Washington State’s high-powered offense meets Michigan State’s staunch defense in a classic matchup of opposing styles.
This year’s edition of the Holiday Bowl is the first between two ranked opponents since 2014, and it should be a doozy. Both Washington State and Michigan State finished 9-3 on the season, both teams have above average defenses, and both head coaches are among the most respected in the nation. The matchup is even more intriguing because of these teams’ opposing styles; Washington State runs a pass-heavy, air-raid offense, whereas Michigan State tries to grind out wins on the ground and with its defense. We’ll see which style of play wins out.
Storylines Heading Into the Game
1. Mike Leach Receives Contract Extension Through 2022 - Washington State head coach Mike Leach reportedly almost became Tennessee’s next head coach before then-Tennessee athletic director John Currie was fired and replaced by Phillip Fulmer. Instead, the Volunteers hired Alabama defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt as their new head coach a couple weeks ago, and Leach signed a contract extension with Washington State on Monday.
The extension doesn’t mean that Leach won’t leave Pullman, WA before 2022 — there is a clause in the contract that pays Leach an additional $750,000 if he remains with the program through 2020. It also doesn’t mean that Leach can’t be let go before 2022 — Washington State is currently searching for a new AD to replace Bill Moos, who recently left for Nebraska, and the new AD may try to find his own head coach. However, it does show a vote of confidence from the current administration in Leach, and a hope that he’ll remain with the program for the foreseeable future. Leach is 38-37 overall in six seasons with the Cougars, and 26-12 during the past three seasons. He is also the first head coach in program history to bring Washington State to three straight bowl games.
2. Michigan State Rebounds from Dismal 2016 with Nine-Win Season - Last year was an absolute disaster for Michigan State. In 2016, head coach Mark Dantonio coached his 10th season in East Lansing, and the Spartans finished an abysmal 3-9. It was the first time ever under Dantanio that the Spartans missed a bowl game, and it was even worse considering that it followed a season during which Michigan State reached the College Football Playoff. This year, the offense has somehow been worse, but the defense has been significantly better, and the units have worked well enough together to pull out nine wins and return to a bowl game. It was good work by Dantonio and the returning players to move past 2016 and rebound tremendously in 2017.
3. Wazzu’s Leading Receiver Kicked Off Team - Washington State’s leading receiver, Tavares Martin Jr., was dismissed from the team last week for violating team rules, and later clarified the dismissal on Twitter. He is the second receiver to be released from the team, as second-leading receiver Isaiah Johnson-Mack was granted a conditional release to transfer last week as well. With both Martin Jr. and Johnson-Mack gone, Washington State will have to rely on some new weapons in the game. Junior Kyle Sweet and redshirt freshman Renard Bell will likely be asked to step up the most against the Spartans. The two combined for 1,006 receiving yards and five touchdowns during the season.
71.7 - Washington State’s rushing yards per game, 129th in the nation. For reference, there are 130 total FBS teams. Obviously, the Cougars do not like to run the ball often. Their 295 rushing attempts rank dead last in the FBS, and they are the only team that did not crack 300 rushing attempts on the season. Leach has always employed an air raid offense, using short passes and quick screens as a running game, and it has been successful more often than not.
Wazzu’s 663 pass attempts lead the nation, and although senior quarterback Luke Falk is having a down year by his standards, he has still thrown for 3,593 yards, 30 touchdowns, and completed 66.9 percent of his passes. Michigan State ranks 31st in passing defense, which is certainly good, but its strength is stopping the run, not the pass. Washington State will need to take advantage of that in this game.
6.52 - Michigan State quarterback Brian Lewerke’s passing yards per attempt, 102nd among qualified passers. Lewerke is not good, and he is a big reason that Michigan State ranks 106th in both offense S&P+ and scoring offense. For comparison, Falk’s yards per attempt is just 6.73, 95th in the nation. However, due to the nature of Washington State’s offense, his yards per attempt is hindered by the fact that he is consistently forced to throw short to make up for the lack of a running game.
Lewerke does not have to do that and yet his yards per attempt is worse. Additionally, Lewerke has completed a dismal 58.8 percent of his passes for just 17 touchdowns against seven interceptions. Falk’s yards per attempt is low because he has to throw often (534 times) and short to create a semblance of a running game. Lewerke’s is low because he is not very good.
