But for either the Spartans or the Ducks, New Year’s Eve will be a little more festive as one of the two will be celebrating a victory on the final day of 2018.
Even in a tough Big Ten East field, Michigan State (7-5) had expectations of competing for a division title and conference crown. But an early home loss to Northwestern set the tone for what would end up being a tough slog through the Big Ten. The Spartans finished 5-4, which placed them fourth behind Ohio State, Michigan, and Penn State.
Oregon (8-4) fared one game better in the regular season but were set up for even more success entering the second half of its schedule. A 30-27 home victory over then-No. 7 Washington on Oct. 13 had the Ducks sitting at 5-1 and ranked 12th. But losses in three of their next four games, including a bad 44-15 beatdown at Arizona put an end to their Pac-12 championship aspirations as Oregon also finished fourth in its division with a 5-4 record.
Michigan State has won five of its last six bowl games, including last year’s 42-17 thumping of Washington State in the Holiday Bowl. Oregon is looking to snap its three-game losing streak in bowl games. This will be the first appearance for either team in the Redbox Bowl, which got its start in 2002 as the San Francisco Bowl and also has been named the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl and the Foster Farms Bowl, among others.
The Spartans and Ducks have split their previous six meetings, the two most recent coming via a home-and-home series in 2014-15 where both teams won on their home field.
Redbox Bowl: Michigan State (7-5) vs. Oregon (8-4)
Kickoff: Monday, Dec. 31 at 3 p.m. ET
Where: Levi’s Stadium (Santa Clara, Calif.)
Spread: Oregon -2
Three Things to Watch
1. Justin Herbert’s dynamic ability
Ranked on many draft boards as the No. 1 draft-eligible quarterback in the country, Herbert surprised many when he announced on Wednesday through the school that he would be returning for his senior season.
The focus can now shift to how Herbert fares against one of the nation's toughest defenses. To this point, Herbert has been impressive, putting up 2,985 passing yards, with 28 touchdowns, just eight interceptions, and a 59.6 percent completion rate. NFL scouts love his size (6-6, 233), but he also has enough mobility and athleticism to make things happen with his legs. He dealt with a bruised shoulder late in the season but apparently, he’s ready to go and will lead the Ducks’ balanced attack against a Michigan State defense that’s No. 1 in the country against the run and 14th in both total and scoring defense.
2. Sparty’s sputtering offense
While Michigan State’s defense has done its part the same can’t be said for the offense. The Spartans rank near the bottom of the entire FBS in offensive production, averaging just 19.8 points (tied for 121st) and 343 yards (116th) per game. It hasn’t helped that senior running back LJ Scott has missed games or been limited in others by an ankle injury. That’s one of the reasons for a largely ineffective running game that has produced just 122.0 rushing yards per game (115th).
The injury bug also got junior quarterback Brian Lewerke, which forced redshirt freshman Rocky Lombardi into action. Not surprisingly, Lombardi also struggled, adding to Michigan State’s offensive woes. Over the past six games, the Spartans have managed just 13.3 points and 291.5 yards per game while going 3-3.
Scott and Lewerke are expected to be fully healthy or close to it for the Redbox Bowl, which will provide a boost against an Oregon defense that gave up a little more than 390 yards per game in the regular season. Even at full strength, Michigan State’s offense doesn’t match the Ducks’ in terms of tempo or firepower, but Sparty needs to find a way to generate some points and if anything maintain some drives or else the burden will fall on the defense’s shoulders once again.
3. Tale of two types of teams
The traditional tale of the tape here suggests quickness against a power puncher. And that’s no exception in 2018 with Oregon being billed as the quicker team and Michigan State being the more plodding of the two Redbox Bowl contestants. True to form, Spartans head coach Mark Dantonio’s squads are built in the mold of a Big Ten combatant that prides itself on being physical. So here comes Sparty with a patient, grind-it-out attack on offense and one of the nation’s stingiest defenses. Offensively, they should be able to move the ball on the Ducks’ defense and need to take advantage of any size advantage they can exploit.
Oregon head coach Mario Cristobal has beefed up his offensive and defense lines compared to his predecessors, but that’s still an approach and mindset that’s more familiar to Michigan State. The Ducks still possess plenty of speed and athleticism on offense that they will try and use, along with tempo to wear down the Spartans’ defense. The closest two comparisons that come to mind are Arizona State and Ohio State, a pair of teams that Michigan State lost to by a combined score of 42-19.
In reality, there’s nothing that Michigan State can bring to the field that should scare Oregon.
Even with a staunch defense, Justin Herbert and the Ducks’ offense should be able to cut through the Spartans without too much trouble.
After all, they bring to the Bay Area an offense that can score almost at will, much like their predecessors before them. And in Herbert, they have another NFL QB in the making, although he’s more of a pocket passer than Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota.
Michigan State, on the other hand, has shown few sparks offensively, leading many to wonder how this team even managed to become bowl eligible a season after going 10-3.
Whether Sparty can hang with the Ducks will be determined by their pride come New Year’s Eve. But that’s not generally an issue for Mark Dantonio’s teams. And if they can use their physicality to slow down their foes, the Ducks might well fold as has been the case at times throughout the season.
Still, don’t bet on Herbert allowing Oregon to wilt under any pressure on what becomes the biggest stage for the QB to have his NFL stock measured before making a probable commitment to Sunday football.