Michigan St. vs. Oregon
When: noon Dec. 31
EUGENE — Oregon beat Michigan State on its way to the College Football Playoff following the 2014 regular season.
Mario Cristobal beat the Spartans the following season in the national semifinal.
Michigan St. vs. Oregon
When: noon Dec. 31
Mark Dantonio coached Michigan State in both of those seasons and will face both Oregon and Cristobal again in the Redbox Bowl on Dec. 31 at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California.
“Oregon’s got a national brand, we’ve got a national brand, so I think that matches up and we’ve had some great games recently,” Dantonio said.
In the first nonconference game featuring two top-10 teams that was ever played at Autzen Stadium, Dantonio and the seventh-ranked Spartans took a 27-18 lead over the third-ranked Ducks on Sept. 7, 2014. Then Marcus Mariota flipped a pass to Royce Freeman to begin the rally for a 46-27 victory that propelled the Ducks into the CFP, where they lost to Ohio State in the national title game.
On Sept. 12, 2015, the fifth-ranked Spartans defeated No. 7 Oregon 31-28 in East Lansing, Michigan, when Ducks quarterback Vernon Adams overthrew Byron Marshall for a potential go-ahead touchdown in the final three minutes. Michigan State went 12-1 before losing 38-0 to Alabama in the CFP semifinals, and the Crimson Tide went on to defeat Clemson 45-40 for the national championship.
“I know a lot about Michigan State with some experience of having played against them,” recalled Cristobal, the Oregon head coach who was Alabama’s offensive line coach in 2015.
Cristobal pulled out film of Michigan State in recent days once it appeared the Ducks were headed to either the Holiday or Redbox bowl to face a Big Ten team.
“They are what we all know of Michigan State’s history, a physical and big team with explosive players,” Cristobal said. “They have to be in the top two or three nationally in run defense. What I saw on film was guys who controlled the line of scrimmage and will knock you back. They do a good job disguising pressures. I am relying on some of my memory bank from playing them before, but they are consistent in what they do.”
Michigan State leads the nation by allowing 81.3 rushing yards per game, more than 10 yards better than any other team. Junior defensive end Kenny Willekes was named the Big Ten defensive lineman of the year, while junior linebacker Joe Bachie was also a first-team all-conference selection.
In the Redbox Bowl, Oregon and Michigan State will play for the seventh time, with Dantonio on the sideline to face the Ducks for the third time. Oregon defeated Michigan State at Autzen in 1980, 1999 and 2014 while losing at Michigan State in 1979, 1999 and 2015.
Cristobal will be a head coach for the first time against the Spartans in the Redbox Bowl.
“Great game, great location, great opponent,” Cristobal said. “An opponent with a storied history.”
The two coaches could meet again, as Oregon is scheduled to visit Michigan State in 2029 and then host the Spartans in 2030, a series that was announced in August, nearly eight months after Cristobal was promoted to head coach.
Michigan State faced a Pac-12 opponent in nonconference play when it lost 16-13 at Arizona State on Sept. 8. Cristobal watched that game when preparing to face the Sun Devils on Nov. 17, a 31-29 win by the Ducks.
“What sticks out in my mind is how physical that game was,” Cristobal said of the Arizona State-Michigan State matchup. “Schematically, there are changes from now to then so it is hard to say everything is identical from that early in the season. The score was an indication of what it was. It was a hard-nosed and tough football game. Both defenses played real well. They handled that environment well and ASU came back at the end and got it done.”
Cristobal said he would take a closer look at the Spartans while recruiting before Oregon begins bowl practices Dec. 14.
“Between watching recruits’ film and opponents’ film, breaking them down and starting game planning for them, we will have a pretty good idea by the time we get back together,” he said.
Safety Jevon Holland, running back Cyrus Habibi-Likio and offensive lineman Brady Aiello are among the Ducks who will head home for the bowl game.
“We are going to California where so many of our players and their families reside and so much recruiting takes place for us in California,” Cristobal said. “This is a tremendous opportunity on a big stage.”