Holiday Bowl looms: 4 elements to consider vs. Washington State
SAN DIEGO - It’s time — finally.
The hype, all the optimism generated by the No. 16 Spartan football team will come full circle Thursday in the Holiday Bowl against No. 18 Washington State.
And while there were surely murmurs from Spartan fans angry of the bowl selection, a top-20 matchup in beautiful San Diego, California, is nothing to scoff at.
"I think it's 1 degree back home today and glad to be out here and we're motivated to play a good football game," head coach Mark Dantonio said at a press conference Wednesday.
The Cougars, once a dominant 6-0 to start the season, have stumbled in the latter half to a 9-3 mark. However, they’re also led by fifth-year senior quarterback Luke Falk in a classic air-raid offense.
There’s quite a bit to unpack, and thus, four elements to watch vs. Wazzu.
On the surface level, the gaffes of 3-9 are well-documented, and the Spartans of new delivered a splendid performance throughout the season, earning the turnaround 9-3 record.
However, there is an underlying factor to missing the postseason for even just a year — a large portion of the team hasn’t seen a bowl game, much less played in some.
"That's been a positive," Dantonio said of the newness of a bowl experience. "I think our players are excited about everything. Everything is a new experience for these guys and you have half of the team leading them because they've been to the Rose Bowl or a Cotton Bowl or two."
Linebacker Joe Bachie is just a true sophomore and he’s never even seen a bowl game, much less played in one as the MIKE linebacker. And while quarterback Brian Lewerke has been to the College Football Playoff in 2015, he was merely a redshirt at the time.
It’s not necessarily that the football will be different — it won’t, football’s still fun — but there are off-field factors to consider.
Having nearly a month to game-plan for an opponent is a lot different than the week-to-week grind of the season. Visiting the zoo and a whole different world on the other side of the country is a nice addition, a significant difference than chilly East Lansing.
Air-raid and Luke Falk
The Washington State offense — utilizing the arm of quarterback Luke Falk — is the No. 2 passing offense in the entire country. The Cougars have amassed 374.8 yards passing through the air this season.
And a lot of that has come from Falk and his receiving core, though the Cougars will be down a pair of pass-catchers in Tavares Martin and Isaiah Johnson-Mack.
The Spartan defense, for its part, has had mixed results against such passing offenses. MSU comes in at No. 32 in the country in yards passing allowed — 196.5 yards given up per game.
How MSU plays against Falk and the Wazzu offense will be a key to watch.
For all the talk Falk and the Cougars have generated on the offensive side of the ball, their defense isn't too shabby either.
Washington State comes in as the No. 14 team in total defense, MSU at No. 9.
To the Spartans' credit, time and again they've relied on the defense to close games down the stretch. Flashes of a pair of wins against Michigan and Iowa come to mind.
Lewerke's offense has certainly seen their ups, but also the downs when a first down is treacherously hard to come by. Flashback to the victory over U-M is appropriate once again.
Fans might expect some offensive mastery, but both defenses come into the matchup after a strong showing all season — and looking for one last hurrah.
While the 9-3 record looks pretty, the Spartans did fall short of their original goal of a Big Ten Championship game. A 48-3 shelling at the hands of Ohio State will do that.
But no worries, Dantonio has instilled a new, real goal for the team: 10 wins.
"The opportunity to get 10, whether it is us or Washington State, puts us in a double-digit type win category," Dantonio said. "And not too many football teams in the country can do that on a yearly basis. That's our goal."
Certainly, Washington State also comes into the game looking for its 10th win of the season. it would be the first time since 2003 the Cougars reach that coveted mark.