It’s rare when a bowl game absolutely, positively, unquestionably defines a season for a football team, but that’s exactly what happened Monday afternoon for Michigan State in the Redbox Bowl.
The Spartans defense played great once again, but the effort was wasted by an offense — and special teams — that continued to shoot itself in the foot. And it was a shame that Oregon won 7-6 in a game that Michigan State certainly should have won.
This was a snapshot of Michigan State’s entire season.
It was ugly.
It was oftentimes unwatchable.
It was, once again, a game where the Spartans defense walked off the field a loser when they absolutely shouldn’t have felt that way.
Think about this for a minute. Oregon’s high-powered offense could only scratch out 203 yards all day. Michigan State’s defense, No. 1 in the country against the run this season, held the Ducks to just 37 yards rushing on 27 carries, a putrid 1.4 yards per carry.
And Michigan State still lost.
Oregon had more punts (11) than points. For that matter, so did Michigan State, 7 punts to 6 points. That’s how ugly this game was.
This is an Oregon offense, mind you, that was averaging 37 points a game. They have 6-foot-6 junior Justin Herbert at quarterback, who’s considered by many to be the most NFL-ready QB in the land.
And Michigan State gave them nothing.
Well, almost nothing.
Oregon had one possession the entire game that didn’t end in a punt or on downs. That came early in the fourth quarter with Michigan State leading 6-0. In six plays, they went 78 yards for a score, with Herbert completing all four of his passes, the last one to all-world receiver Dillon Mitchell for a 28-yard score. The drive seemed so otherworldly, because we hadn’t seen anything like it all day.
Not even close.
For just about all of this game, Michigan States’ defense was perfect. There was nowhere to run for Oregon, but, amazingly, there was also nowhere to pass. Herbert simply couldn’t find any receivers open all day. Michigan State’s secondary, which has been much maligned all year and has given up boatloads of yards at times, stood strong all day.
Cornerbacks Josiah Scott and Josh Butler were awesome. They knocked passes away all day. They played such tight coverage that Herbert was forced to settle for throwing the ball away on many key plays, especially on third down. Oregon was just 2-for-14 on third down.
This was like one of those baseball pitcher’s duels, where your starter was perfect through 7 innings but gives up a home run to lose 1-0. You can’t blame the pitcher.
And here, you can’t blame Michigan State’s defense.
What may it worse, too, was that even after Oregon went ahead, Michigan State’s offense had two opportunities to score to win the game, but they faltered both times. First they missed a 50-yard field goal attempt with 8:48 left, and then after another Michigan State stop on defense, the Spartans got into field goal range again.
And in what was another season-defining moment, the final effort to win the game got botched badly too.
Michigan State quarterback Brian Lewerke, who’s also the holder on field goal attempts, couldn’t handle the snap cleanly, and by the time he got the ball down, veteran kicker Matt Coghlin’s steps were out of whack, and he didn’t try to kick the ball. Lewerke scrambled away, but didn’t try to throw the ball up for grabs.
Another opportunity wasted.
I feel for guys like middle linebacker Joe Bachie, who had 8 tackles and was all over the field. I feel bad for defensive end Kenny Willekes, who played great but then had to leave with a broken leg. The rest of the defense too, they were awesome all day.
Lewerke was better than he had been since his shoulder injury, and he did make some plays, especially with his legs. LJ Scott came back to play one final game — and he should be applauded for that — and he gained 84 yards on 24 carries.
But this Michigan State offense still stinks, and they let their defensive teammates suffer through that on Monday. They didn’t convert a lot of third-and-short situations and they couldn’t score touchdowns when they needed to, settling for field goals — or bad field goal attempts — instead.
That’s simply not acceptable.
This season ends with a 7-6 record and VERY serious questions about the path of this offense. Clearly, some things need to change, and it starts at the top.
This simply can’t continue. Wasting all these great defensive performances is a shame.