EAST LANSING, Mich. — Athletes don’t typically talk about the feeling of revenge. It gets in the way of the whole “one game at a time" attitude.
But Michigan State made no secret about it. The Spartans wanted revenge after last season’s loss at Oregon. Specifically, after the way that game went — Michigan State had a halftime lead before getting outscored, 28-3, after the break and losing in blowout fashion — revenge was quite present, a motivating factor heading into this season’s rematch.
Saturday, the Spartans got their revenge with a 31-28 win over the Ducks in East Lansing.
And it felt good.
“The loss last year sucked,” quarterback Connor Cook said after Saturday’s win.”Being able to have the half that we had last year, we went on an 18-0 run, I think that’s what it was, and then we just laid an egg in the second half. And that stuck with me the whole year. It stuck with me during the season. It stuck with me watching them play in the national championship. And it was with me all through spring ball, all through camp.
“I think it’s one of the main reasons why we wanted to come back is to play Oregon again and beat them. So I was thinking what it would feel like to leave and walk off the field victorious, and I was dreaming about it last night. And to be able to live it out, it’s kind of indescribable.”
Last September, the Spartans took a lead in Eugene thanks to a 24-point second quarter. But the Ducks hit back hard, and the Spartans couldn’t handle it. The Michigan State defense allowed four second-half touchdowns. The Michigan State offense couldn’t find the end zone. It was an ugly loss, sure, and one that even in the season’s second week might have dashed the Spartans’ College Football Playoff hopes.
Saturday night was different. The Spartans — backed by their home crowd, armed with the experience of playing these Ducks before and aided by the departure of last year’s Heisman Trophy winner, former Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota — rarely appeared on their heels. When Oregon hit, Michigan State hit back.
Oregon tore up the Michigan State defense on the game’s opening drive, going 75 yards in 13 plays and fewer than four minutes. But the Spartans answered in spectacular fashion, Madre London rushing 62 yards on the team’s first offensive play. A couple plays later, Connor Cook pitched an equalizing touchdown.
When Oregon marched down the field in the second quarter, Michigan State turned in a goal-line stand, forcing a turnover on downs with four straights stuffs on the doorstep of the end zone.
When Oregon opened the second-half scoring with an 81-yard punt-return touchdown, Michigan State answered, snatching the lead right back by capping a five-minute drive with an L.J. Scott touchdown run.
In the fourth quarter, Oregon quarterback Vernon Adams scored from two yards out after a brilliant catch on the sideline by Byron Marshall. That brought the Ducks back within a field goal. But again Michigan State responded, that 38-yard scamper by Scott the perfect Spartans counter to that Ducks scoring drive moments earlier.
Taking a punch and responding. That defined Michigan State on Saturday night.
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“They’ve got a lot of athletes, a lot of fast, quick guys. Their linemen can move,” linebacker Riley Bullough said. “We knew that going in, we knew that last year. Last year it kind of shocked us a bit, it was our first time playing them. So this year, we kind of had a better feel for how it was going to be. I think that helped us, just having that experience with us going into this year.”
“It's not the first time we've played an uptempo offense. We've got to work on those,” head coach Mark Dantonio said. “We played nine defensive backs in the game. We played six linebackers. We played eight defensive linemen minimum, I think maybe nine defensive linemen. … I asked our players, ‘Hey, you've got to get lined up, your knees bent. You've got to adjust to the new formations and things of that nature on the fly. You've got to be able to move, and you've got to play hard. Got to play hard.’ So that was our intentions to do those three things. So with that, you have to substitute, because you're going to get gassed out there as fast as they are moving.”
And so, by doing the opposite of what they did last year, by not relenting to — and at times straight up shutting down — the patented Oregon onslaught, the Spartans got their revenge. This game will be highlighted for the next several months, as the College Football Playoff selection committee debates which four teams belong in this year’s final four. Even though Michigan State has a monumental showdown against Ohio State coming, this win over Oregon will keep the Spartans in the conversation all year.
But maybe that’s just the cherry on top of this revenge sundae.
“We’re open about it because that’s how we feel,” Bullough said. “We feel like we went into Eugene last year, played three good quarters and let it slip in the fourth. That hurt us, and that really hurt us all offseason because we feel like we could’ve won that game. So we talked about it all offseason, month after month, workout after workout. So it gets instilled in you that it is revenge and you want to win.”
And win they did.