Preview: Michigan State's top-ranked defense faces Oregon's offense in Redbox Bowl
Who: Michigan State (7-5, 5-4 in Big Ten) vs. Oregon (8-4, 5-4 in Pac-12)
When: 3 p.m. EST (noon PST) on New Year’s Eve
Where: Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California
TV: FOX (Channel 2 in Detroit, Channel 47 in Lansing area)
Spread: -3 Oregon, O/U 48.
All-time series: Tied at 3-3 (Last game resulted in a 31-28 MSU victory on Sept. 12, 2015).
Weather: Estimated 53 degrees and partly cloudy at kickoff, according to Weather Underground.
Michigan State players to watch: QB Brian Lewerke, RB L.J. Scott, DE Kenny Willekes, CB Josiah Scott.
Oregon players to watch: QB Justin Herbert, WR Dillon Mitchell, CB Ugochukwu Amadi, LB Troy Dye.
The Spartans and Ducks aren’t that unfamiliar with each other.
In the 2014 and 2015 seasons, Michigan State and Oregon played in a home-and-home series, with the Ducks winning 46-27 in Eugene in 2014 and the Spartans being victorious 31-28 at Spartan Stadium the following year.
And because of those two games, MSU coach Mark Dantonio said the matchup between the two for the Redbox Box gives a chance to showcase a game between “two national brands.”
“People are going to turn on the TV to watch Michigan State play Oregon because of the past two games — very close games,” Dantonio said during his national signing day news conference on Dec. 19. “Because of the Pac-12 and the Big Ten, the nature of that. I think you're going to have a lot of people watching that football game. ... It's a prime time game on FOX on New Year's Eve.”
This prime time game will feature Oregon’s 18th-ranked scoring offense (37.2 points per game) going against the Spartans’ 14th-ranked scoring defense (18 points allowed per game).
Which is the reason MSU cornerback Josiah Scott said he’s decided to play against the Ducks, eliminating the option to redshirt after only playing in four games this season — the maximum allowed under the new NCAA redshirt rule — after tearing his left meniscus before preseason camp.
“It’s huge playing in this game, because the quarterback (Justin Herbert), he’s one of the top quarterbacks in the country,” the 5-foot-10, 175-pound Scott said after a Dec. 20 practice. “And being able to go against really good receivers, I feel like it would give me that next step towards what I can see in the future.”
That quarterback is junior Justin Herbert, who’s thrown for 2,985 yards for 28 touchdowns and eight interceptions with a 59.6 completion percentage and announced last Wednesday he’s returning for his senior season.
And Oregon’s wide receivers are led by the 6-foot-2, 189-pound junior Dillon Mitchell, who has the team-high in catches (69), receiving yards (1,114) and touchdowns (9).
However, when junior linebacker Joe Bachie started to watch film, he was surprised what he saw from the Ducks’ offense.
“Originally when we were playing Oregon, I thought they would be a little more pass first, but the team likes to run the ball,” Bachie said. “The head coach (Mario Cristobal) was an offensive line coach previously. No. 34 (running back C.J. Verdell) and No. 26 (running back Travis Dye) are both good backs, different types of backs. And obviously they got the quarterback that can make every throw on the field.”
On the flipside, MSU’s offense hasn’t produced in 2018, scoring 19.8 points per game, tied for 121th in the country, and is facing an Oregon defense that’s tied for 63rd in the nation in points allowed with 27 points per game.
“I have a really good feeling about what we’ll be able to put out,” he said. “I think we’ve clicked a lot better than we have in the past. So I’m excited.”
The MSU offense is also getting back senior running back L.J. Scott on New Year’s Eve, who decided to enter the NFL Draft instead of redshirting and coming back for a fifth-year.
Scott said his “motivation was pretty high” to play one last time for MSU, along with giving fans and NFL scouts one last showing in the green-and-white.
“To make that decision to play in the bowl game was exciting,” Scott said. “I just kind of sat and thought about all the things I’ve done here — the success, the ups-and-downs I’ve had here. I also thought about when I first got here (in 2015), the first game people really started to notice me was Oregon. So it should be the last one as well.”
In Scott’s last game as a Spartan, he will face Oregon defense that, according to Lewerke, isn’t like a typical Pac-12 defense, led by junior linebacker Troy Dye, who has a team-high 107 total tackles, and cornerback Thomas Graham Jr., who’s tied for fifth in country in passes deflected per game with 1.6.
“They’re very physical,” Lewerke said. “Their D-line is very good … Their corners and secondary are all solid. Athletic guys who can all run with receivers. They’re a very solid defense.”
Though facing Oregon in the Redbox Bowl isn’t exactly what MSU had in mind at the beginning of the season, when it was ranked-No. 11 in the AP Top 25 Writers preseason poll, Bachie said it’s “a great matchup.”
And back-to-back bowl games in Cali, after the Spartans beat Washington State in the Holiday Bowl in San Diego last season, which Bachie said is “a plus for me.”
“They’re a good team, good university, good athletic programs and have everything going for them,” Bachie said. “Got a good quarterback, and so it’s going to be a good matchup.”
Oregon 27, Michigan State 14