Mario Cristobal is expecting a full flight when Oregon departs for San Francisco to face Michigan State in the Redbox Bowl.
The Ducks can reserve a seat for starting quarterback Justin Herbert, who intends to play after missing the second half of the Civil War with a shoulder bruise. A handful of other injured players are expected to return as well.
As for Cristobal’s staff, the coach said he’s not aware of any departures. That could change if defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt lands a head coaching job, but for now the Ducks are operating at full strength.
“As of right now, I don’t have any indication that someone will miss the bowl game or is going to go anywhere else,” Cristobal said.
You know what that means? This should be a focused, motivated Oregon team that plays the Spartans at Levi’s Stadium. After the disaster that was Cristobal’s first bowl experience, that will be a welcome change.
Last year’s Las Vegas Bowl was a mess from start to finish. Players were reeling from Willie Taggart’s abrupt departure for Florida State. Coaches were fighting for promotions, interviewing for other jobs and trying to pull together Oregon’s recruiting class. Two days before the game, one of the Ducks’ best players decided not to play.
Not surprisingly, the Ducks looked distracted and unprepared. Boise State was ready to pounce and ruined Cristobal’s Oregon debut.
This year is a chance to atone. Playing in the Redbox Bowl wasn’t Oregon’s desired ending, but since the Ducks are going, I have a feeling Michigan State is going to get their best effort.
“Obviously it’s two different scenarios altogether,” Cristobal said. “Whether it’s the first game, last game, bowl game, conference game, out of conference game, they’re all going to be treated with the utmost importance. That’s the only way to approach it.”
So often, bowl games seem to come down to motivation. Which team wants to be there? Which team is spending too much time at the beach? Which team has something to prove, and which one is showing up for the free swag?
I can’t speak for the Spartans’ mindset, but I expect the Ducks to take this one seriously. Not because the Redbox Bowl championship trophy — what is it, a golden DVD? — will catch a lot of eyes in the display case, but because the Ducks and their coach want to show they can win one of these things if given the chance.
I’m not sure the matchup will elicit the same enthusiasm from Oregon’s fan base. Quite a few projections had Oregon going to the Holiday Bowl, but that slot went to Utah instead. Returning to San Diego, where the Ducks haven’t been since 2008, would have felt more exotic than another game in the Bay Area.
Michigan State isn’t exactly a sexy opponent, either. The Ducks and Spartans played in 2014 and 2015, when both had better teams and more at stake. This Michigan State team is 7-5 and ranks No. 122 in the FBS in scoring offense at 19.8 points per game.
The crowd at Friday’s Pac-12 title game, generously listed at 35,143, might dwarf the one that shows up for a noon kickoff on New Year’s Eve. I’m guessing tickets on Stubhub will cost about as much as a two-night DVD rental from Redbox.
So, no, this is not the grand stage Oregon wanted when its season began. Just as Mark Helfrich became a little too familiar with the San Antonio Riverwalk, Cristobal should be wary of getting too comfortable in this particular pair of Levi’s.
For where the Ducks are right now, there’s value in playing a game like this one. If only to show that, with a healthy starting quarterback and without the distractions of last year, they can finish a season with gusto.
I think the Ducks are going to care about the Redbox Bowl. At least someone will.