SAN DIEGO — Washington State’s history in the Holiday Bowl against the Big Ten Conference and the Cougars’ well-documented inability to contain quarterbacks with the ability to run and pass morphed into one big catastrophe Thursday at SDCCU Stadium on a still night in San Diego.
With a different quarterback under center this year — it was Tyler Hilinski starting in place of the ailing Luke Falk — the Cougars still couldn’t get their Air Raid to manufacture anything resembling offense, and Michigan State, just like Minnesota before them, showed just how simple it can be to shut said offense down, stomping WSU 42-17 in the Holiday Bowl.
And add MSU’s Brian Lewerke to a long list of opposing QBs who’ve been able to torment the Cougars with the art of improvisation. Often running when it looked like he might pass, and passing when the opponent thought he might run, Lewerke had reached 286 all-purpose yards when he came out of the game briefly in the third quarter because of an injury. Backup Damion Terry subbed in and punched in a 6-yard touchdown on an option-keeper to make it 35-3.
Lewerke returned for the next drive and a combination of MSU’s QBs carried the Spartans to the finish line — never truly threatened by Mike Leach’s Cougars.
The WSU coach began the season with an all-star cast of players headlined by Falk, the fourth-year starting quarterback who earlier this year accomplished a mission to win more games than every other Cougars signal-caller before him. The Pac-12’s career passing leader leaves with a remarkable legacy, but it’s a legacy that was cut one game short.
Falk didn’t play in what would’ve been his career finale because of a reported hand injury that the Cougars, per program policy, have declined to comment on.
The starter handed the keys over to the backup and Hilinski wasn’t a whole lot better than Falk was in his last game against Washington. The redshirt sophomore, who figures to be Leach’s starter when the Cougars reconvene for spring ball, finished 39-of-50 passing with 272 yards and two touchdowns. But he’d only done a fraction of that when the first half ended and the Cougars were already stuck in a 21-3 hole.
When the Cougars arrived in Lewiston for fall camp in August, their roster was stockpiled with proven talent — a list that included Falk, defensive tackle Hercules Mata’afa, linebacker Peyton Pelluer, wide receivers Tavares Martin Jr., Robert Lewis and Isaiah Johnson-Mack and running back Gerard Wicks.
WSU looked very much like a team without any of the aforementioned players in the second quarter. Martin Jr. was dismissed from the team and Johnson-Mack was granted his release in December, Mata’afa was suspended for the first half due to a targeting penalty in the Apple Cup, and Pelluer, Lewis and Wicks were injured and did not play.