STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL/GAME BREAKDOWN
Scouting the rush offense: Finally healthy throughout the offensive line and the running backs, Oregon is primed for a big showing on New Year’s Eve.
Standing in the Ducks’ way just happens to be the nation’s top-ranked rush defense, a unit so fierce and physical that it has 79 tackles for loss and surrenders just 2.67 yards per carry.
"I think people are always going to talk about how stout they are and how physical they are," Oregon head coach Mario Cristobal said of Michigan State’s D-line. "To me the most impressive thing is that when they cycle and rotate in you do not see a drop-off.”
Which will give in to the other?
For the Ducks, CJ Verdell is 25 yards shy of 1,000 for the season, and for the first time in a month he’s fully healthy. He’s also coming off one of the best games of his career when he ran for 187 yards and four scores against Oregon State in the regular season finale.
After beginning the season as the backup to senior Tony Brooks-James, Verdell emerged with four 100-yard performance in five weeks to take over as the lead back. A runner in the mold of former Oregon great LaMichael James, Verdell combines speed and power to pick up his yards. He’s also a patient runner, waiting for the hole to develop before being able to get outside and pick up big yards.
His running mate is Travis Dye, another freshman. Dye has rushed for 721 yards and four scores on the season, averaging 5.4 yards per carry. He’s really found himself in the final two games of the regular season, rushing for 105 yards against Arizona State before having a breakout game against Oregon State — totaling career-highs with 33 carries for 199 yards and two scores.
“Our guys are looking at guys who are in their gap, who are sound and play good, disciplined football with their hands, feet, leverage and pad level,” Oregon offensive coordinator Marcus Arroyo said. “It’s great for us coaches because we get to coach all the details of what we need to get done to be able to create an advantage — they do a really nice job in the run game and we’ve got to find our strikes in there and play ball.”
Michigan State counters with as stout of a run defense as you’ll find anywhere.
Defensive end Kenny Willekes is an all-American with a relentless motor. His 20.5 tackles for loss leads the team and if he isn’t double-teamed or chipped, he can beat any offensive lineman — especially a true freshman left tackle who’s coming off an injury and playing for the first time in two months in Oregon’s Penei Sewell.
“(Kenny Willekes), he’s an animal,” Oregon’s Shane Lemieux said of Willekes. “He’s the Big Ten D-lineman of the Year — he’s a physical guy, he really likes to get after it.”
Linebackers Joe Bachie and Andrew Dowell have combined for 184 tackles on the year, showing the ability to play against the run. They are very similar, big and strong with a football mindset — showcasing the ability to dissect the run and crash the gaps when they see them.
According to Oregon head coach Mario Cristobal, Willekes or the linebackers aren’t the most dangerous part of the Spartan’s rush defense.
“The part that stands out the most, I think people are always going to talk about how physical they are and how stout they are and how strong they are, to me the most impressive thing is when they cycle in and rotate in their players you do not see a drop off,” Cristobal said. “That’s a sign of a team — there’s a reason they’re No.1 in the country against the run and it’s because the defensive line coupled with the way their linebackers play, they have a certain way of playing football… it’s as impressive as it gets.”
In the end, Oregon has the ultimate wildcard in quarterback Justin Herbert. He’s more athletic and elusive than he lets on, rushing for 319 yards (before taking away yards for sacks) on the season. He’s more than capable of pulling the ball and extending drives with his legs, a huge backbreaker against the Spartans.