IT WASN’T PRETTY, BUT OREGON SNATCHES A 7-6 WIN OVER MICHIGAN STATE – “We felt it was going to be that kind of a game just watching them on defense” – Mario Cristobal
It won’t go down in the history of Oregon football as one of the prettiest bowl wins ever, but a win is a win and the Ducks will definitely take it.
Oregon ( 9-4 ) managed just one touchdown for the entire game and that was just enough as the Ducks won the Redbox Bowl over Michigan State 7-6.
The Spartans’ defense was billed as one of the best in the country and it lived up to the hype.
But it was Oregon’s defense that was able to rise to the occasion as well. The Ducks kept their opponent from the Big 10 out of the end zone and that turned out to be the difference in the game.
“We felt it was going to be that kind of a game just watching them on defense” said Oregon head coach Mario Cristobal when asked about the slug fest.
“Most teams in the Big 10 had little success against them. They’re really good. We were going to have to take advantage of any opportunities we did have. We kept battling and battling. The defense played off the charts and continued to get the ball back to the offense and was probably on the field for 40 plus plays in the first half. And the offensive guys just kept battling. We referred to it as an NFL type game…where it was going to take something to turn that game around.”
Michigan State, who ended their season at 7-6, went up 6-0 with 1:17 left in the third quarter on Matt Coghlin’s 34-yard field goal. After both teams traded quick possessions, Oregon started its lone scoring drive on their own 23 with just 12:59 remaining in regulation.
Both defenses were dominating so much that one figured the first team that actually got the ball in the end zone would win the game.
Oregon took six plays to go 77 yards to score in 1:40. The game-winning throw came from Justin Herbert to receiver Dillon Mitchell for a 28-yard touchdown.
It was a back shoulder throw that Mitchell was able to haul in as he was falling to the ground and crossed the goal line at the same time.
“Moving the chains’ explained Cristobal when asked what prompted the success of the game winning drive.
“That drive just got into rhythm and all of a sudden it was chunk yardage. We were playing with tempo and the key to playing with tempo is moving the sticks. These guys ( Herbert and Mitchell ) connected on a couple of different occasions. Got a couple chunk yardage runs as well…and they connected again in the end zone.”
Oregon was up 7-6 and left it to the defense to hold the Spartans, something that hasn’t been said in a very long time in Eugene.
The Ducks have been known for their offense for the better part of two decades, but today it was up to defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt and his defensive unit to save the day and give Oregon its first bowl win since the 2015 Rose Bowl.
Up to this point, the Duck defense had played well enough to win three games, but they had to somehow keep Michigan State from scoring in the last 11 minutes. And the Spartans had several chances to kick one more field goal to eek out this game 9-7.
That chance came on the very next possession when Michigan State Brian Lewerke led his team to the Duck 32 to set up a 50-yard goal attempt. Coghlin’s kick was long enough, but knuckled off to the left, keeping the score 7-6 Oregon.
Coghlin was going to get just one more chance before this day was over.
The Ducks had an opportunity to score again when they drove to the Spartan 28 with just over seven minutes to go. Instead of kicking a field goal or having Herbert go for the first down, Oregon opted to attempt a strange trick play that didn’t go as planned. Punter Blake Maimone was sacked on the play, turning the ball over on downs.
“We felt the wind was swirling enough that the kick was going to be tough” said Cristobal.
“We felt we probably had a better chance at having that than a 4th and 9 or 10,…if we had gotten to 4th and 5 we were just going to leave the offense out there. We felt we had it and at the last second you watched their linebacker point and we couldn’t rip out the timeout on time and the ball was snapped and then the horror began. It looked bad. It looked like something we had but they did sniff it out and credit to them but we wanted to take a shot at it and it had a better chance than a field goal.”
As it turns out, that wasn’t going to be the last special teams play to go haywire.
Michigan State gave themselves a chance to win the game yet again on the leg of Coghlin. The senior kicker lined up for a 48-yard field goal with 1:30 remaining in the game.
Fortunately for the Ducks, it was a low snap, which forced Coghlin to stop short of kicking the ball. Lewerke, who was also the holder, was able to get up and scramble. But he couldn’t find an open receiver and was eventually run out of bounds.
Oregon reclaimed possession with 90 seconds left, but Michigan State still had all three timeouts to use. After three rushes, the Spartans got the ball back one more time with 1:12 remaining on their own 42.
One rush and three incompletions later, Oregon finally won the game.
The Oregon defense limited the Spartans to 331 total yards.
Lewerke was held to 22-of-40 passing for 172 yards and one interception. Running back L.J Scott led the Spartans with 84 yards on the ground and Cody White had six catches for 64 yards.
Even though they lost the game, the Spartan defense was better.
Michigan State held Oregon to just 203 yards of total offense, but 92 of those came in the fourth quarter. Herbert finished his season 19-of-33 for 166 yards and that one all important touchdown – his 29th of the year. For the Ducks, Herbert’s performance won’t be the last in an Oregon uniform as he has already announced he’ll be returning to school for his senior season.
“I don’t think we were doing anything necessarily different” said Herbert when asked about the Ducks sluggish offense.
“I think we kind of just shot ourselves in the foot the first few drives and the guys kind of settled down and just fit their role. We made some plays and it fortunately came our way.”
It was important for the Ducks to get this bowl win, especially after last year’s fiasco that saw their coach leave before the Vegas Bowl and the chaos that followed.
Oregon just signed its best recruiting class ever and most of the offense, including Herbert has said they’ll be returning for 2019.
Winning the Redbox Bowl helped keep all of the positive momentum moving forward into the off-season.
The Ducks finished the 2018 campaign with a 9-4 record and could very well be one of the favorites to win the Pac-12 next season.
Oregon begins next season with a date with Auburn Aug. 31 in Arlington, Texas.
~ Don Smalley