By Rob Moseley
Entering the biggest game in the country so far this season, Jake Fisher knows what to expect.
Fisher, the senior left tackle for the No. 3 Oregon football team, leads the UO offensive line into Saturday’s showdown with No. 8 Michigan State (3:30 p.m. PT, FOX). A Michigan native, Fisher was recruited by the Spartans, and knows well their reputation for playing smashmouth football.
“Being a blue-collar kid, that’s what I grew up doing,” Fisher said. “I don’t mind smashing into anybody.”
On Saturday, Fisher and the rest of the UO line will smash into one of the most formidable defensive front sevens in the country. Michigan State defensive end Shilique Calhoun is a preseason all-American, and middle linebacker Taiwan Jones is on the watch list for the Butkus Award.
The Ducks counter with an Outland Trophy nominee in Fisher, and arguably the nation’s best center in Hroniss Grasu. They were two of five returning starters entering 2014, but it was a new-look offensive line fielded by Oregon in last Saturday’s season-opening win over South Dakota.
With Tyler Johnstone on the mend from knee problems and redshirt freshman Jake Pisarcik coming off a stellar fall camp, the Ducks featured a new right side of Pisarcik at guard and Andre Yruretagoyena at tackle. Fisher moved from right tackle to left tackle, replacing Johnstone.
That reformulated line paved the way for the Ducks to rush for 7.7 yards per carry against the Coyotes, and didn’t allow a sack. Fisher said most of the linemen graded out with minimal assignment errors. “You take a look at that, and you take a look at the effort we had out there, and it was pretty good,” Fisher said. “But obviously it can always get better.”
Yruretagoyena, a former four-star recruit, made his first collegiate start and generally graded out well. He had a couple of assignment errors partly to blame on communication issues along the line, perhaps a result of the two new starters on the right side, and Pisarcik’s trading of reps with last year’s starter at right guard, Cameron Hunt.
The last three years have been about building confidence for Yruretagoyena. He gained experience as a backup last year and got a full offseason of reps with the first-string in 2014, putting to rest those confidence issues entering last week. “I was really, really excited to get out there finally,” Yruretagoyena said. “It had been so long.”
When the Ducks first began to prepare for playing the opener without Johnstone, it was with Fisher in his familiar spot at right tackle, and Yruretagoyena on the left. They were soon swapped, and each says he’s now at his most comfortable position.
Yruretagoyena played on the right side when he first became on offensive lineman, and is back in his comfort zone. Fisher learned the left side while playing as a true freshman in 2011 behind starter Darrion Weems, before moving to right tackle the last two seasons. “When you go two years without playing it at all, it’s a little different,” Fisher said. “But I switched back and it’s really comfortable for me.”
There figure to be very few comfortable moments for the UO offensive line this Saturday, however. Calhoun had a sack in Michigan State’s opening win over Jacksonville State, the 12th of his career and one of five the Spartans had in the game.
This week in Oregon’s practices, redshirting freshman Jalen Jelks is playing the role of Calhoun with the scout team. At 6-foot-6 and 268 pounds, Jelks is a shade bigger than Calhoun (6-5, 256), though lacking the invaluable 15 games of starting experience the Spartan boasts.
Yruretagoyena is preparing to deal with Calhoun for much of the evening Saturday. “He’s just really fast,” Yruretagoyena said. “He’s fast and he’s powerful; he’s good with his hands; they’re all just really well-coached, the entire team.”
“They’re going to play hard-nosed football,” Fisher added. “They’re going to try to contain, try to force things inside for their linebackers. They’re going to play their game and they’re very disciplined, so they’re going to do exactly that.”
As a senior, Fisher won’t make Oregon’s scheduled trip to play at Michigan State next season, so he’s relishing the chance to play a team from his home state this week. He knows several Spartans from the recruiting process, notably their own standout center, Jack Allen.
Yruretagoyena also is looking forward to Saturday, and the test from one of the nation’s best defensive ends in Calhoun. “I’m pretty excited,” Yruretagoyena said. “It’ll be the biggest challenge I’ve had in a while, and I think we’re all looking forward to it.”