The Michigan State Spartans flipped their record from 3-9 to 9-3, so it has already been a successful season. They now have a chance to notch their sixth 10-win season in eight years. The obstacle is the 9-3 Washington State Cougars out of the Pac-12 in the San Diego County Credit Union Holiday Bowl.
San Diego County Credit Union Holiday Bowl Preview
This matchup is marketed as a contrast in styles, with the Mike Leach-coached Cougars air raid attack facing the ground-and-pound Spartans. Close observers of Michigan State this season realize that is not the case. This Spartans team will throw the ball, weather permitting. This is one of the most exciting games on this season’s bowl docket.
When the Cougars Have the Ball:
Luke Falk might be the best pure passer the Spartans have faced all season. He has thrown for nearly 3,600 yards and 30 touchdowns this season. He is already the most decorated quarterback in Washington State history, and he spreads the ball to a plethora of quality receivers. However, the Cougars were dealt a blow in the leadup to the game when it was announced that two of Falk’s top targets, Tavares Martin Jr. and Isaiah Johnson-Mack, have left the team.
This leaves the undersized Renard Bell and Kyle Sweet to pick up the slack. The Spartans defensive backfield is long, featuring 6’2” Justin Layne and freshman phenom Josiah Scott, so don’t look for the Cougars to attack vertically. Instead, look for a package of intricate crossing routes, option routes out of the backfield by Jamal Morrow, and four-wide hitch-corner concepts. They’ll try to outscheme the Spartans in the defensive backfield.
The Cougars use their rushing attack sparingly. The Cougars throw on over 75% of their downs, and that will neutralize the effectiveness of the Spartans’ linebacking corps. Look for Joe Bachie, the Spartans’ talented sophomore middle linebacker, to line up with his hand on the ground on occasion. Leach’s offense is designed to take an excellent middle linebacker out of the game by forcing the defense to line up in Nickel, but with weeks to prepare, expect Mark Dantonio to throw in wrinkles to keep Bachie on the field.
Ultimately, when you face a Mike Leach offense, it’s simple. If you can get pressure on the quarterback and take away his effectiveness, they cannot beat you. The Washington Huskies do this every year in the Apple Cup: get in Falk’s face with physicality and hit receivers early and often. However, this is easier said than done.
When the Spartans Have the Ball:
This very well could be LJ Scott’s last game in green and white, and if it is, he needs to be a difference maker. The Spartans will look to establish a running game in the first half particularly. Why the first half? Washington State’s best player, defensive tackle Hercules Mata’afa, will not play in the first half due to a targeting penalty he committed in the second half of the Apple Cup. Nick Begg, a junior, will likely fill in for Mata’afa. He is undersized (265 lbs) and the Spartans will likely look to run it right at him with the physical Scott.
Aside from that, look for the Spartans to attack WSU’s undersized secondary with big targets like Felton Davis III and Cody White. Brian Lewerke will look to throw in favorable situations, off play-action and in 2nd-and-medium. Mata’afa is the unquestioned leader of this defense, so the onus will be on the Spartans to take the lead in the first half. Dantonio will likely choose to receive the ball if he wins the coin toss.
Jahad Woods is a playmaker in the second line of the Cougars defense, and it will often fall on running backs to chip him in pass blocking. Look for the Spartans to pass off of formations with multiple tight ends, leaving one in to help deal with Woods. Washington State is in many ways your typical Mike Leach defense (that is to say, nonexistent) with the exception of playmakers like Mata’afa and Woods. If the Spartans can neutralize them, they should have success all night.
Michigan State’s MO all season has been to jump off to quick starts, and there’s no reason why that trend should not continue in this one, especially with the absence of Mata’afa in the first half. However, the Cougars will not panic if they fall behind. Trailing will not alter their game plan, as they constantly pass anyway.
Michigan State will have to hold on in this game. The difference will be if they choose to sit on the ball and run the clock out, or if they go and actively try to stretch the lead. They’ll likely go for it, in typical Mark Dantonio fashion.
Call it Michigan State 31, Washington State 27.