SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Mark Dantonio spent a month answering about Michigan State football’s offensive issues.
“We need to have production,” he said on Monday’s pregame radio show. “There's no question that to win football games, you need to score points."
He’ll have even more questions in the coming days and weeks.
A few new wrinkles helped the Spartans move the ball some, but not enough to prevent going without a touchdown for the third time in their final four games of the season.
Oregon’s Justin Herbert hit Dillon Mitchell for 28 yards and the only touchdown of the game with 11:19 to play. The Spartans went on to miss one 50-yard Matt Coghlin field-goal attempt, then watched holder Brian Lewerke botch the snap on a second and get dragged down with 1:35 to play in a 7-6 defeat in the Redbox Bowl at Levi’s Stadium.
The Spartans had one last chance after forcing a three-and-out, but Lewerke's fourth-down pass fell incomplete off the hands of Cody White with 32 seconds remaining.
MSU finishes the season 7-6, spoiling another tremendous defensive effort — in much the same fashion it did all season.
With cries from fans for overhaul of the offensive staff in the offseason, MSU made structural changes with quarterback Brian Lewerke and running back LJ Scott back in the playing group.
The Spartans employed the pistol formation, with Scott lined up behind Lewerke in the shotgun. They an tempo offense with no huddle.
Brian Lewerke is sacked by Oregon's Brady Breeze during the first half of the Redbox Bowl on Monday. (Photo: Tony Avelar, AP)
Asked Friday if he liked the no-huddle, fast-paced offense, Lewerke said: "I do, yeah. It's fun."
Occasionally, it worked to move the ball. However, when MSU did mount drives, it would continually stall in Oregon territory, with receivers failing to get much separation against the Ducks’ defensive backs, and Lewerke holding onto the ball and scrambling.
And when MSU did begin to move the ball, execution issues again stopped a drive.
Lewerke fumbled a shotgun snap deep in Oregon territory, picked it up and threw an interception. Two drives later, MSU again moved into Ducks territory, but Lewerke got pressured and threw incomplete under duress to White on fourth down to turn it over on downs at Oregon's 23.
The Spartans had two drives early in the third quarter move into scoring territory, but they had to settle for a pair of 34-yard Coghlin field goals and a 6-0 lead.
MSU finished with 331 yards of offense, with Lewerke going 22 of 40 for 172 passing yards and rushing for 63 yards on 16 carries.
Scott, in his final game at MSU, ran 24 times for 84 yards.
The Spartans’ No. 1-rated run defense throttled Oregon’s offense, holding the Ducks to a season-low 37 rushing yards. Overall, they held the Ducks to 203 total yards of offense and forced 11 punts.
And, for the most part, the secondary bottled up Herbert and the passing attack. Herbert, considered by many to be a potential first-round NFL pick in 2020, was 19 of 33 for 166 yards, thanks in large part to the play of cornerbacks Josiah Scott and Josh Butler, starting in place of Justin Layne, who sat out to enter the 2019 NFL draft.
But one play proved the difference, with Herbert underthrowing Mitchell to the front right pylon in front of Josiah Scott. Mitchell readjusted and caught the pass in the end zone for the game's lone touchdown.
Kenny Willekes was carted to the locker room with about 5 minutes left in the third quarter. The junior defensive end’s left leg slid while trying to pressure Herbert.
Willekes, an All-American and the Big Ten’s top defensive lineman, laid on the ground in Oregon’s end zone as MSU’s training staff came to his aid. Trainers looked at Willekes’ left ankle, and he needed assistance to get off the field while not putting any pressure on his leg. Willekes eventually was carted to the Spartans’ locker room.
He has yet to announce whether he will return to MSU for his senior season or enter April's draft.
Willekes, who had two tackles in the game, returned to the Spartans’ sideline during the fourth quarter in street clothes and on crutches, with his left foot in a hard walking boot.