It’s been an up-and-down season for Oregon.
After dominating the first half of their schedule, the Ducks found themselves ranked No. 12 at 5-1 with wins over Washington and Cal, two top-25 teams.
Quarterback Justin Herbert was justifying the preseason Heisman-hype; Dillon Mitchell was looking like one of the most talented in the nation; CJ Verdell emerged to take over the running backs group; and the defense was playing fast and physical, causing turnovers and stopping the run.
But with any young team, the Ducks started to believe their own hype and got caught up in all the “Oregon is back” talk. The team limped to a 3-3 finish, including blowout losses to Washington State and Arizona, and a terrible performance to a massively undermanned Utah squad.
However, Oregon rallied to win its final two games against Arizona State and Oregon State, returning the Ducks to a bowl game for the 13th time in 14 seasons.
Oregon faces Michigan State on Monday, December 31st in the Redbox Bowl. Kickoff is set for 12 p.m. at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, the home of the San Francisco 49ers and Pac-12 championship game.
“It's a tremendous honor and privilege to be here,” Oregon head coach Mario Cristobal said. “I know our players are extremely excited for not only the opportunity that's been granted for us after the season that we had, which we're really proud of, but the opportunity to play such a great program like Michigan State University. “
“We're excited about the opportunities and our guys are very excited about coming out here and being a part of this… we're going to compete,” Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio said. “I think both programs have a national brand. We played in 2014 and 2015 and had great football games — the winner of those games went on to the playoff.”
Dantonio was right about those games in 2014 and 2015.
Each win propelled the victor to their respective conference championships and into the college football playoffs. The game in 2014 was close through three quarters before the Ducks pulled away while the 2015 game saw Oregon six inches away from winning as a late drive stalled in the fourth quarter.
Both teams enter the postseason following disappointing seasons. At one point, each team was ranked as high as No. 12 in the country but suffered devastating losses throughout.
Michigan State was expected to challenge for the Big-10 title but instead, went 1-2 against the top teams in their division. The season came to breaking point in the second to last week of the season when the Spartans lost to Nebraska 9-6 in one of their worst offensive showings in years. A 14-10 win over Rutgers in the season finale assured Michigan State of a winning season.
The Ducks and Spartans share one common opponent; Arizona State.
Oregon defeated the Sun Devils 31-29 late in the season, shutting down Sun Devils star wide receiver N’Keal Harry as the defense came up big in the end. Meanwhile the Spartans suffered a fourth quarter breakdown to Arizona State early in the season, being outscored 13-0 as a 28-yard field goal as time expired sealed the loss.
Good news for Oregon is that Herbert announced last Wednesday that he will return for his senior season, taking away all speculation as to whether it will be his last time in a Ducks uniform. This announcement allows Oregon to focus solely on the Spartans and their vaunted defense.
Michigan State comes into the bowl game with the nation’s best run defense, giving up just 81.3 yards per game. The Spartans also rank in the top-15 in scoring defense (17.7) and total defense (311.5 yards).
“Michigan State plays a physical and aggressive brand of football,” Cristobal said.
“They are about as good of a defense in the nation,” Herbert added. “They are a very smart and passionate defense… they are a team that gets after it.”