SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) — Oregon coach Mario Cristobal got a big win in bowl season even before the Ducks took the field.
Star quarterback Justin Herbert announced he’s returning for his senior year, immediately turning Oregon into a playoff contender. With all 11 starters expected back next season, the Ducks (8-4) will get a big head start on 2019 when they close this season on Monday in the Redbox Bowl against Michigan State (7-5).
“It bodes well for him, for us, for the offense, the team, the future of the program,” Cristobal said. “A lot of things really fall into place with that announcement. Saying that we’re thrilled is the understatement of the year.”
Herbert was projected as a possible top 10 draft pick in 2019 after completing 59.6 percent of his passes for 2,985 yards, 28 touchdowns and eight interceptions this season. He has thrown for 6,904 yards with 62 TDs and 17 interceptions in his career, with Oregon averaging 39.4 points per game in his 27 career starts.
He is part of an offense that features a 1,000-yard receiver in Dillon Mitchell and a pair of talented freshmen running backs in CJ Verdell and Travis Dye. The line got a boost with the decision by guard Shane Lemieux also to return next season.
But the biggest piece is Herbert, who provides a tough challenge to the Spartans.
“He throws every ball pretty good, great velocity, good accuracy, ball placement,” safety Khari Willis said. “He has arm strength, he has all the things you want in a quarterback, he has size and he can move better than he gets credit for.”
Here are some other things to watch:
STRENGTH VS. STRENGTH: The Ducks have a potent running game with Verdell and Dye, who are one of just six Power Five duos with at least 700 yards each. But they will be in for a tough test against a Spartans defense that is No. 1 in the nation against the run. Michigan State has allowed just 81.3 yards per game and only 29 runs of at least 10 yards all season.
“They’re the best rushing defense in the country,” Lemieux said. “A lot of times you don’t want to look at the stats, you want to look at the tape. Really the tape lines up with the statistics. This is the best defensive front I’ve ever played.”
HEALTHY ARM: The time off before the bowl did a lot for Michigan State quarterback Brian Lewerke, who missed three games down the stretch with a shoulder injury. Coach Mark Dantonio said Lewerke’s arm strength is back and he will start the bowl game.
“Time has to heal that sometimes,” Dantonio said. “That’s what happened. He’s back to being confident in that strength, which was a big issue. I think he’s ready to go.”
STAYING IN SCHOOL: The Ducks weren’t the only team that got a boost when a star player decided to return instead of heading to the draft. Spartans defensive lineman Raequan Williams made a similar decision because he wants another season with his teammates at Michigan State and to fulfill a promise he made to his mother to earn his degree. He also has some unfinished business.
“We have a really good team coming back,” he said. “I feel like we underachieved a little bit this year for the talent we have on this team. We have big things in our future.”
SERIES HISTORY: These teams met not so long ago in a home-and-home series that had far bigger implications. In 2014 and ’15, the schools played early season matchups with both ranked in the top 10. Oregon won the first at home and went all the way to championship game. Michigan State won the following year and ended up in the College Football Playoff. Dantonio said that history gives some added meaning to this game.
“Both programs have been in a national spotlight where all eyes are on them,” Dantonio said. “That generates interest throughout the country.”
LAST HURRAH: Michigan State running back LJ Scott played just four games this season because of an ankle injury. He could have come back for a fifth season but decided to play in the bowl before heading into the draft. He ran for 2,591 yards his first three seasons before being limited to 180 on 55 carries this season.
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