In a game that recalled the worst game in Oregon football history, Justin Herbert was allowed to play his game at last, and the result was a touchdown that proved the winner over Michigan State in the Redbox Bowl game, 7-6.
The final score was a shock to all those who are distracted by points scored in the past. The infamous Toilet Bowl, a 0-0 tie with Oregon State in 1983, at least had a rain deluge to blame for the poor offensive showing of both teams. Luckily, this time, the Ducks exploded for a fourth-quarter score that showed what Pac-12 opponents have to deal with in defending Herbert every weekend.
The Ducks’ offense was putrid, to be concise. Oregon had seven possessions in the first half that all ended with punts. Coming out of the locker room after halftime the Ducks had to punt three more times consecutively, to stretch their streak to 10 punts in a row. Oregon’s punter, Blake Maimone, had earned his year’s letter by halftime as he backed an offense that dropped seven passes, including one in the end zone, missed 10 tackles by the defense, and failed to down a ball that was begging to be downed on the Spartans’ 1-foot line.
One fan commented that the commercials on the telecast in the first half were more exciting than the World War I football played out on the real grass turf of Levi's Stadium. The Spartan offense, not a real good one, was stifled at all points by Oregon’s defense, which shined during the season as the offense lurched around, trying to find itself. Opponents were able to score only field goals instead of touchdowns in this game, and many others in the last half of the season. The defense does not get the credit it deserves for how many times it has saved the offense’s bacon.
The turning point in the game came with the Ducks down 6-0 and taking the ball on their own 23, the best field position they enjoyed in the second half to that point. Coach Mario Cristobal turned Herbert loose. Herbert appeared to settle down and get intensely focused. Oregon was able to run some tempo offense instead of running the punt team out on the field and it appeared that the tighter the game, the better Herbert played. He was 4 of 4 for 70 yards on the Ducks' touchdown drive, a 77-yard march in 1:48.
Oregon actually got its run game going against the No. 1 run defense in the college football world as Herbert hit key passes that were caught by receivers who suddenly had the focus, and hands, of winners. The pass-run balance was in flow at least for this most important part of the game.
Two special team gaffes provided highlights in a game of few. Cristobal picked a strange time to call a fake punt in the fourth quarter with Maimone in a passing role. Unfortunately, he was caught with the ball and no one to throw to and was sacked for his trouble. The play hurt Oregon as it lost a field-position advantage that put more pressure on the Ducks' own defense, which luckily, rose to the occasion and forced a field-goal attempt that did not come close.
The Spartans had a 50-yard field-goal attempt later in the period and the MSU holder bobbled the ball and was forced to make an unsuccessful go at running the ball without any blockers. It remains to be seen if it was a fake field goal or not, as Michigan State had their quarterback in as a holder for the kick.
Michigan State owned the game stats, passing for 155, rushing for 159 and a total of 314 yards. A real definer of the Spartans' offensive ineptitude was that they had 86 offensive plays (averaging 3.7 per play) to the Ducks’ 60 plays and could only tally two field goals.
The best player on either team was Herbert. When the wraps were pulled off and he steeled himself, you could see the impact on the rest of the offense. Do it sooner in the game! Everything, including the rushing game, started to look more like it’s drawn on the chalkboard than what appeared on the turf in the first half before a fairly sparse crowd of fans.
Oregon was able to rush for 37 yards against the nation’s best run defense and throw for 153, a total of 190 for the game averaging 3.2 per play. Those numbers should have been better, but going three-and-out six times put a clamp on that. Fans can still barely recall the times when it was unusual in the olden days, for the Ducks to have more than two three-and-outs in a game, and never, never 10 punts.
Cristobal focused on building discipline this past season and was successful, as demonstrated by the Ducks being flagged only twice on penalties (one on the kick return team, one on the offense) and giving up one turnover when they were stopped on downs in the second half.
Oregon fans were delirious with the win and can now look forward to the return of all 11 starters on offense if Dillon Mitchell decides to come back. The key returner is Herbert, who has an appreciation of team, teammates and the fun and challenge of college football. It is refreshing to see a very talented pro prospect that is down-to-earth in his values and devotion to his team. It’s not hard to root for a young man of that character.
Fans are excited about next year, but a close look at the schedule shows that it’s going to be extremely difficult to take the Pac-12's Northern Division crown with road games at Auburn, Washington, Stanford and USC. Cristobal’s goal for the New Year has to be to get the Ducks to play better on the road, as they weren’t very good in that area this past season.
Cristobal is a good salesman, with his team and his recruits, and now, with a difficult concrete goal for the New Year, the hard work begins.
Former Oregon player Ken Woody coached college football for 18 years, including as an assistant at Oregon, Washington, Washington State and Utah State.