In a game that featured some of the best offensive talent in the Pac-12, Oregon (9-4) came away with 7-6 win over Michigan State (7-6) thanks to its defense, which was tested until the last play of the day.
With Michigan State marching down the field with under two minutes left, linebacker Justin Hollins sacked Michigan State quarterback Brian Lewerke to set up a fourth down field goal attempt on Oregon’s 32 yard line. The kick was not to be, however, with the snap being botched and Lewerke running out of bounds looking to make a play.
But the Spartans still had three timeouts, and they forced Oregon to punt with 1:12 to go. On 4th-and-12, Thomas Graham Jr. broke up a pass intended for Cody White, which sealed the victory for the Ducks.
The win is Oregon’s first postseason victory since 2015. The two teams kicked a combined 18 punts, with Oregon's 11 setting a Redbox Bowl record. However, despite, having over 100 yards less offense, the Ducks came up with clutch plays on defense, forcing Michigan State into third-and-long scenarios multiple times.
One of the biggest plays on defense came up big with 8:32 left to play, stopping the Spartans on 3rd-and-7 and forcing a miss on a 50-yard field goal and maintain a 7-6 lead.
“It was beautiful," linebacker Troy Dye said. "They ran the ball a lot and we got a lot of opportunities to make plays."
Multiple Oregon players got into the record books. Dillon Mitchell (6 catches for 70 yards) set a Oregon single-season record for receiving yards, (1,184) and he was named the offensive MVP of the game for scoring the game’s only touchdown. At the start of the fourth quarter, Mitchell’s 28-yard touchdown reception capped a 77-yard drive that put Oregon up 7-6.
Justin Herbert (19-33, 166 yards) also put his name in the record books, becoming the fifth Oregon player to surpass 3,000 passing yards in a season. CJ Verdell became the third freshman in Oregon history to rack up 1,000 rushing yards and 300 receiving yards.
Oregon’s offense struggled for most of the game in the air and on the ground. Much of the momentum came from the defense. Justin Hollins had 2.5 tackles for a loss and 1.5 sacks, and La'Mar Winston Jr. finished with a team-high 10 tackles.
“We kept battling," head coach Mario Cristobal said. "The defense played off the charts, and continued to get the ball back to the offense. They were on the field probably 40-plus plays in the first half.”
The Spartans were the first team to find an offensive rhythm, and scored on a 34-yard field goal to open the second half. At the end of the third quarter, Michigan State scored again with another 34-yard field goal from Matt Coghlin.
Michigan State lived up to its reputation as one of the best defenses in the nation, as Oregon posted just 203 yards. Oregon’s defense, while it did give up 331 yards, effectively stopped the Spartans in the red zone.
Cristobal was appreciative of the season his team had and the way his players responded to challenges each week.
“You could go another 20-30 years coaching and not be around guys of this type of competitive character.”
Follow August Howell on Twitter @howell_august