Oregon’s Ducks defeated Michigan State in the Redbox Bowl in Santa Clara, Calif., by the old-time score of 7-6, a football game that will go down as more famous for what didn’t happen (like first downs and touchdowns) against what actually did happen.
Coach Mario Cristobal made a point before the game that his offensive line relished the opportunity of establishing their physicality against the Spartans’ nation-leading run defense and the result was a rude reality slap in the face for the coach and his linemen.
For the game, Oregon was able to get only two first downs rushing, a total of 37 yards on 27 attempts for a 1.4-yard average. Obviously, if you stick with the run, you will face a lot of 7.2 yard, third-down situations, and the Ducks were able to convert only 2 of 14 third downs for a 14 percent success rate and that is not a “win” in the challenge category.
The Ducks had 10 straight punts to begin the game (seven in all first-half possessions), and finally had Dillon Mitchell hold on to a long touchdown pass after he had dropped two previously.
The Duck defense played lights out, but were helped by a MSU offense that made too many mistakes in Oregon’s end of the field. The Spartans missed two field goals, gave up an interception and were stopped on downs twice, scoring only two field goals on six trips inside the Ducks’ 40-yard line.
On the other hand, the Ducks’ somnolent offense roused itself to score once in its only two trips inside Michigan State’s 40-yard line; a touchdown as it were, and with the extra point kicked by Adam Stack, Cristobal had his first bowl victory in a game better described as a yawner than any other adjective you could come up with.
Oregon’s “high scoring, physical offense” had six three-and-outs and for the old-timers, who could grouse about the lack of productivity in a Duck offense and actually be right. There was a time when an Oregon offense would have no more than one or two three-and-outs, which is a great strain on a defense that ranks higher in heart than they do in allowing yards to their opponent.
Making things worse, Oregon’s wide receivers and tight ends dropped at least seven balls, including two by the Ducks’ “go-to guy.”
Over the season, it was obvious that Cristobal had more than one receiver who had ball-catching skills. The problem was in focus, too often dropping easy passes, many in crucial situations. There was no observable effort made by the coaching staff to develop its receiving talent outside of continually throwing the ball to Mitchell even when he was covered.
Quarterback Justin Herbert didn’t get off to a great start either. He had more than six bad passes, including four in the first quarter. For all the heat the play caller has taken, it’s tough to call a game when your best player can’t throw an accurate pass that his receivers can’t catch.
I agreed with the fan who wrote that he would take a receiver out of the game if he dropped a catchable ball and let him refocus on the sideline for a bit before sending him back in the game. If he dropped another, he would get a clipboard and take a seat on the bench. Thinking about it, you wonder why all the redshirted (talented) wide receivers didn’t get a chance to play, even with the four-game restriction on redshirting. It might have helped the older receivers focus better.
The players who aren’t catching need to be pressed when they aren’t performing to a high standard. Herbert, rather than endlessly repeating the same mantra: “I have faith in my receivers and won’t hesitate to go to them in the future,” might take a page out of the Bob Berry tough-guy pep talk to a receiver who dropped one of his passes: “If you drop another, I won’t throw to you again, you SOB.”
Evaluating the defense, you come up with a solid grade, although they missed more than 10 tackles, they once again were tough in the red zone, forcing four field-goal tries against the Ducks. Except for the Arizona game, the defense continually held opponents in the scoring zone and forced field goals instead of giving up touchdowns. This is the most important statistic in the book and the key to victory or defeat.
The offense picked a bad day to be terrible as its field position starts averaged on the 23-yard line while MSU started on the 33-yard line. This is a huge difference and it is a credit to the defense that they were able to hold out while the game was mostly played on their side of the field. This can't be overlooked in evaluating this game.
Special teams had a couple of serious errors also. Much like in the Cal game when the Duck punt coverage team lost consciousness as the Bear returner nonchalantly caught a punt and returned it about 35 yards. Seems the Ducks thought he was going to fair catch it even if he didn’t signal for one.
Against MSU, the punt cover team was in fine form with five players in a position to down the ball on the Spartan 1-foot line, a pivotal play that would have greatly helped an offense that was struggling to make first downs. A couple of the players did not seem to be aware that you needed to down the ball and keep your hands on it and there was no communication by any of the players to be organized as to who should down it: “I got it, I got it.”
The fake punt, which never had a chance of being successful, goes on the backs of the coaches. It was impossible to predict how the defense was going to react to all the movement before the snap and it turned out the Ducks’ motion caused the defense to react in a way that covered the play. Instead of taking a 10-yard sack, the punter-quarterback should have surveyed the defense, observed that it was set to knock their play in the dirt and called time out or taken a delay of game penalty.
What should the punter have done? The coaches need to have coached that part of the equation, before it happened on the practice field. Embarrassingly, the play was mocked throughout the football nation on television. It made Oregon look bad.
As is too often customary this season, play calling and offensive game plan calls for evaluation. The play calling was anemic and lethargic, as if it was being called by someone who was distracted with something else. There were far too many instances when Herbert was left with passing situations and receivers who could not be counted on to catch the ball.
Cristobal’s goal of becoming like a SEC “physical” offense is not a bad one. Check out the Alabama-Oklahoma first quarter. The Tide’s big-play quarterback was featured in the game plan. At the end of the first quarter Alabama had a two-touchdown lead and Tua Tagovailoa (another Heisman candidate) was 7-for-7, and two touchdowns. The rushing total was zero yards; evidently coach of the year Nick Saban felt he needed to get his best playmaker going before establishing the run.
For the game, the Tide rushed for 200 yards and passed for 328, including 5-for-5 on first down in the first quarter. In that instance, that’s exactly what Cristobal needs to do, and quickly; because Herbert has only a season to play and he’s the lone playmaker for a team that needs to defeat quality opponents on the road.
If you’ve happened to notice, Cristobal has not yet succeeded in making the Ducks a tough road team and they have four crucial games on the road against teams they will probably be underdogs to: Auburn, Washington, Stanford and USC. Failure to feature Herbert as Saban has done with Tagovailoa will result in a 6-6 or 7-5 season at best.
The crucial stats for the Michigan State game, a contest that Oregon statistically should not have won:
No. 1 (explosiveness, yards per play) — Michigan State 3.8, Oregon 3.4 (Michigan State. Leader wins 86 percent of the time; not this time);
No. 2 (efficiency, third- and fourth-down conversion — Oregon 3-of-15 for 20 percent, Michigan State 8-of-25 for 32 percent (Michigan State. Leader wins 83 percent of the time; not this time);
No. 3 (drive-finishing, points per trip inside 40) — Oregon 1-of-2 for 50 percent, Michigan State 2-of-6 for 33 percent (Oregon. Leader wins 75 percent of the time);
No. 4 (average starting field position) — Oregon 23.9-yard line, Michigan State 33.7-yard line (Michigan State. Leader wins 72 percent of the time; not this time);
No. 5 (turnover margin) — Oregon 1, Michigan State 4 (Oregon. Leader wins 73 percent of the time).
Former Oregon player Ken Woody coached college football for 18 years, including as an assistant at Oregon, Washington, Washington State and Utah State.