Can the Oregon defense contain Connor Cook?
The biggest game in college football this weekend happens in East Lansing, Michigan, as the Oregon Ducks travel to take on the Michigan State Spartans. Both teams come into the game 1-0, and both are in the PFF College Top 25 after the first week of the season.
After falling at the final hurdle against Ohio State last season, the Ducks now face the challenge of trying to go one step further having lost last season’s Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Marcus Mariota to the Tennessee Titans in the NFL draft.
The Spartans have their own quarterback with NFL aspirations in Connor Cook (+2.9), and he’ll be aiming to continue a strong start to the season with a big showing in this big game. He’s not the only standout the Spartans have on offense, with left tackle Jack Conklin (+5.6) arguably the best offensive lineman in college right now.
So, with plenty to consider, here are the key areas to focus on when each team has the ball:
When Michigan State has the ball
Cook is obviously the key to the offense and he had an impressive outing throwing the ball deep against Western Michigan. He attempted six passes of 20 yards or more on Saturday, completing four for 129 yards. His grade dropped from +3.6 without pressure, to +0.6 when the pressure got there. That being said, he still graded positively, and the Spartans’ offensive line limited him to just nine drop backs under pressure.
That should be a concern for an Oregon defensive backfield that lost a lot of talent heading into 2015, with no starter grading higher than +0.8 against Eastern Washington. They allowed wide receiver Cooper Kupp to average 3.89 yards per route run, and Cook will have a huge day if they have that kind of performance again.
There were bright spots for the defense against Eastern Washington however, with DeForest Buckner (+4.3) having strong showing. He had a hit and six quarterback hurries throughout the game, with linebacker Christian French (+2.7) and Tyson Coleman (+5.1) chipping in with five total pressures each. Those three will need to do their best to get Cook under pressure early and often.
When Oregon has the ball
Vernon Adams Jr. (-1.8) was one of just four Ducks to finish the game with a negative grade — not what you want from your new starting quarterback. The offensive line performed well, with Adams under pressure on just seven of his drop-backs. That being said, as quarterback friendly as the offense is, they’ll need him to be better going forward, especially against an opponent as good as Michigan State.
Defensive end Shilique Calhoun (+2.1) has the ability to cause the Oregon offense major problems. He had a sack, a hit and five quarterback hurries. That was a relatively quiet day by his standards with eight sacks, 20 hits and 38 hurries a year ago.
Where the Oregon offense can find a spark however, is from their running backs. Tony Brooks-James (+2.1), Kani Benoit (+4.7) and Royce Freeman (+5.2) all graded well, with the Ducks rushing for 475 yards, and five players rushing for at least 60 yards. Freeman is the start of the show, and he forced eight missed tackles and had 115 yards rushing after contact, but what Benoit did on just 11 carries is somewhat eye popping. Rushing for 83 yards and a touchdown, he forced six missed tackles, giving him an elusive rating of 186.4.
For both teams there will be plenty of talent on both sides of the ball in this weekend’s biggest matchup, so the only question that remains is which players will step up and have big games to push their team towards victory on Saturday.