Oregon easily got past South Dakota to open the season.
Now the real challenge comes: Michigan State.
The No. 3 Ducks host the No. 8 Spartans on Saturday afternoon at Autzen Stadium.
“Now you guys can talk about Michigan State,” Oregon coach Mark Helfrich quipped following the 62-13 victory over the Missouri Valley’s Coyotes.
The defending Big Ten champion Spartans handled visiting Jacksonville State 45-7 in their opener on Friday night.
“We are very excited. It poses a good challenge for us. It poses a good challenge for the entire team,” Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota said. “They’re coming in as one of the best defenses in the country and any offense would love to face that challenge. It helps you see where you stack up.”
Mariota threw for three touchdowns and ran for another in the opener before sitting down at halftime. He completed 14 or 20 passes for 267 yards, and also had six carries for 43 yards.
Running back Byron Marshall was used a receiver with eight catches for 138 yards and two touchdowns, while he also had eight carries for 90 yards and showed a new dimension to his game.
The Ducks saw the debut of five-star recruit Royce Freeman, who had 10 carries for 75 yards and two TDs.
Helfrich had to consult the stats to see just how many players had at least a catch in the game. There were 11.
“We’ll continue to expand those guys and just fit packages how they come about during the game plan process,” he said.
While Oregon is known for their hyper-drive offense, Michigan State’s success last season — the Spartans went undefeated in conference play — came in large part because of their bruising defense.
The Spartans lost standouts Max Bullough and Darqueze Dennard from that defense, but they still have lineman Shilique Calhoun, considered one of the top players in his league, and linebacker Taiwan Jones, who looked promising in the opener with Bullough gone.
Having claimed the starting job last season, Spartans junior quarterback Connor Cook completed his first nine passes against Jacksonville State, but suffered a vicious late hit after his second — a 64-yard scoring pass to Tony Lippett. Cook shook off the injury to complete 12 of 13 passes for 285 yards and three scores. He also rested the second half.
Last season the Ducks went 11-2 with late-season losses to Stanford and Arizona, dropping them out of a bid for the Pac-12 championship and the national title.
The Cardinal went on to win the conference title for a spot in the Rose Bowl, where they lost to Michigan State 24-10.
Mariota was hobbled by a left knee injury against both Stanford and the Wildcats, contributing to those losses.
The junior quarterback was in top form against South Dakota. His 62-yard pass to Dwayne Stanford on Oregon’s first series of the game gave him the Ducks’ career record for touchdowns with 79 (64 pass, 14 rush and one reception), surpassing Joey Harrington.
The outcome of Saturday’s game against Michigan State will likely determine an early favorite for the new four-team playoff at the end of the season, but both teams have tough conference schedules to get through. The Ducks are at UCLA on Oct. 11 and host nemesis Stanford on Nov. 1.
Michigan State hosts Nebraska on Oct. 4 and plays at rival Michigan on Oct. 25 before visiting Ohio State the next week.
“Our confidence is very high. We’re ranked in the top 10 and we’re going against a team that’s ranked in the top 10,” running back Nick Hill said. “I think that starting fast and big and scoring a lot of points offensively (in the opener) is very comforting to the players and the coaches. Last year, they weren’t sure who was going to be the guy at running back, quarterback.”
The Ducks understand that it’s not going to be easy.
“Competition is good; I really like playing against good competition,” defensive end Aric Armstead said. “That’s why you play football — to play against good players. I think we’ll be ready for the challenge. They’re going to bring a good team here. I think it’ll be a good experience.”