The No. 18 Michigan State Spartans (9-3) and the No. 21 Washington State Cougars (9-3) will face off Thursday in San Diego County Credit Union Holiday Bowl. Game time is set for 9:00 EST from SDCCU Stadium, in what will be the first matchup between these teams in 40 years. The game can be seen on FS1.
The Cougars became a playoff dark horse as the season started to take shape, but it all came crashing down with a blowout loss to Cal. They ended up getting shellacked twice more by Arizona and Washington before the regular season was over.
With that said, they’ve become consistent winners since coach Mike Leach took over, and have solid units on both sides of the ball. Luke Falk is prone to his share of interceptions, as he had five between the last two games. But he’s led plenty of impressive drives amid his 3,500-yard and 30-touchdown season. His 67% completion rating shows he’s usually more precise than he was in the last two matchups.
He’ll have his hands full against a very capable Spartan defense. They’re 9th in total defense and in the top 25 in scoring defense. They don’t have much in the realm of dynamic pass-rushing (lead sacker has 5.5), but have carried the team to big wins over Penn State, arch-rival Michigan, and Iowa.
Even on a west coast trip, the spread has tilted from Washington State to Michigan State. The Spartans will come in as 1 ½-point favorites, with the over/under set at 46.5.
Both of these teams are 9-3, 7-5 ATS, and have fairly clean injury reports. But that’s where most of the similarities end.
Washington State has the creativity, Michigan State the tenacity. WSU is more known for their offense, the Spartans more for defense. But the deciding factor will be who can pull some magic out of the hat late, and that—more times than not—is Mike Leach.
He probably hasn’t played too many defenses like coach Mark Dantonio’s. Washington was a pretty good one, and they only scored 14 points against them. But Michigan State prides itself considerably more in stuffing the run. They don’t get a ton of pressure to the QB, and are only above-average in the secondary. With time, Luke Falk will do some damage.
The Cougars were 125th in college football in sacks allowed, so it’s quite welcoming to see the Spartans have only the 8th-most sacks out of teams the Cougars have played this year. Able to minimize some of Falk’s mistakes, the Cougars we’ll likely have a little too much offense for their opponents.
Washington State is no slouch on defense either, as they’re 14th in total defense, 12th in sacks, with the 30th-most interceptions. They are also the 5th-best passing defense in terms of efficiency. Those are all pretty impressive figures, creating a fair balance when they’re not playing the likes of Washington.
Despite that loss in the regular season finale, they have plenty of impressive wins under their belt. And the Spartans won their last two against easy competition. Their last true test was a beatdown at the hands of Ohio State.
In the end, it comes down to Leach’s play-calling capabilities and the run-defense bouncing back against a team that doesn’t have a running back over 20 carries with at least 4.5 YPC. Michigan State is middle-of-the-pack or lower in most categories offensively.
In the end, there’ll be too many reliable contributors on Washington State’s offense to cover. That little extra spark in the passing game will put the Cougars over the edge.