MSU prepares for Washington State's aerial assault

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
Joe Bachie

East Lansing — There was a relaxed atmosphere at Michigan State’s football facility on Monday.

The Spartans had just wrapped up their final practice at home in preparation for their Holiday Bowl matchup with Washington State on Dec. 28 and were getting a few days off for the holidays before heading to San Diego on Friday.

Some were eager to get out of the snow — quarterback Brian Lewerke was heading back to Arizona — while others simply accepted their fate. “I’m from Cleveland, so it’s gonna be the same thing,” linebacker Joe Bachie said with a laugh.

What they all felt confident about was the fact they’ve gained plenty of knowledge over the past couple of weeks about their opponent and are looking forward to heading West to get ready to try and win the 10th game of the season.

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“Playing a Pac-12 team is always different vs. a Big Ten or SEC team,” senior center Brian Allen said. “Their defense isn’t as big but I’d say more athletic, faster. It’s something we’re not used to and it will be a challenge and it will definitely take a couple series to get used to.

“But we’re excited to play them and they’re a pretty good team, a ranked team kind of like us. They beat USC, beat Stanford, both teams in their conference championship, so it’s not just a middle of the road Pac-12 team. They’re a team that was ranked in the top 10 for part of the year and we’re excited to play a team like that.”

The fact they’re getting out of the cold and headed to San Diego is just a bonus.

“Cannot wait to get in the Cali weather,” junior running back LJ Scott said. “Get out of this snow, enjoy the moment in Cali and hopefully get a win.”

The Spartans (9-3) enter the game ranked No. 16 in the College Football Playoff rankings and will take on No. 18 Washington State, which happens to have an offense unlike anything Michigan State has seen this season.

The Cougars (9-3) aren’t like a Big Ten team that will line up and run the ball straight at their opponent. They’re gonna throw the ball — a lot.

In coach Mike Leach’s Air Raid offense, Washington State threw the ball 663 times in 12 games this season for an average of more than 55 attempts a game. To put that in perspective, Michigan State threw the ball 402 times in 12 games for an average of 33.5 attempts. That includes three games when Lewerke threw more than 50 times.

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“We play like an Iowa or Michigan and they’re gonna run the ball and be in regular personnel,” Bachie said. “Then you come to this team and they don’t even have a tight end, I don’t think, on their roster. But they throw the ball 65 times a game. That’s something you got to prepare for. We’ve been putting in some different stuff, throwing some different looks at them. It’s gonna be a challenge but we’re up for it.”

Fifth-year senior Luke Falk was 357-for-534 this season for 3,593 yards and 30 touchdowns with 13 interceptions. Five players had 50 or more receptions with three grabbing 60 or more. Junior Tavares Martin Jr., who was dismissed from the team after the regular season, had 70 catches for 831 yards and nine touchdowns to lead the Cougars.

Add in the abnormally wide splits of the offensive linemen and there’s plenty of work for the Spartans defense.

“It’s gotten better every day with our preparation,” senior linebacker Chris Frey said. “We’ve been studying a lot more. We’re not used to seeing a team throwing the ball 60 times a game so we definitely have to get used to that. It took a practice or two to really understand and figure out their gaps and their wide splits. But these last four practices we’ve gotten a lot better at understanding gap responsibility and getting a feel for their offense and where we fit.”

For now, it’s home for an early Christmas.

“Everyone is excited for this few day break,” Allen said, “but we’re looking forward to getting out there and having that week to keep growing and getting better as a team. It’s exciting.”

Farewell run?

Scott is no closer to announcing whether the Holiday Bowl will be his final game with the Spartans.

“Not really,” the junior running back said. “I’m just still taking everything in and going with the flow. And like I said before when that time comes then I’m sure everybody will know the decision.”

Scott would have one year of eligibility remaining but there has been speculation all season he might leave early for the NFL. He finished the regular season with a team-high 788 yards on 183 carries with six touchdowns. Scott ran for 699 yards and 11 touchdowns as a freshman and 994 yards and six touchdowns last season as a sophomore.

Last laments

Michigan State’s senior class went through its final practice on campus Monday.

“A little bittersweet,” Allen said. “But I’ll be back. It will be all right.”

Allen was more focused on the fact he likely won’t be the beneficiary of any new trick play put in for the bowl game.

“I would tell you,” Allen said. “Well, I wouldn’t tell you but I’ll tell you that’s not gonna happen. I’m a little upset about that, too.”

Allen’s older brother, Jack, ran for a touchdown in his final home game against Penn State in 2015.