There was absolutely nothing offensively to be happy about for three quarters. Oregon couldn’t move the ball and neither could Michigan State.
While Oregon’s defense was controlling the Spartans, Michigan State’s No. 1 rushing defense and its No. 12 overall defense was absolutely dominating Oregon’s No. 30 offense for the first 10 drives of the game.
Michigan State defensive back Josiah Scott was blanketing Oregon wide receiver Dillon Mitchell, holding him to 26 receiving yards through three quarters. Oregon Quarterback Justin Herbert had just 72 yards in the first half and running back CJ Verdell had 17 rushing yards.
The possibility of Oregon being shut out for the first time since 2007 (16-0 loss to UCLA) was growing every drive.
That all changed on the first possession of the fourth quarter. After five straight positive plays, Herbert threw to the front right corner of the end zone, finding Mitchell for the touchdown. The wide receiver, who broke Oregon’s single season receiving record one play earlier, maneuvered around Scott for the game-tying catch. One play later, Adam Stack hit the most important extra point of his career, giving the Ducks a lead they would not relinquish.
“Things didn’t always go our way this year, but we battled through a lot and I’m proud of how tough this crew is and how they stuck together,” Herbert said. “We ended on top and we won our championship today.”
Oregon (9-4) defeated the Michigan State (7-6) 7-6 in a defensive-focused Redbox Bowl, with Mitchell, the game’s offensive MVP, scoring the lone touchdown.
“The offensive guys just kept battling,” head coach Mario Cristobal said. “It was gonna take something to turn that game around. You’d take a victory whether it be one point, two points or 50 points and these guys found a way to get it done.”
Overall, Mitchell finished with six catches on 13 targets for 70 yards, with Scott having four pass breakups in coverage. Herbert had only 166 passing yards, but that 28-yard touchdown pass was just enough to earn the Ducks their first bowl win since the 2015 Rose Bowl.
One possession later after that touchdown, one of the most perplexing plays in college football history happened. Following a 50-yard missed field goal by Michigan State kicker Matt Coghlin, Oregon found themselves in no man’s land.
Somewhere in between field goal and punt position, the Ducks tried to pull off a trick play on special teams, lining up for a field goal and then motioning into an odd formation.
Holder and punter Blake Maimone took the snap with just two linemen. With only one blocker and two pass rushers, Maimone was immediately tackled for the turnover on downs.
“We felt we had it and at the last second you watch their linebacker point at them and we couldn’t call the timeout on time and the ball was snapped,” Cristobal said. “And then the horror began.”
Remember that horrific fake punt the Colts tried years ago against the Pats?Oregon clearly does not. pic.twitter.com/hFyKM2OP5O— Lee Benson (@LeeBensonNews9) December 31, 2018
Lost in the cards of the win were a couple milestones. Verdell cracked 1,000 rushing yards on the season and one play before the touchdown, Mitchell broke the Oregon season record for receiving yards with a nine yard catch.
“It’s definitely something that was a goal of mine once it was brought to my attention,” Mitchell said. “But I guess I don’t really think about it like that because I enjoyed the win more than anything.”
Before another question could be asked, Oregon linebacker Troy Dye added in an interesting take.
“You put me at tight end, I break his record,” Dye said confidently.
“In other words, he has no chance of breaking his record,” Cristobal said laughing.
“Nobody even laughed at that,” Mitchell responded.
“A couple chuckles in the back,” Dye said as he showed his great personality for one last time in 2018.
Follow Maverick Pallack on Twitter @mavpallack