SAN FRANCISCO — Patience with the running game led to the sweetest victory of the season for Oregon.
The Ducks (8-4) only averaged 2.8 yards per carry against rival Washington, but on the team’s 49th and final rush of the game CJ Verdell burst through a spacious hole for a 6-yard touchdown.
The redshirt freshman’s walk-off run completed the 30-27 overtime win over the eventual Pac-12 champions.
Oregon offensive coordinator Marcus Arroyo might have to stick to a similar script during the Redbox Bowl against Michigan State on Monday at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif. (noon, Fox).
The Spartans (7-5) lead the nation in rushing defense, allowing only 81.3 yards per game and holding seven opponents under 100 yards on the ground this season.
“The challenge is (facing) the best run defense in the country,” Arroyo said after Saturday’s practice at City College of San Francisco. “They’ve got three or four all-Big Ten first- or second-team guys. They do a tremendous job, they’re coached well.
“We’ve got to do a good job with fundamentals and coach well. I think our guys are up to the task.”
Oregon averages 191.2 rushing yards. Verdell, who lost a costly fumble during the fourth-quarter collapse in the loss to Stanford to open Pac-12 play, is the team’s leading rusher with 975 net yards and 10 touchdowns.
During the 55-32 romp over Oregon State in the regular-season finale, Verdell (187 yards, four touchdowns) and true freshman Travis Dye (199 yards, two touchdowns) were dominant.
The dynamic young duo will try to keep the momentum going behind an offensive line that gets starting left tackle Penei Sewell back from injury.
“They’re the best rushing defense in the country. A lot of times you don’t want to see the stats, you want to watch the tape,” left guard Shane Lemieux said of the Spartans’ stout unit. “Really the tape lines up with their statistics. The best defensive front I’ve ever played.”
Oregon officially downgraded Tony Brooks-James’ status for the bowl from doubtful to out. The senior running back suffered a knee injury against Oregon State.
Out of the doghouse
Dillon Mitchell’s spectacular regular season ended with the star wide receiver watching the Civil War from the visiting sideline at Reser Stadium in Corvallis.
The Pac-12’s leading receiver was suspended for the first half of the Oregon State game for being late to a team meeting and was benched in the fourth quarter after making only one catch for nine yards in the blowout win.
“He’s been great,” Arroyo said of Mitchell’s response during bowl preparation. “Dillon has done a nice job getting through this last month and going and working hard. He’s been great this week, and I’m excited to see him go out and compete.”
Mitchell, who has not been made available for interviews leading up to the Redbox Bowl, has 69 receptions for 1,114 yards and nine touchdowns this season.
Jaylon Redd is a distant second on the team in those categories with 31 receptions for 368 yards and five touchdowns.
Quarterback Justin Herbert is coming back for his senior season, but Mitchell hasn’t announced his intentions for 2019.
“Mitchell is a go-to guy for (Herbert),” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. “But he uses his tight ends, his backs, his other wide receivers as well. They’ve got a great running game to complement that. I think they want to run the ball and keep you off balance.
“We’re going to see some new things in the game we haven’t practiced for.”
Who’s No. 2?
Arroyo did not clarify who Herbert’s backup will be for the bowl game.
Sophomore Braxton Burmeister would burn his redshirt, as he did last season when Herbert suffered a fractured collarbone, again if he plays.
True freshman Tyler Shough is the other option if Herbert has to leave the game, as he did after suffering a shoulder injury in the first half at Oregon State.
“Right now Braxton and Tyler are splitting the reps and both of them are doing a nice job,” Arroyo said. “The considerations we are taking with Braxton’s redshirt are important to us. It’s important to him. We don’t take them lightly.”