SAN FRANCISCO — Justin Herbert isn’t the only quarterback looking to set the tone for his senior season at the Redbox Bowl.
Michigan State junior Brian Lewerke, who missed the final two games of the regular season with a shoulder injury, will start against Oregon on Monday at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif. (noon, Fox).
Lewerke has completed only 54.2 percent of his passes for 1,868 yards with eight touchdowns and 10 interceptions in 10 games (nine starts) this season.
Backup Rocky Lombardi has completed 44.2 percent of his passes for 738 yards with three touchdowns and three interceptions.
“He’s back to being confident again in that arm strength, which was a big issue,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said of Lewerke. “I think he’s ready to go. He’s done well.”
The Spartans (7-5) rank 75th in passing offense (221.0 ypg), 116th in rushing offense (122.0 ypg) and 117th in total offense (343.0 ypg).
But the ground attack should be more formidable with the return of senior running back LJ Scott, who missed the previous eight games due to injury.
“We’ve played very well defensively and on the offensive side of the ball we’ve had a lot of injuries. And those injuries have taken a toll on our football team,” Dantonio said. “With that being said, we’ve probably had some execution issues as well.”
Michigan State redshirt junior defensive tackle Raequan Smith has announced that he will not only play in the bowl but also return for his fifth season in the program.
“That’s a Happy New Year’s deal,” Dantonio said of retaining the 6-foot-4, 300-pound Smith. “When Raequan made that decision, that’s the first of hopefully a number of guys that make that decision. That’s up to them. But he’s an anchor guy. He’s a guy you can build your defense around.
“We have the number one defense in the country against the run, and there’s a big reason for that. We’ve got very good players up front, and he’s one of them. He’s a dominant player for us.”
The Spartans will have to defend Dillon Mitchell and Herbert’s other wide receivers without standout cornerback Justin Layne, who is skipping the bowl to begin preparing for the NFL draft.
“He’s an all-Big Ten corner, so obviously those are big shoes to fill,” senior safety Khari Willis said of Layne. “We’ve got guys with experience, guys that aren’t afraid to step up for that big moment, guys that have made plays and had good games for us.
“I think we’ll be just fine at that position, and I’m looking forward to seeing how it goes.”
Dantonio’s mother, Maryan, died Dec. 17 at the age of 90. The grieving coach said reuniting with the Spartans after the holidays has lifted his spirits.
“I’ve always considered Michigan State family, and we have a family atmosphere,” Dantonio said. “So for me personally, being back around our players and our coaches really helped me move forward in the process as much as anything I’ve experienced. And I appreciate that very much.”
Oregon coach Mario Cristobal said defensive lineman Austin Faoliu, offensive lineman Dallas Warmack and wide receiver Brenden Schooler have battling the flu this week bit are expected to play. … Members of both teams visited Alcatraz Island on Friday afternoon. Some of the Ducks will visit a local soup kitchen on Saturday. … Oregon will wear green jerseys with yellow numerals, yellow helmets and yellow pants.
“The way us seniors have prepared the young guys, I feel like the way this program is going to take the top off the ceiling,” Oregon senior safety Ugo Amadi on the direction the trajectory of the program.