17.2 vs. 21.7 - Michigan State’s and Washington State’s defense adjusted scoring average, respectively. The Spartans’ defense is the reason that it wins games. It ranks seventh in defense S&P+, 23rd in scoring defense, and ninth in total defense. The Cougars’ defense isn’t as dominant, but it is still stronger than it gets credit for. They rank 23rd in defense S&P+, 47th in scoring defense, and 15th in total defense. Defensive lineman Hercules Mata’afa has been a revelation with 9.5 sacks and 21.5 tackles for loss, fifth in the nation. Michigan State excels most at stopping the run (fifth), whereas Washington State excels most at stopping the pass (ninth). The Cougars will be able to use that to their advantage to prevent Lewerke from getting anything done, but the Spartans will have to adjust considering Washington State running backs average just 17.8 carries per game.
Luke Falk, QB, Washington State - Senior quarterback Luke Falk is Washington State’s best player. Entering the year, he was coming off two straight seasons of 4,400-plus passing yards, 38 passing touchdowns, and a completion percentage at or near 70.0 percent. This season, however, has been marked by inconsistency.
Against Oregon State and Nevada in September, Falk combined for 874 passing yards, a 76.0 percent completion percentage, and 11 touchdowns against zero interceptions. Then against Cal in October, he imploded, throwing five interceptions against zero touchdowns. He was almost as poor in the Apple Cup against Washington when he threw three interceptions and one touchdown, but that touchdown came in garbage time. How this game goes for Washington State depends largely on which version of Falk shows up in San Diego. Good Falk could lead Wazzu to a rout, but bad Falk could see his collegiate career end with a disappointing loss.
Joe Bachie, LB, Michigan State - Joe Bachie is the MVP of the stalwart Michigan State defense, and I mean that literally. He was awarded the Michigan State MVP award by his teammates last week at the team’s end-of-season dinner. Bachie leads the team in tackles with 94.0, and is second in tackles for loss with 8.5, fourth in sacks with 3.5, second in interceptions with three, and fourth in passes defended with five. He also has two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery for good measure. Only a sophomore, Bachie is clearly the do-it-all leader of this defense, and he will need to have another stellar performance to keep Washington State off the board and the Spartans in the game.
Why Washington State Wins
Washington State will win this game if Falk has a solid game. The Michigan State offense is unlikely to put a significant amount of points on the board, so if Falk can move the ball through the air consistently, the Cougars will be in a great position. Running backs Jamal Morrow and James Williams will not be able to do much on the couple of carries that they receive, but they will need to help out in the receiving game considering Wazzu’s top two receivers have left the program. The pair have already combined for 117 receptions on the year (Williams is actually the team’s second-leading receiver in terms of receptions), and will need to be even more active in this game. If Falk can move the ball, and the defense does what it is supposed to do against a miserable Michigan State offense, the Cougars should walk away victorious.
Why Michigan State Wins
For Michigan State to win this game, it needs to keep it a very low scoring affair. The Spartans have broken 30 points just four times this season, and one of those times required triple overtime to get there. They also scored fewer than 20 points in half of their games, although they did win four of those games. That needs to be the Spartans’ strategy in this game: keep Washington State under 20 points, because Michigan State likely will not score more than that.
The Spartans need to lock down the receivers and not give them room to work in space; they need to wrap up and make tackles on first attempts, particularly on the short passes and screens; and they need to find ways either via blitzes or stunts to harass Falk, make him uncomfortable, and force him into poor decisions and turnovers. It would be nice if the Spartans could find a way to break 20 points, but with a young, shaky quarterback at the helm and a mediocre running game alongside him, that almost certainly will not happen. Michigan State needs to win this one, like it has all year, with suffocating defense.
Michigan State’s defense is really strong, but I can’t in good conscience pick the Spartans to win considering how poor their offense is. Even when adjusted for opponents, it ranks 106th in the nation, with a projected adjusted scoring average of only 24.2 points per game. Hercules Mata’afa and the Washington State defense is definitely good enough to give this offense fits. On the other side of the ball, in his final game, Falk should be able to do enough against that Sparty defense to ensure his team a victory.
Washington State wins, 24-10.
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