SANTA CLARA, Calif. — On a team with so much offensive firepower, it was junior linebacker Troy Dye who carried the Redbox Bowl trophy off the field and into the winning locker room Monday at Levi’s Stadium.
It was fitting, since the defense was the reason Oregon had the trophy to begin with. The strongest defensive performance of the season carried the Ducks to a 7-6 win over Michigan State.
“The defense played off the charts,” Oregon coach Mario Cristobal said. “It’s kind of what you see on Sunday sometimes, when you have two really good defenses go at it.”
Dye set the tone, sacking Michigan State quarterback Brian Lewerke for a 10-yard loss on the Spartans' first possession. Linebacker Lamar Winston Jr. had 10 tackles and linebacker Justin Hollins had 2.5 tackles for loss as Oregon gave up the fewest points in a bowl game since a 14-0 Rose Bowl win over Pennsylvania in 1917.
The Ducks had allowed at least 15 points to every FBS opponent this season.
Michigan State had been atrocious on offense, ranking 122nd in the FBS in scoring (19.8 points per game) and 117th in total offense (343.0 yards per game). But senior running back LJ Scott, who had 2,700 yards and 25 TDs in his career, was healthy after playing in just four games this year, and the Spartans added some new wrinkles, such as a pistol formation, during the five-week break between games.
“The worst thing you can do is make light of their struggles throughout the season offensively. If you do that you set yourself up for potential failure,” Cristobal said. “We built them up to be as good as any offense that we’ve faced, and I think we went in there with a chip on their shoulder and respecting them.”
Scott finished with 84 yards on 24 carries, while Lewerke completed 22 of 40 passes for 172 yards and was sacked three times.
The Spartans finally broke midfield on their fourth possession, driving to the Oregon 20-yard line. But after fumbling the snap, Lewerke attempted to throw the ball away and Jevon Holland made a diving interception at the Ducks’ 16.
Michigan State made it to the Oregon 23 later in the quarter, but Hollins pressured Lewerke into an incompletion on fourth-and-1 to keep the game scoreless.
The Spartans made it into the red zone twice in the third quarter, but the Ducks held them to a pair of 34-yard field goals, ensuring that Oregon’s fourth-quarter touchdown drive would be enough to take the lead.
“When they end up with three instead of six, you take those points all day, especially when you know 10 (Justin Herbert) and 13 (Dillon Mitchell) will always find a way to score,” Dye said.
The Ducks entered the game allowing opponents to score only 20 touchdowns in 46 red zone opportunities, a 43.5 percent conversion rate that ranked fifth in the FBS.
“I think during fall camp we all talked about getting better at things we weren’t good at last season, and that was one of the focus points, red zone defense,” nose tackle Jordon Scott said. “(Defensive coordinator Jim) Leavitt harped on it all fall camp, and we just brought it into the season, and it showed up in this bowl game.”
Once it had the lead, Oregon held Michigan State to a pair of failed 50-yard field-goal attempts in the fourth quarter — the first try went wide, and the second one was botched because of a bad hold.
The Spartans had one final possession, starting at their 42 with 1:12 remaining. But Michigan State lost two yards on its first three plays, and then Thomas Graham Jr. broke up the fourth-down pass to seal the win.
“It was eat or be eaten,” Winston said of the final possessions. “That’s what it comes to, is a mentality. Especially those last downs, deep down inside who has more grit.”
For once, it was the Oregon defense.