By: Eric He
SAN FRANCISCO – Sitting in front of the assembled media at the Redbox Bowl press conference on Friday, Oregon head coach Mario Cristobal was asked a question about his incoming recruiting class in 2019, which is ranked sixth nationally by 247Sports.
He mentioned his previous employer, Alabama, where he spent four seasons as an assistant coach under Nick Saban.
“That needs to be the expectation,” Cristobal said. “One of those classes is fine, but you need to put two, three, four together to make the team what you want it to be. At the previous place I worked, people often asked, ‘What’s the secret sauce?’ The secret sauce was stacking six No. 1 classes together.”
Then, unprompted, he talked about the challenge of taking on Michigan State’s top-ranked run defense ahead of Monday’s bowl game at Levi’s Stadium.
“This is not a top-5 or top-10 defense,” Cristobal said. “This is the No. 1 run stopping defense in America. They’re one of the top defenses in America, period.”
He continued with a breakdown of the Michigan State defense and what makes it so good — the Spartans allow just 81 yards per game on the ground.
“They did it to everybody they played against, whether it be Ohio State or Penn State,” Cristobal said. “We understand that this is certainly a different type of test that we’re facing.”
Offensive lineman Shane Lemieux said Michigan State’s tape lines up with the statistics.
“A couple of weeks ago, I compared [their defensive front] to [Washington] but they’re a lot better,” Lemieux said.
Cristobal and Lemieux may not have said it explicitly, but by namedropping other programs, their statements underscored the importance of how Oregon performs on Monday not just for itself, but also for the sake of the Pac-12. The conference — reeling from a woeful 1-8 record in bowl games in 2017 — is already off to an 0-2 postseason start in 2018, with Arizona State losing in the Las Vegas Bowl and Cal falling in the Cheez-It Bowl. Washington State takes on Iowa State in the Alamo Bowl later Friday.
Ignore the fact that Oregon and Michigan State enter the Redbox Bowl with identical 5-4 conference records, and the Ducks having one more win than the Spartans — Oregon has more to prove in this game.
Sure, bowl games have become increasingly tossed aside as unimportant, with more and more players sitting out as to not risk injury. And the Redbox Bowl hardly qualifies as a bowl game worth gushing over. But bowl games remain one of the few opportunities for cross-conference matchups, to compare and contrast styles of play, to see how one established program from one part of the country fares against another.
In that context, to say the Pac-12 has hurt its brand nationally in postseason play would be an understatement. Last year, USC, the conference’s marquee program, was embarrassed by Ohio State in the Cotton Bowl. It did not matter that the Trojans had future NFL lottery pick Sam Darnold at quarterback; the Buckeyes seemed on a completely different level.
This year, USC didn’t even make a bowl game. That, in and of itself, is indicative of the state of the Pac-12.
Meanwhile, Michigan State enters Monday’s game unsatisfied with a 7-5 season. Several players volunteered that they had underachieved.
“Some other teams are excited about getting six wins,” head coach Mark Dantonio said. “That’s not really where this program is right now.”
The Spartans finished in the middle of the pack in a conference that includes Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State, arguably the toughest division in college football. Finishing above .500 in conference play in the Big Ten is far more impressive than a similar clip in the Pac-12, which did not even come close to placing a team in the College Football Playoff.
If the Pac-12 is to change its perception and reputation, Oregon might be the program to begin the turnaround. The Ducks will be a team to watch next season with its loaded recruiting class and crop of returning veterans, including quarterback Justin Herbert, who was projected to be the top pick in the 2019 NFL Draft.
“The sky’s the limit for these guys,” said senior safety Ugochukwu Amadi. “I give it 2-3 years, these guys could win the national championship.”
A win over a Big Ten program in the Redbox Bowl would be a strong start toward that end.