By Morris Phillips
SANTA CLARA — Six is by no means a magic number. Just ask Coach Mark Dantonio and Michigan State, they’ll tell you.
But six is Michigan State’s number, they earned it, and with their 2018 football season concluded, they have to live with as well.
It’s not a comfortable union.
The Spartans, blessed with the nation’s top-rated run defense, stymied Oregon and quarterback Justin Herbert for three quarters only to see the Ducks squeeze a fourth quarter touchdown out of an afternoon stuck in neutral, then make it stand up in their 7-6 victory in Monday’s Redbox Bowl at Levi’s Stadium.
The Spartans loss marked the third time in their final four games they got a whale of an effort defensively, only to see their offense sputter to the extent they managed just two field goals all game. In each case, the MSU offense was put in position to make winning plays late only to fail miserably on all three occasions.
“Never got that bust-out play,” Dantonio said. “You’re not going to win many games scoring six points.”
Not only did the Spartans fail to register any big-gainers, they made far too many mistakes, especially in their kicking game which had two, fourth quarter shots at a kicking a potential, game-winning field goal only to flub both.
Other than play lights out defense for three quarters–and hold the Ducks 30 points below their 37 points per game average–the finest moment for Michigan State may have come in the postgame presser in which Dantonio and four of his players maintained a united front and declined to point any fingers pitting their stout defense against the anemic offense.
“We’ve had ups and downs this season, but that’s what you’re gonna have in life. You have to take the lows with the highs,” said MSU linebacker Andrew Dowdell.
Knowing the Redbox Bowl matchup would lean heavily towards both defenses, the Spartans spent the five weeks of preparation revamping their offensive scheme in hopes of cooking up a couple of difference-making touchdowns.
With junior quarterback Brian Lewerke back from injury–and playing his first full game since October 20 against Michigan–the Spartans ran their offense at much faster tempo and frequently utilized bubble screens and short passes designed to go for big yardage if the Ducks failed to tackle one-on-one.
But the Ducks did tackle, and Lewerke’s 18 incompletions on 40 pass attempts didn’t get the Spartans moving consistently enough. In the end, Michigan State punted too often (seven times), failed to convert a pair of fourth down opportunities, and saw a 50-yard field goal attempt with 1:43 remaining in the game turn into the follies when Lewerke mishandled the snap.
“The ball kind of hit my hand on top of the ball. I tried to make something happen. That’s what happens,” Lewerke recounted.
Dantonio admitted afterwards injuries throughout the season on the offensive side of the ball weighed heavily on his club. Besides Lewerke’s absence, the receiving corps was thinned, and without a true number one on the outside, the remaining pass catchers lacked quickness and failed to get separation from opposing secondaries.
All that adversity combined meant too much pressure fell on prolific tailback LJ Scott. On Monday, Scott drew plenty of attention from the Ducks, who limited him to 86 yards on 24 carries.
To Oregon’s credit, they stayed the course. And that wasn’t an easy feat with their standout quarterback and top NFL prospect Justin Herbert bumping his head far too often with the game with the Spartans’ defense.
“We felt like it was going to be that kind of game just watching them on defense,” Oregon coach Mario Cristobal said. “We kept battling and battling. You take a victory whether it be one point, two points or 50 points.”