Redbox Bowl: Michigan State vs. Oregon
Kickoff: 3 Monday, Levi's Stadium, Santa Clara, Calif.
Records: Michigan State 7-5; Oregon 8-4
Line: Oregon by 2.5
View from the other side
Ryan Thorburn covers Oregon football for The Register-Guard in Eugene, Ore. He breaks down the Ducks for The Detroit News, answering five questions heading into Monday’s Michigan State-Oregon Redbox Bowl game at Levi’s Stadium. You can follow him on Twitter @RyanThorburn
►Question: Was Justin Herbert’s decision to return for his senior season a surprise?
►Thorburn: Not at all. There was a feeling around the program that Herbert, who is a serious student (4.06 GPA in biology) was leaning toward returning to Oregon in 2019. As a kid growing up in Eugene, Herbert watched another soft-spoken star quarterback return for his redshirt junior year after a disappointing finish to the 2013 season. Marcus Mariota's risk of putting a lucrative NFL career on hold for a year was rewarded: He won the Heisman Trophy in 2014 while leading the Ducks to the national title game, which enhanced his draft stock.
►Question: Will the Ducks be able to effectively run the ball against MSU, and if not, will it matter?
►Thorburn: Oregon obviously won't be able to push the Spartans around like they did while racking up 392 rushing yards during the blowout victory over rival Oregon State in the regular-season finale. But head coach Mario Cristobal will be patient, even if Michigan State is shutting the run down early. I'd expect the Ducks to try to grind out a win like they did against Washington when they ran 49 times for 177 yards (2.8 yards per carry). And, no, it may not matter now that Herbert is healthy. He should be able to lead this offense to more points than Michigan State via the passing game, if necessary.
►Question: After a month off, do the Ducks carry any momentum from winning three of their last four?
►Thorburn: I think the momentum the team is riding has as much to do with what's been happening off the field since the regular season ended. Herbert announcing that he's coming back has this young roster excited to play with him in the bowl and beyond. The team also gets standout left tackle Penei Sewell, who missed the last six games with a leg injury, back for the bowl. The fan base is also buzzing about the direction the program appears headed in under Cristobal after the staff signed the highest-ranked recruiting class in program history.
►Question: With a defense that ranks in the top 10 in the nation in interceptions, how eager are the Ducks to face an MSU offense that threw 13 interceptions this season?
►Thorburn: I mentioned this is a young team, but there are some senior starters on defense who have had outstanding seasons, led by safety Ugo Amadi, who has returned two interceptions for touchdowns and also taken a punt return to the house. Two other seniors with NFL draft potential, defensive end Jalen Jelks and outside linebacker Justin Hollins, are also eager to play one more game together after combining for 19.5 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks during the regular season.
►Question: Are the Ducks looking at this game as a completion of 2018 or the start of what could be a special 2019?
►Thorburn: I think they're looking at this as the start of being back on the national stage in 2019. After cycling through three head coaches in as many seasons, Cristobal has stabilized the program. With the return of Herbert and all five starting offensive linemen, coupled with the influx of elite prospects headed to Eugene, Oregon will likely be the highest-ranked Pac-12 team in the preseason polls and the conference favorite. Carrying a bowl victory over a marquee Big Ten program would give the Ducks even more momentum heading into the offseason.
Three players to watch
►Justin Herbert, QB: The junior gave Ducks fans their best Christmas present this year when he announced he was returning for his senior season. Before that, though, he’ll attempt to cut through the Spartans’ staunch defense. Herbert has thrown 28 touchdown passes this season and has a touchdown pass in 27 straight games. He’s just 15 passing yards away from 3,000 for the season and needs only 96 to reach 7,000 for his career.
►Dillon Mitchell, WR: The junior is fourth in the nation averaging 112.9 receiving yards a game and is one of only four FBS players with 1,000 receiving yards in conference play. He’s had six 100-yard receiving games this season, which is tied for the most in program history with all six coming in Pac-12 games. At 1,114 receiving yards, Mitchell needs just 27 yards to establish an Oregon record.
►Ugochukwu Amadi, S: The junior was a semifinalist for the Thorpe Award given to the nation’s top defensive back. He became the first player since Alabama’s Minkah Fitzpatrick in 2015 to two interceptions returned for a touchdown and a punt returned for a score in the same season. He’s tied for sixth in the Pac-12 with three interceptions and is part of a Ducks defensive backfield that has helped account for 16 interceptions.
Facts and figures
►Big three: Oregon will attempt to join Oklahoma and Memphis as the only FBS teams with a 3,000-yard passer, a 1,000-yard rusher and a 1,000-yard receiver in 2018. It’s only happened twice in program history — 2013 and ’14 — and it will happen if QB Justin Herbert throws for 15 yards and RB CJ Verdell is 25 yards shy of 1,000. WR Dillon Mitchell leads the Pac-12 with 1,114 receiving yards.
►One-two punch: The Ducks are one of six Power Five team with two running backs that have run for 700 yards or more this season. Verdell has gained 975 yards while Travis Dye has run for 721 yards. The two have combined for nine 100-yard games while Verdell, a redshirt freshman, has five 100-yard games and true freshman Dye has four games of 10 yards or more.
►Bowl streaks: Oregon has lost its last three bowl games, earning its last victory in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1, 2015, as part of the College Football Playoffs. The Ducks beat Florida State before losing to Ohio State in the title game. Michigan State is looking for its second straight bowl victory and sixth in the last seven. Last season, the Spartans beat Washington State, 42-17, in the Holiday Bowl after missing out on a bowl in 2016.