5 Things To Know: Redbox Bowl - University of Oregon Athletics
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5 Things To Know: Redbox Bowl
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5 Things To Know: Redbox Bowl

What to watch when the Oregon football team faces Michigan State in the Redbox Bowl on Monday (noon, FOX).

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SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Some 12 months and two weeks have passed since Mario Cristobal made his UO head coaching debut, in the 2017 Las Vegas Bowl.

Out of that chaos has emerged the potential for big things as the Ducks move forward under their first-year head coach. They posted eight wins in a regular season for the first time since 2015, won a Pac-12 road game for the first time since 2016, signed a recruiting class universally ranked in the top-10 nationally for the first time ever, and recently learned that most every draft-eligible junior plans to stick around for 2019, including quarterback Justin Herbert.

As Monday dawns, there's another chance to build momentum, when the Oregon football team faces Michigan State in the Redbox Bowl at Levi's Stadium. The Ducks bring an 8-4 record into the game, after going 5-4 in the Pac-12 this fall, while the Spartans are 7-5.

The game will be televised by FOX, with Joe Davis handling play by play, Brady Quinn as the analyst and Bruce Feldman reporting from the sideline.

Here are five storylines to watch entering the game:

1. There aren't many more memorable moments in Oregon football history than the Ducks' Rose Bowl win over Florida State to reach the College Football Playoff national championship game after the 2014 season. One reason among many that it looms large is, that Rose Bowl remains Oregon's most recent postseason victory.

In the Redbox Bowl, the Ducks can get that monkey off their collective backs. "No added pressure," co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach Keith Heyward said. "It's just about us going out there, playing and executing."

The circumstances of subsequent bowl defeats have been myriad. In the CPF title game, the Ducks were pushed around by Ohio State. In the 2015 Alamo Bowl, injuries opened the door for TCU's comeback. And last year, the chaos of a coaching change during the short turnaround between the Civil War and Vegas Bowl was crippling.

This is a more physical, more focused team with more depth, looking to exorcise those demons. "I think definitely we're more focused," sophomore nose tackle Jordon Scott said. "Coaches keep on reminding us it's not a vacation. It's more of a business trip."

2. The Ducks had a big decision to make philosophically on offense regarding their game plan against the Spartans. On one hand, Michigan State has the nation's No. 1 rush defense, and the Ducks have Herbert fueling their passing attack. On the other hand, the UO receivers have had some inconsistencies, and the run game has been the foundation of Oregon's new physical under Cristobal.

So what gives? What sort of plan did Cristobal and offensive coordinator Marcus Arroyo craft with the rest of the staff to attack the MSU defense?

The answer could impact several statistical watches taking place Monday. Running back CJ Verdell enters the game with 975 rushing yards; can he pound away at the Spartans' No. 1-ranked run defense enough to become the third UO freshman to rush for 1,000 yards in a season? Dillon Mitchell needs 27 receiving yards to break Josh Huff's single-season UO record set in 2013, and Herbert needs just 15 passing yards to reach 3,000.

3. If the Ducks do decide to stick with their bread and butter, the return of left tackle Penei Sewell should provide a boost to Oregon's run game.

Sewell started the season opener as a true freshman and was in the lineup for the Ducks' 5-1 start, capped by the overtime win over Washington. After his leg injury, Oregon lost three of four, all on the road. But Sewell returned for postseason practices and is good to go for the Redbox Bowl.

That should allow Arroyo to go back to the things that worked so well over the first half of the season, before he had to adjust how he called games in the absence of Sewell. "Like anybody else, the chemistry you build with the O line, there's certain things maybe one guy can do that other guys don't," Arroyo said. "… Certain guys can affect your game plan, for sure."

4. Sewell isn't the only Duck who benefited from the extended break between this year's Civil War and the Redbox Bowl. Oregon's defense will get a significant boost in its depth, too.

Senior linebacker Kaulana Apelu is an emotional leader of the defense, and he also looks poised to return to the starting lineup after an extended absence with a leg injury. Jalen Jelks and Austin Faoliu missed early postseason practices due to injuries but look good to go Monday. And the depth will be further bolstered by the presence of newly eligible outside linebacker D.J. Johnson.

"We feel we've got some guys there that can go, and they're going to have to," Cristobal said. "Michigan State knocks you back. Those tight ends are big, physical guys. And the running backs are big guys, too. Tackling those guys one-on-one doesn't happen."

5. For all the health benefits of the long layoff, might the extended break also lead to some rust for the Ducks on either side of the ball?

Several times over the last decade — the Rose Bowl to cap the 2009 season, the BCS Championship game after the 2010 campaign, the CFP title game against Ohio State — it's taken the UO offense several possessions to find its rhythm offensively in a postseason game. And defensively, the UO staff was on alert in December to make sure a month between live tackling in games didn't lead to rust in the Redbox Bowl.

"We did a lot of tackling drills out there, really emphasizing bending, making sure we're clamping, just being in good body position," Heyward said. "Because those are the things that show up when you do have time off from a bowl game. We've been emphasizing the right things."

And for the season finale, one more bonus point:

6. Not only can the Ducks put a cap on the 2018 season, but they can create momentum for the 2019 campaign with a win in the Redbox Bowl.

Among the most interesting comments from bowl week in the Bay Area was by Apelu, the senior linebacker. The Redbox Bowl, he said, was a chance "to put us on the map as a program, and the Pac-12. We're trying to step up our game."

Sure, the Pac-12's uneven bowl record in recent years was an obvious point to raise as the Ducks prepared for their bowl game. But putting the program on the map, just four years removed from playing for the national title? So much has taken place in the short time since, Oregon feels it has to reclaim its legacy on the national level.

With all the talent returning next season, plus the arrival of the heralded recruiting class, that can happen to a significant level in 2019. But that process can begin Monday, when the Ducks meet Michigan State in the Redbox Bowl.
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