EUGENE, Ore. -- The biggest non-conference game of 2014 lived up to the hype.
And then the third quarter happened.
Michigan State looked like it was going to run away with the game, but Oregon's halftime adjustments turned a great back-and-forth game into another big win by the time the fourth quarter started to wind down. It was typical Ducks football in a 46-27 win: a so-so first half followed by big plays and a breakneck pace after halftime.
Quarterback Marcus Mariota used the national spotlight to capture a number of school career records, including passing Derron Thomas as the career leader in touchdown passes. While he had a solid-but-not-great outing, the real star of the Oregon win was the team's defense. The secondary had several lapses in zone coverage, but the play of the front seven was excellent for the most part and really helped shut down the Spartans' offense when they needed to.
"Going into this game, we knew that a lot of it would be on (Mariota) based on the way they play; effectively, zero-coverage, bring-it defense. There were times where the quarterback had to make the play," Ducks head coach Mark Helfrich said. "We knew that we were going to have to take some shots and take a few body blows."
That's exactly what Mariota was doing the first two quarters as his offensive line struggled to adjust to Michigan State's defense. Down nine late in the third quarter and facing a long third-down conversion, however, the 6-foot-4 signal-caller came alive to spark the offense back to its usual self. Mariota escaped the rush, scampered out toward the first-down marker and flipped a pass to freshman tailback Royce Freeman to pick up the first down.
Then the pedal hit the metal and Oregon scored touchdowns on four of their final five possessions.
"This is one of the best defenses in the entire country," Ducks offensive coordinator Scott Frost said. "It took us a while to break them, but when we did, the game kind of turned."
Given that impressive performance by the Ducks, few should doubt their viability in the eyes of the College Football Playoff Selection Committee now. Along with defending champion Florida State, it's doubtful Oregon will spend much time outside the top four the rest of the way unless a Pac-12 foe trips them up. Even if that were to happen, the marquee win on their resume and turning popular opinion about their struggles with power teams should have a lasting effect in the polls and in the minds of the committee members.
"We think we're physical. Our style of play is different. We believe very strongly in what we do," Helfrich said. "But I'm sure it will still come up again and that's fine."
On Saturday night though, Helfrich's squad answered plenty of questions about his still-young team. The Ducks are good and, it looks like, here to stay.
Mariota struggles before turning it on
A lot of folks were interested to see a healthy Mariota against a top-flight defense. The prospect many have touted as the potential No. 1 overall pick did not have his best game. Part of that is because the Ducks' running game was lackluster at best and his starting right tackle missed all of the second half after being carted off with a leg injury. Still, you could see the "special" flashes he has as a dual-threat quarterback, slipping out of tackles to extend plays and hitting nice touch passes down the field for scores.
As a passer, the redshirt junior was hit or miss for much of the middle section in the contest but finished 17-of 28 for 318 yards and three touchdowns on the night. His long touchdown passes to Devon Allen were right where they needed to be, but there were several intermediate throws he failed to connect on during the second quarter. Part of the issue could be traced to inexperienced receivers, but when things mattered most, Mariota stepped up and led Oregon back into the lead. He's got good awareness and a plus-arm, but he simply wasn't as sharp as in other games.
From a talent standpoint, he flashed though and has what it takes to eventually end up as that top pick. It's not easy going against a Pat Narduzzi defense, and the Hawaiian handled things pretty well, all things considered, once he settled down in the second half.
"He makes so many plays, I can't even remember them all," Frost remarked
"I should have to pay to watch that guy play," Helfrich added. "To see everything come to fruition in this game was big."
Given his second-half performance, it won't be too long before Helfrich will indeed have to do just that.
Cook shines inside the pocket
The star of the show for the Spartans was undoubtedly junior Connor Cook. He outplayed his more highly touted counterpart Marcus Mariota for most of the game and looked like a possible first-rounder down the road once he bounced back from an early interception. His pocket presence was phenomenal; he felt the rush well and didn't get happy feet when defenders started to close in on him. While he didn't work past his first or second read much, he was accurate at all three levels and displayed good anticipation on many of his throws.
Right before halftime, Cook flashed a very calm demeanor when he confidently guided Michigan State to a score in a near flawless two-minute drill. He read Oregon's zone defenses well throughout the game and generally picked them apart, especially over the middle of the field. Throughout the contest he showed a quality arm and, while not a fast runner, enough mobility to elude defensive linemen. He made a bad mistake on the interception in the first quarter by lofting one up in a sea of defenders, but he was a big reason why MSU scored on five straight possessions. He didn't look as good in the second half, but some of that can be traced back to the game plan being somewhat conservative and his offensive line getting a bit tired.
In the end, Cook recorded career highs in passing yards, completions and attempts and certainly put his team in position to win the game. He was somebody many NFL scouts were interested to see against an athletic defense and walked away from Week 2 with his draft stock elevated even higher.
Ekpre-Olomu lives up to advance billing
Among the non-quarterbacks, Oregon cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu might have been the highest-regarded prospect at Autzen Stadium on Saturday. Considered by many to be the top player at his position, Ekpre-Olomu lived up to such advance billing by generally shutting things down on his side of the field. Cook rarely even glanced in Ekpre-Olomu's direction when dropping back to pass and the defensive back really excelled when he was able to play man-to-man with Spartans receivers. While he's not the biggest corner out there, he's smooth and a sure tackler in the open field. He did a terrific job tracking down a tipped ball late in the fourth quarter for an interception that showed how special he can be.
Part of Ekpre-Olomu's attractiveness to some scouts is his ability to also contribute on special teams. He made a great tackle after getting down the field quickly as a gunner and was elusive -- with sure hands -- as a returner, too. While there might be others that are faster, it's hard to find a corner that has more of a complete game than Ekpre-Olomu.
Calhoun has quiet night, but fellow linemen show up big
Defensive end Shilique Calhoun is considered to be one of the best pass rushers in the Big Ten, but he had a relatively quiet day in Eugene. While his first-step off the line is impressive, he didn't show off enough moves to really get past left tackle Jake Fisher all that often. If anything, his teammates Joel Heath, Lawrence Thomas and even freshman Malik McDowell seemed to be causing Mariota to run around more than he did. Physically he looks the part with his long arms and solid frame. Still, it was Heath that probably did more to elevate his draft stock as a 6-foot-6, 290-pound defensive tackle.
Lippett lights up young secondary
Spartans receiver Tony Lippett didn't line up against Ekpre-Olomu much on Saturday, which was unfortunate. He roasted the rest of the Oregon secondary to the tune of 133 yards and a touchdown on a career-high 11 catches. He got off the line well and did a great job using his body to set up himself up for catches against defensive backs. He's not the biggest nor fastest, but he can be a zone-beater with how he finds soft spots. Plus, soft hands go a long way.
MSU defensive back Kurtis Drummond is the leader of the "No-Fly Zone," but he didn't turn in his best performance against Oregon. He got crossed up on several plays, failing to pick up a receiver and got beat deep a few times. He's still one of the better defensive players in the Big Ten, but the Ducks' quick, small receivers caused him to have an iffy-game.
Langford not quite an elite Big Ten back
The two best running backs in the Big Ten are generally considered to be Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah and Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon. MSU's Jeremy Langford isn't quite at their level, but he has potential as a solid between-the-tackles runner who can also hit the edge. At times, though, he tends to let the play develop too much instead of hitting the hole hard for a nice gain. He finished with 86 yards on 24 carries but was effectively taken out of the game in the second half once the Spartans went down big.