SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Rob Mullens took a seat in the front row of the postgame news conference to watch Mario Cristobal talk his way out of the doghouse.
Oregon’s coach wasn’t in hot water with his boss, who will be negotiating a new contract after Cristobal finished his first season with nine wins a day after he was mentioned as a possible candidate for the Miami job.
During the Ducks’ celebration of their unsightly 7-6 victory over Michigan State in the Redbox Bowl on Monday at Levi’s Stadium, Cristobal thought he lost his wedding band.
His better half, Jessica, watched as an Oregon search party, including university president Michael Schill, looked for the missing ring.
“This is embarrassing,” Cristobal said. “It was in the locker room the whole time.”
Happy wife, happy life.
Cristobal said his family plans to stay in Eugene for years to come after watching the players pose with the Redbox Bowl trophy after the program’s first postseason win since the Rose Bowl victory over Florida State on Jan. 1, 2015.
“We’re in the business of distraction, right. So you’re going to encounter it all the time,” said Cristobal, who made it clear during Sunday’s team dinner that he wasn’t a candidate at his alma mater. “It got a little bit noisy. I figured it was good to address it before it became nosier and make it really clear this is where I want to be.”
With the return of quarterback Justin Herbert to lead an experienced offense, an evolving defense now coming off a signature performance and a top-five recruiting class headed toward campus, Oregon has big plans for 2019.
“The potential is out of this world,” said freshman running back CJ Verdell, who had to work hard for his 43 rushing yards, which put him over 1,000 for the season. “We can be as good as we want to be, but we’ve got to take this offseason serious.”
Cristobal wanted the team to celebrate, even though the Ducks (9-4) had as many punts (11) as first downs (11) in the Big Ten-style slugfest.
“It’s great to see them achieve that next level of success and elevate the program,” Cristobal said of a group of upperclassmen that played for three head coaches in as many seasons. “They’re going to continue to raise the standard.”
Jim Leavitt’s defense, which has been stingy in the red zone throughout the season, kept the Spartans (7-6) out of the end zone.
Thomas Graham broke up a fourth-down pass in the final minute to seal Oregon’s first three-game winning streak to end a season since 2011.
“Oh, it was beautiful,” linebacker Troy Dye said after finishing with eight tackles and a sack. “We gave up six points, that’s too much, but we held them in the red zone as we have all year and held them to three instead of six.”
Herbert, after 45 minutes of hell for Oregon’s offense, orchestrated a quick six-play, 70-yard scoring drive capped with a 28-yard touchdown to Dillon Mitchell.
Adam Stack’s extra point gave the Ducks the lead with 11:19 remaining.
Herbert was 4-for-4 passing for 70 yards on the drive after completing 14 of 27 passes for 89 yards on the previous 11 drives.
“I don’t think we were doing anything necessarily different,” Herbert said. “We kind of just shot ourselves in the foot the first few drives. Guys kind of settled down and started making plays.”
Matt Coghlin missed a 50-yard field goal on Michigan State’s next possession.
Verdell broke through for a 16-yard run, and a facemark penalty on Michigan State added another 15 yards to get the Ducks in position for another score.
On fourth-and-8 from the Michigan State 28-yard line, punter Blake Maimone was sacked for a 7-yard loss on a disastrous swinging gate play to give the Spartans some life.
“We felt we had it and at the last second, you watch their linebacker point,” Cristobal said of the trick play gone terribly awry. “We couldn’t get the timeout in time, the ball was snapped, and the horror began.”
Michigan State had the momentum and a chance to reclaim the lead in the final moments, but a botched snap prevented Coghlin from getting to attempt another 50-yard field goal try.
Starting quarterback Brian Lewerke bobbled the hold and through an incompletion during a desperate scramble along the Oregon sideline.
“I’ve got to come up with that one,” Lewerke said after finishing 20-for-40 passing with no touchdowns and an interception. “The ball kind of hit my hand on the top of the ball. I tried to make something happen.”
After a scoreless first half, Coghlin made a pair of 34-yard field goals to make the score 6-0.
The Ducks’ drives in the third quarter started from their own 15-, 9- and 6-yard line and ended in punts.
Oregon only had five first downs and 111 yards of total offense entering the fourth quarter, averaging 2.5 yards over 44 plays.
Herbert’s longest completion through three quarters was for 21 yards, and the longest run was an 8-yard scamper by Verdell.
Oregon offensive line coach Alex Mirabal predicted the game would be a low-scoring, one-point affair.
"We felt like it was going to be that kind of game just watching them on defense," Cristobal said. "We kept battling and battling. You take a victory, whether it be one point, two points or 50 points.
“These guys found a way to get it done."
At the end of the first quarter, the teams had combined for 118 yards of total offense and 271 punting yards.
The comedy of offensive errors continued in the second quarter.
Lewerke dropped a snap, bumbled around in the backfield trying to pick the ball off the grass and then blindly threw a pass that was intercepted by safety Jevon Holland at the Oregon 16-yard line.
On the ensuing possession, Herbert threw a beautiful pass on third-and-10 from the Michigan State 42-yard line that Mitchell was unable to hang on to in the end zone.
“I would definitely say I was just keeping my head and not getting down,” Mitchell said. “Guys like Justin and the rest of the offensive and defensive guys were not letting me get down on myself after the first half. I definitely didn’t play as well as I could.”
The six-catch, 70-yard performance was enough for Mitchell to be named the Redbox Bowl offensive most valuable player. In the process, the junior set Oregon’s single-season record with 1,184 receiving yards.
“It was definitely a goal of mine once it was brought to my attention,” Mitchell said of the milestone. “I enjoy to win more than anything.”
The Spartans were within field goal range in the second quarter but opted to leave the offense on the field to try to convert a fourth-and-1 at the Oregon 23.
Lewerke’s play-action pass was incomplete.
There were 13 first downs and 12 punts before the intermission.
“We never got that bust-out play," Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio lamented. "You're not going to win many games scoring six points.”
In the end, seven (points) was enough for the Ducks to find their bowl rings.