Theo Lawson, who covers Washington State for the Spokesman-Review in Spokane, breaks down the Cougars for The Detroit News, answering five questions heading into Thursday’s Holiday Bowl between Michigan State and Washington State. You can follow him on Twitter @TheoLawson_SR.
Question: How is Washington State’s offense affected by the dismissal of receiver Tavares Martin Jr. and the transfer of receiver Isaiah Johnson-Mack?
Answer: From a production standpoint, you’d think it would be a big blow. The Cougars aren’t particularly deep on the outside, though true freshman Tay Martin had a coming-out party so to speak when Martin Jr. was suspended against Colorado and he’s been a bright spot ever since. So, I think WSU will manage fine at the “X” receiver for one game, but they’re not nearly as deep at the “Y” spot Johnson-Mack was playing.
Q. Did Mike Leach’s name being linked to several coaching openings have any effect on the Cougars?
A. I thought it could, but the rumors that seemed to hold any weight died down after about a day. It’s been almost a month since the Tennessee reports surfaced and Leach signed a contract extension a few weeks ago, which I’d guess put any worries to rest for the players. The rumors about Ohio State’s supposed interest in defensive coordinator Alex Grinch seem far more worrisome now.
Q. This is the second straight trip to the Holiday Bowl for the Cougars. Is there any motivation to show better than last season’s loss to Minnesota?
A. The vibe I get from players is that they definitely want to avenge last year’s loss — and it is still pretty fresh — but in a lot of ways this feels like a different bowl game, and they’re trying to treat it as such. They’re staying in a different hotel, practicing at a different junior college, participating in different bowl activities, playing a different opponent, etc. But I’d also imagine the senior class isn’t too keen on departing with consecutive bowl losses.
Q. What makes the “Air Raid” offense so unique and difficult to defend, especially for a Big Ten team that hasn’t seen much of this type of offense?
A. The aspect of it that I think goes unnoticed by some is Luke Falk’s freedom to make checks at the line of scrimmage. One of his strongest assets is his ability to read defenses and he’s his own offensive coordinator in some ways, so generally a few times per series you’ll see him come up to the line of scrimmage and make a call to check into a run play or change the play they have designed.
Q. With so much of the focus on the Washington State offense, how good is the defense and what will be the key to stopping Michigan State?
A. The defense this year is the best it’s been under Mike Leach. They’re plenty aware of Brian Lewerke’s ability to run and have had some trouble with mobile QBs in the past, but played fairly well against them this year — with the exception of Arizona’s Khalil Tate. If WSU can limit the damage in the first half, I think the Cougars would put themselves in a pretty good spot.
COUGARS TO WATCH
■ Luke Falk, QB: There is some concern as the senior was seen this week wearing a small cast on his left hand, but coach Mike Leach brushed it off on Wednesday as not a big deal. Assuming he’s healthy, Falk is the key to the Cougars’ offense, throwing for more than 3,500 yards this season along with 30 touchdowns. He is Washington State’s career leader in passing yards (14,486), touchdown passes (119) and total offense (14,086). His career passing yards rank seventh all-time in FBS play and he’ll need 182 yards to move past Boise State’s Kellen Moore into sixth place. He won this season’s Burlsworth Award, given to the top former walk-on.
■ Jamal Morrow, RB: The senior has 56 catches for 479 yards and five touchdowns this season and holds the Washington State record for receptions by a running back with 198, the third-most for any player in school history. His 4,192 all-purpose yards are third in Washington State history and his 23 touchdowns are also in the top 10. The Cougars don’t run much, but Morrow has 522 yards and four TDs on 86 carries this season.
■ Hercules Mata’afa, DL: He’s not just an interesting name. The junior has been the Cougars’ most productive defensive player, racking up 21.5 tackles for loss, which leads Washington State and ranks sixth in the nation. His 9.5 sacks rank 10th in the nation and the Associated Press named him the Pac-12 defensive player of the year. The Spartans get a bit of a break as Mata’afa has to sit out the first half after getting ejected for targeting in the regular-season finale against Washington.
FACTS AND FIGURES
■ The century mark: A victory would give Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio his 100th win as the Spartans coach. He currently ranks second in all-time wins behind Duffy Daugherty (109) and is coaching in his 10th bowl at Michigan State. He is the only active Big Ten coach to win multiple conference titles, win in the Rose Bowl and coach in the College Football Playoffs.
■ Back bowling: Michigan State is playing in its 27th bowl game and 10th in the last 11 seasons. The 10 bowl games for Mark Dantonio are the most of any coach in program history and the Spartans set a team record by appearing in nine straight bowl games from 2007-15 before missing out last season. The four straight wins (2011 Outback Bowl, 2012 Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, 2014 Rose Bowl, 2015 Cotton Bowl) are a program record, as well.
■ Familiar faces: Washington State is making its third straight bowl appearance and second consecutive trip to the Holiday Bowl. Coach Mike Leach is 6-6 in bowl games, one of those victories coming over Michigan State in the 2009 Alamo Bowl when Leach coached at Texas Tech. The Cougars enter the game with a 2-1 mark against ranked teams this season, beating No. 5 USC and No. 18 Stanford while losing to No. 15 Washington.