By Rob Moseley
When Oregon and Michigan State agreed in April 2012 to a home-and-home football series to be played in 2014 and 2015, it made sense on a lot of fronts.
The series matched longtime conference partners, the Pac-12 and Big Ten. It matched one of the nation’s most creative offenses, that of the Ducks, with the equally innovative defense of the Spartans. It helped that the two athletic directors involved, Oregon’s Rob Mullens and Michigan State’s Mark Hollis, had a long-standing working relationship, and considered themselves friends as well as colleagues.
Little did anyone know then that the matchup scheduled for this season, Saturday at Autzen Stadium, would be considered the premier nonconference game in the country this season. The Ducks are ranked No. 3 in The Associated Press top 25, while the Spartans are No. 7. Nor could anyone have predicted that it would become the centerpiece of a weeklong skirmish between the Ducks and Spartans spread across three sports.
“This one was a fit from the get-go. It just had a lot of attractive elements,” Mullens said, before asking rhetorically: “But to be able to predict that you’re going to have two top-10 teams, with the preseason hype, and the Rose Bowl champions?”
In terms of fitting Oregon’s scheduling philosophy, the Spartans were a perfect fit. In the College Football Playoff era, the Ducks believe in supplementing their nine-game Pac-12 schedule with another “Power Five” conference opponent. The preference would be to respect the longstanding partnership with the Big Ten, reflected in the fact Oregon has future series scheduled with Nebraska and Ohio State.
Still, in the search for a marquee nonconference game, did UO football coach Mark Helfrich want one that’s this marquee, what ESPN.com terms “a Rose Bowl matchup the first week of September?”
“We love to compete,” Helfrich said with a smile. “(Michigan State) is a great program, very well-coached in every phase. They’ve got marquee players in every phase. We’ll certainly find out where we are, and more importantly where we’re going.”
This Saturday’s football game (3:30 p.m. PT, FOX) was originally scheduled for a week later, when it would have been played one night after the Sept. 12 volleyball matchup between Oregon and Michigan State in Matthew Knight Arena. When the football game was moved up a week, the cross country program instead got the chance to capitalize on its appeal.
In recent years, the UO cross country program’s only home meet, the Bill Dellinger Invitational, has been run in late September or early October at Springfield Country Club. But with some 4,000 Michigan State fans flocking to Eugene for the football game – double the usual average visiting contingent – UO cross country coach Robert Johnson created another top-10 matchup, between the women of No. 2 Oregon and No. 6 Michigan State, by inviting the Spartans to run in the meet and relocating it to Pre’s Trail.
Thus will the Dellinger Invitational, also featuring the No. 3 Oregon men, be run this Friday. The women race at 5:45 p.m., the men run at 6:15 p.m. “It’ll be a big chance to get the competitive juices flowing for our fans, as well as being the one and only time we have a home meet,” Johnson said. “So it’ll be a good opportunity for folks to come out and watch Edward Cheserek and Eric Jenkins try to lead the Ducks to a victory.”
The cross country races will be a week prior to the UO-MSU volleyball match, Sept. 12 in Matthew Knight Arena (7:30 p.m PT, Pac-12 Networks). The Oregon baseball team even welcomes the Spartans to town this academic year, too, for a three-game series in April. The baseball team played Ohio State each of the last two years, further illustrating the preference to schedule major intersectional matchups against Big Ten opponents.
Nothing in recent memory, though, can match the anticipation of this weekend, and what Mullens said over the summer was “the highest demand ticket I can remember.” What started as a nonconference series that came together for practical reasons has become one of the most fantastic event games in recent UO history, and the centerpiece of a weeklong mini-rivalry between the Ducks and Spartans.