SAN DIEGO — From the moment they walked off the field in San Diego, the Washington State Cougars have tried to distance themselves from the horror film that was last year’s Holiday Bowl game against Minnesota.
For approximately the next 330 days, it was a mostly successful mission. But then, on college football’s selection day, the San Diego bowl announced its 2017 pairing: Washington State versus Michigan State.
Yes, another Big Ten challenge will be awaiting the Cougars Thursday as they gear up for their fourth bowl game in five years. The Spartans bring in a defense prototypical of the Big Ten Conference they play in — and one that bears more than one comparison to the Minnesota team that shielded the Cougars from the end zone until the fourth quarter and held Mike Leach’s vaunted offense to just 303 yards.
The Spartans are big, strong and physical — no glaring weaknesses and no discernible soft spots the Cougars might be able to attack.
“You’ve got kind of contrasting styles,” Leach said. “… I think it’s a good matchup. I think it will be fun to watch.”
If the game is anything at all like Wednesday’s Holiday Bowl eve news conference, it won’t lack entertainment value for the large crowd of fans who’ve flocked to sunny San Diego. Contrasting styles were on display there, too.
On one side was Leach, the eccentric WSU coach who’s always been one of college football’s best talents behind a podium. On the other was MSU’s Mark Dantonio, who’s more on the mundane side and not particularly known for bringing as much color to interactions with the media.
Leach spoke first, covering a wide range of topics, from his starting quarterback’s non-throwing hand — which was covered in a cast while the Cougars were walking into practice Tuesday at Southwestern College — to his experience owning a pet raccoon, recently chronicled in an article from The Players’ Tribune.
Leach stole the show again during Dantonio’s Q&A when he removed the lid from a Starbucks coffee cup and repeatedly blew into his hot beverage. He moved on to another cool-down method, reaching into a glass of ice water and plucking out a few cubes before dropping them into the Starbucks cup.
The WSU coach, by the way, didn’t offer much on senior signal-caller Luke Falk, only revealing that “he has had something on his hand all year,” Leach said, “and hence we named him the King Slayer.”
He added: “Beyond that, you’re on your own.”
Leach’s bit on the pet raccoon, named after the Lord of the Rings’ Bilbo Baggins, also got a round of chuckles from the assembly of beat writers and television reporters gathered in the ballroom of San Diego’s Manchester Grand Hyatt Hotel.
“They’re quite a bit more maintenance free than you would think … They do like shiny objects,” he said. “Yeah, I kinda would like to have a pet raccoon again, but, you know, bouncing around the country it makes it tough. … Then, you know, there’s the time when they, you know, they hit kinda raccoon teenage years and it’s time for them to head off into the sunset. It was a lot of fun.”
Perhaps there’s an analogy to be had there for WSU’s senior class.
In their own respect, 20 Cougar seniors will ride off into the sunset after Thursday’s game, including program-changers like Falk, running back Jamal Morrow, offensive linemen Cole Madison and Cody O’Connell, linebacker Isaac Dotson and kicker Erik Powell.
“We’re all excited to go back (to the Holiday Bowl),” Morrow said. “Redemption. After we laid an egg last year, we have another opportunity to go back and redeem ourselves.”
But this year’s obstacle — a 9-3 Michigan State program that was competing in the College Football Playoff only a few years ago — won’t be any less challenging than the one WSU faced in the same game last year. The Spartans rank ninth nationally in total defense (297.8 yards allowed per game) and they’ve been stronger against the pass (196.5 pass yds. allowed per game) than 11 of WSU’s 12 opponents this season.
Leach was asked specifically about the MSU corners on Wednesday: “Coach, the Michigan State corners are physical and very big. What stands out when you look at them on film, please?”
He responded succinctly: “Yeah, you pretty well covered it.”
On the flip side, Dantonio and the Spartans don’t see an Air Raid offense all that often playing in the Big Ten and the MSU coach says Leach’s schemes vary greatly from the Texas Tech teams he’s encountered in the past.
“This is 2017, a new game,” Dantonio said. “I can tell you we’re going to have to pressure well and make plays on the quarterback and take away deep balls in general.”
Quarterback play figures to be instrumental in deciding Thursday’s result. Falk and Spartans QB Brian Lewerke can be brilliant — together, they’ve been responsible for 55 touchdowns this season — but both have had inconsistent moments at different points throughout the year.
During a regular season that saw him break every major Pac-12 career passing record, Falk has also had a short leash, getting benched twice, in games against Boise State and Arizona. Falk threw one touchdown and three interceptions in WSU’s last outing, a 41-14 loss to Washington, but he’s also played well in a few major wins against the likes of USC and Stanford.
“We had a lot of guys that had to play as freshmen in that class because we were a very thin group, and I think he kind of led the charge on that,” Leach said during Wednesday’s news conference, one of his final chances to publicly praise the fourth-year starter who came to Pullman in 2013 without a scholarship.
Dantonio laid a big compliment on his own signal-caller during the press conference after he was asked to compare Lewerke to some of the other great MSU passers who’ve come through East Lansing.
“There are a lot of similarities between (Brian) Hoyer, (Kirk) Cousins, (Connor) Cook a little bit with him,” the coach said. “But he is his own guy a little bit, too, so the fact that he can create and has run for 540 yards net is a big positive.”