From 2011 to 2014, Michigan State ranked among the top 10 nationally in total defense each year under longtime coordinator Pat Narduzzi, the longest streak in the nation. As I pointed out last week, though, when the stakes were at their highest last year, MSU’s rep for thriving in low-scoring slugfests was totally at odds with the results. In the three games against top-15 opponents, the Spartans were lit up like a bonfire, first by Oregon (46 points, 491 yards), then by Ohio State (49 points, 568 yards), and finally by Baylor (41 points, 583 yards), which dropped 603 passing yards and four touchdowns on one of the Big Ten’s most decorated secondaries.3 And although the Bears’ onslaught ultimately came in a losing effort, it still amplified the huge, irreconcilable split between how Michigan State defended the crème de la crème and how it defended everyone else.


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If you did the math, yes, that means the Spartans held the Bears to minus-20 yards rushing overall, and to just 19 yards excluding sacks. But the stout run defense didn’t hold against Oregon, which ran for 173 yards and three touchdowns, or Ohio State, which racked up more yards on the ground (268) than 10 unranked opponents averaged against Michigan State rushing and passing (246.3).

No matter how deeply the Spartans bury the Wyomings, Indianas, and Purdues of the world, the numbers in the right column will never fuel a playoff run. The overall defensive decline from previous seasons was also reflected in advanced stats, where Michigan State fell to 22nd nationally in Defensive S&P+ after finishing second in 2013, fifth in 2012, and sixth in 2011. With Narduzzi now occupying the top job at Pitt, initial S&P+ projections this year expected the 2015 MSU defense to tread water at no. 23, and the unit’s first impression against Western Michigan was mixed at best.

While the defense clearly struggled in the face of first-rate firepower, however, it was increasingly obvious last year what a godsend Cook has been to an attack that, before his promotion, lacked any discernible identity at all. In 2012, the Spartans were content to ride Le’Veon Bell 30 times per game in weekly battles of attrition; they averaged a little less than 18 points against major-conference opponents and lost five games by four points or fewer. Early in the 2013 season, the offense remained a laughingstock sans Bell, accounting for fewer touchdowns against FBS opponents in the month of September (3) than the far more capable MSU defense (4). By November, though, Cook had permanently relegated 2012 starter Andrew Maxwell to the bench, and Michigan State had begun its rapid climb into the national consciousness.

Cook’s first real breakthrough came in the 2013 Big Ten title game, when he singed Ohio State for 304 yards and three touchdowns en route to a 34-24 upset that spoiled the Buckeyes’ quest for a BCS title shot at the eleventh hour; a few weeks later, he one-upped himself by passing for a then career-high 332 yards in a 24-20 win over Stanford in the Rose Bowl, turning in a better efficiency rating in the process (151.4) than the Cardinal had allowed to any opposing passer over the previous two years. In the Spartans’ three meaningful games in 2014, Cook averaged nearly 45 attempts and went beyond 300 yards passing with multiple touchdowns in all three. Collectively, his receivers averaged 14.6 yards per catch for the year, an enormous jump over the same number in 2013 (12.0), 2012 (11.2), and 2011 (12.3).

Along the way, Michigan State’s offense has gradually, grudgingly evolved from the cloud-of-dust attack that Dantonio and offensive coordinator Jim Bollman4 have always favored into a more balanced system that’s at least capable of responding to the occasional lapse by the defense, even if establishing the resident workhorse between the tackles remains the philosophy of first resort. (Coaches have yet to settle on a feature back in 2015, but with three viable candidates for the role, recent history suggests that Madre London, Gerald Holmes, or true freshman L.J. Scott will emerge from the pack soon.) The rally from 20 points down in the fourth quarter to beat Baylor spoke for itself, but the fact that MSU lost with 27 points on the board against Oregon and 37 against Ohio State also hinted at Cook’s ability to keep the accelerator down in less-than-ideal circumstances. This year, he’s operating behind four returning starters on the offensive line, all in their fourth or fifth year in the program, who have combined for 91 career starts. Together, they put Michigan State in its best position to thrive — or merely survive — offensively as any team on Dantonio’s watch.

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Michigan State's typically stout defense couldn't slow Oregon and Marcus Mariota in 2014.

Steve Dykes/Getty Images Michigan State’s typically stout defense couldn’t slow Oregon and Marcus Mariota in 2014.


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Bollman spent a decade (2001–11) as Ohio State’s offensive coordinator under Dantonio’s old, cloud-of-dust-generating boss, Jim Tressel.

Perhaps the most obvious reflection of that potential, and of the sense that the Spartans’ time has come, is the point spread for Saturday, which opened as a pick ’em but now lists Oregon as an underdog (+4) for the first time since 2011; assuming that holds, the rematch will mark the first time anyone on the Ducks’ roster has taken the field in a game Oregon wasn’t favored to win. On some level, it’s still possible to look at Michigan State and see a program harboring an inferiority complex relative to the nation’s more recognizable blue bloods, as the New York Times suggested earlier this month in a piece positing that MSU still holds deep-seated insecurities as Michigan’s “Little Brother” despite having taken six of the last seven from the Wolverines. But neither the polls nor the oddsmakers are buying that, and at this point it seems hard to believe that anyone who has arrived on campus within the last five years — the best five years in Michigan State history, in terms of total wins — would even entertain that idea.

But Michigan State does still play in the Big Ten, and despite Ohio State’s emergence as the consensus national kingpin, the reputation of the conference as a whole remains blighted enough that both teams are effectively facing two months’ worth of sparring partners before the main event: Beyond the Spartans and Buckeyes, the Big Ten didn’t place another team in this week’s AP Top 25, and after this weekend, MSU likely won’t face another ranked opponent until it travels to Columbus for the de facto B1G East championship game on November 21. (The Spartans don’t play Wisconsin from the West, and the most high-profile teams they will play — Michigan, Nebraska, and Penn State — all lost their season openers in discouraging fashion.) Like last year’s Spartans-Buckeyes tilt in East Lansing, that game will serve as the conference’s one and only showcase of potentially playoff-caliber teams. It would be nice, for Jim Delany’s sake, if they both arrived at that point undefeated and looking their very best, like they could both belong in the playoff if the game is competitive enough.

But for any of that to resonate with a national audience down the stretch, that audience first needs to see Michigan State taking the step it wasn’t able to take last year, against one of the teams that served as a literal benchmark for how far the Spartans were behind the playoff curve. Cook will have to be at his unassuming best Saturday to vanquish Oregon, and the defense will have to be significantly better than it was last year in Eugene, because another 27-point outing probably isn’t going to cut it. But the pieces are in place to clear this first hurdle, and given that there won’t be another opportunity for redemption for another two and a half months, there’s precious little margin for error. As we learned last year, the second weekend of September is far, far too early to classify a nonconference game as a must-win showdown that will inevitably define the entire season. If Michigan State is going to find itself where it wants to be in December, though, it’s hard to see how it’s going to get there if it can’t outgun the Ducks.

This post was edited after publication.