Michigan State coach reflects on team's visit aboard Naval ship in San Diego. Matt Charboneau
San Diego — When people think of Washington State, they often think “Air Raid.”
That’s how the Cougars’ offense is labeled, a potent attack that doesn’t spend much time running the ball, instead throwing more than 55 times a game. It’s led to an attack that averages better than 31 points and 446 total yards a game.
Needless to say, as Michigan State has prepared to take on Washington State in Thursday’s Holiday Bowl, it has drawn plenty of the Spartans’ attention.
But what might go unnoticed in a flurry of point and passing is the fact Washington State coach Mike Leach, the mastermind behind the offense, has done just as good a job getting his team’s defense to be among the best in the nation.
The Spartans have taken notice.
“Washington State is a very good defensive team,” Michigan State quarterbacks coach Brad Salem said. “Speed, fast in those positions and they're very aggressive with how they play defense and so we've got to be physical at the point of attack and be able to get separation.”
The Cougars enter the game with a defense that ranks 14th in the nation in total defense, including ninth in passing defense. They also happen to have the best third-down percentage defense in the nation, allowing opponents to convert just 24.8 percent of the time.
Michigan State (9-3) was fourth in the Big Ten and 38th in the country in third-down conversions, getting the first down 43.2 percent of the time.
“It’s not a unit that can be taken lightly,” senior center Brian Allen said. “They don’t get as much exposure and stuff as the offense does but it’s a pretty good unit and have a lot of good players on it and you can’t take them lightly.”
The Cougars (9-3) have plenty of athletes on the defensive side of the ball as junior defensive end Hercules Mata’afa led the Pac-12 with 21.5 tackles for loss while collecting 9.5 sacks. Sophomore safety Jalen Thompson had four interceptions and led Washington State with 69 tackles.
Thompson was second-team All-Pac-12 while Mata’afa was first team. The Spartans get a bit of a break as Mata’afa will have to sit the first half after getting called for targeting in the final regular-season game against Washington.
They aren’t very big, however, something the Spartans hope to take advantage of with the Cougars’ variation of a 3-4 defense.
“It's very unique. It'll be a unique challenge,” Michigan State offensive line coach Mark Staten said. “So, it'll be a quick, fast, twitching eyes and I'm sure their motto and what they're thinking is, ‘Hey, we're going to run around those big Midwesterners.’ And our guys’ idea is, ‘Hey, let's go after these, maybe lighter than the normal Big Ten d-lineman.’”
The Cougars understand how they stack up and defensive coordinator Alex Grinch has put plenty of focus on dealing with Michigan State’s size while trying to contain Spartans quarterback Brian Lewerke.
“They’re multiple and his ability to extend plays with his feet and run the ball — some by design and some not – but his ability to extend plays,” Grinch said of what makes Lewerke tough. “Any time you ask a defensive coach, when you’ve defended the first play well and the quarterback extends the play and makes an explosive play out of it, that is an alarming deal. He’s got big targets outside and they’re big up front and that is a big advantage against us.
“That’s a real good opponent we have 48 hours from now and it will take every minute up until then to prepare for it.”
Lewerke, the Phoenix native, will be looking forward to putting pressure on that defense in front of plenty of family and friends. San Diego is roughly a five-hour drive for his family and it’s a place he visited often growing up.
While he’s soaking it all up this week, he’s aware of what he’ll need to do to get Michigan State a 10th victory.
“I think it’s two very opposite end of the spectrum-type of offenses,” Lewerke said. “Obviously, they throw the ball a lot and we’re kind of mixed. If they start putting a lot of points on the board – we have confidence in our defense to not let that happen – but if it does, we’re ready to throw the ball.”
And that’s when Lewerke is at his best. He’s thrown for 400 yards or more twice this season and when he gets on the move, things really start to happen.
“It turns into what we call ‘razzle-dazzle,’” junior receiver Felton Davis said. “Once he runs out of the pocket it’s razzle-dazzle and you’ve got to find a way to get open. With them being an aggressive team it’s like, ‘OK, I can make a play.’ When B breaks out of the pocket if they collapse too far inside he’ll get out and he’ll find you.”
It might not be the matchup most are talking about heading into the game, but it could be the one they’re talking about after.
Michigan State vs. Washington State
Kickoff: 9 p.m. Thursday, SDCCU Stadium, San Diego
Records: Michigan State 9-3, Washington State 9-3
Line: Michigan State by 1