Getting bigger and stronger seemed to be the first message that both Mark Helfrich and first-year defensive coordinator Don Pellum carried over into the offseason following last year’s interior defensive struggles. It was no secret that a blueprint was starting to be formed on how to beat Oregon and keep its offense – that is typically only on the field for two to three minutes at a time – off the field.
That blueprint included rushing the football, forcing mistakes and leaving defenders in the open field forced to make one-on-one tackles.
Now after Pellum’s first game as a defensive coordinator against FCS opponent South Dakota, it’s evident those concerns are still aplenty heading into the game with No. 8 Michigan State. Although the 62-13 win shows no indication of it, South Dakota ended its day with 370 total yards while averaging 4.4 yards per rushing attempt, leaving evident question marks in areas that are all too familiar with them.
“I don’t think we came out with the energy we would have liked,” Pellum said. “No one played great, no one stood out. Moving forward, now that we’ve played a game, we have to look at, you call a defense and make sure that’s why you call it. Make sure you’re teaching, coaching those guys that this is what it’s for. We’ve done that, but a game situation really allows it and lets you focus.”
A lack of urgency translated to South Dakota marching down the field and scoring points on its first drive following an Oregon touchdown. Using a tempo similar to what we should expect from Michigan State, the Coyotes milked the clock and created some gaping holes that its lead back Trevor Bouma was able to take advantage of. Bouma would finish the day with 14 carries and 60 yards, the majority of which came in the first half.
“I just didn’t like our urgency, thought we needed to create some of our own energy,” Helfrich said. “When they’re sapping the play clock down to one second, when the ball snaps, we need to strap it on and play. And that didn’t always occur.”
“I think if you asked the players, our intensity was inconsistent,” Pellum said. “It could’ve been better.”
Across the board, a multitude of areas could’ve been better. Fundamental issues such as open-field tackling, urgency, and certain problems with alignment all integrated into a performance that both players and coaches agreed was lacking.
“I felt like we could have done a couple things better like tackling, running to the ball,” Reggie Daniels, who made the start at safety, said.”There’s a few things we got to fix. We can handle it.”
However, now with this tuneup behind them, the more pressing issue still exists. With a running back from Michigan State, Jeremy Langford, who runs the ball with a similar style to that of Stanford’s Tyler Gaffney, Oregon is facing an opponent where admitting problems like these in the post-game press conference won’t render the same approachable demeanor.
Langford rushed for 1422 yards last season and in some circles is a dark horse Heisman candidate this year. His first game of the season against Jacksonville State Friday only translated into a stat line of 13 carries for 57 yards, but his ability is unquestionable. Additionally, the team as a whole reeled off 50 rushing plays.
That stat might remind you of Gaffney’s 45 carries in Stanford’s defeat of Oregon last year. Or Arizona’s 65 rushes for over 300 yards on the ground in the Ducks’ loss in Tucson, Arizona, later that month.
The bottom line is Michigan State has all the ingredients to keep that sort of outcome consistent. With a physical team that was able to counter-punch each blow Stanford brought to them in last year’s Rose Bowl, the Spartans are riding one of the nation’s longest active winning streaks and have what is the single matchup issue that has created the most problems for the Ducks in recent history.
With South Dakota seeing success too (39 rushes, 172 yards), the concerns only heighten.
“We’re going to have to bring our A-game for Michigan State,” Daniels said. “They’re a great team.”
Without a doubt. However, that one element that’s brought problems persists, and with the Michigan State game just a week away, something needs to change in order for the same script to reshape.
Follow Justin Wise on Twitter @JWISE25