STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL/GAME BREAKDOWN
Key Matchup: Oregon’s rush offense vs. Michigan State’s rush defense
It’s the best against the best when it comes to the marquee matchup between Oregon and Michigan State in the Redbox Bowl. If Oregon is going to pull out the win, it will need to find success against the nation’s top rush defense.
“What stands out is the fact that they’re a physically tough and disciplined defense that can run," Oregon head coach Mario Cristobal said. “They disguise everything really well — as you watch them play against the Ohio State’s of the world, the Michigan’s of the world, and Penn State, they are creating a lot of issues, a lot of negative plays.”
Good news for the Ducks is that they’re coming off their best rushing performance of the year in a 55-15 win over Oregon State to end the regular season.
Oregon racked up 392 yards and six touchdowns on the ground — freshman running back Travis Dye ran for a career-high 199 yards and two scores while fellow freshman CJ Verdell added 187 rushing yards and four scores.
As a unit, Oregon averages 191.3 rushing yards per game (47th in the nation), including 4.57 yards per carry, and 28 touchdowns. Verdell has been the most consistent running back for the team, despite starting the season as the backup, rushing for 975 yards and 10 scores on the year. Dye has been on fire of late, finishing with 721 yards and four scores.
“When you got a group like that up front, led by first, second and third-team all-conference guys, that shows up on tape,” Oregon offensive coordinator Marcus Arroyo said. “When you are game-planning, you have to be right.”
Expect the Ducks to look for success on the edges, using the speed of their running backs combined with the athleticism of the offensive line to pave way for success.
A staple of success Oregon might look to replicate is that of Ohio State, who racked up 120 yards rushing against the Spartans. The Buckeyes used outside zone reads to help stretch the Spartans defense where they were most vulnerable, resulting in the big day.
For the Ducks, the outside zone read is a major staple of their rushing pedigree. With Verdell, Dye and Tony Brooks-James all capable of getting the corner with their speed, if the Ducks can bring break through the initial line of scrimmage it could lead to some huge momentum-changing plays.
But, doing so against the Spartans will not be easy, especially with defensive end Kenny Willekes on the field. According to Pro Football Focus, Willekes graded out as one of the best edge rushers in the Big-10 — finishing the regular season with 20.5 tackles for loss, seventh best in the country.
“He’s an animal,” Oregon guard Shane Lemieux said of Willekes. “He’s the Big Ten D-lineman of the Year, he’s a physical guy, he really likes to get after it.”
The Spartans also possess two physical linebackers in Joe Bachie and Andrew Dowell. They lead the defense with 94 and 90 tackles respectively, proving very capable at defending the run by combining for 16.5 tackles for loss. Both players play downhill and have shown the ability to disengage from blocks to make plays.
“I think they’re a very simplistic defense but they’re also the most sound defense we’ve played,” Lemieux said. “The D-linemen are old guys, they’re really stout, really good on taking double teams.
This battle promises to be a physical one — a battle in the trenches that will ultimately decide who starts ends the 2018 season on a high note or whose left with more questions to answer.