Spartans gunning for 10th win in San Diego

After routing Rutgers in their regular season finale, nearly a month later, No. 16 Michigan State is set for a Thursday showdown with Mike Leach’s No. 18 Washington State Cougars in the San Diego County Credit Union Holiday Bowl.

This marks the Spartans’ first time playing in the Holiday Bowl, and their eighth meeting with Washington State, with their last meeting in 1977. The Cougars are playing in their second consecutive Holiday Bowl, in which they fell to Minnesota a year ago.

Michigan State holds a 5-1 record in bowl games played in California, with their last win coming in 2014 with a win over Stanford in the Rose Bowl. This game marks the first time the Spartans will play in San Diego, and many of the players and coaches are looking forward to the unique opportunity.

It’ll be something that I’ll remember for the rest of my life,” sophomore linebacker Joe Bachie said. “We’re going out there to win a game, too.”

The Cougars present an offense unlike anything MSU has seen this season. This isn’t your traditional Big Ten team that looks to jam the ball down team’s throat with physical running, but instead they like to air it out — a lot.

“Playing no-huddle offenses, in the passing game they’re going to spread you horizontally and vertically,” head coach Mark Dantonio said. “We’re going to have to play well in space on defense.”

Penn State posed the most similar offense, in terms of a passing game, that MSU has seen all season. However, Trace McSorley and PSU test defenses more vertically, whereas the Cougars’ attack hits defenses in a multitude of ways.

“Yeah, you know, against zone defenses, man defenses, they run the same stuff, but on different areas of the field they will find their way through,” Bachie said. “It’s a lot different than an Iowa game or a Michigan game, so I’m excited for the challenge.”

Washington State directs most of their offense through the arm of their senior gunslinger Luke Falk. Ranked thirteenth in the country with 3,593 passing yards, Falk has thrown 30 touchdowns, but also has been picked off 13 times. Leach’s offense, averaging 374.8 passing yards per game, leads the Pac-12 and is second nationally.

“I think everybody takes something from somebody, so we’ve seen components of it,” Dantonio said of the Cougars’ offense. “[We’ve] seen the mesh route. I think they’re the pioneers in that area, maybe the people that are the ones that do it the best certainly.”

Falk will be without his two top receiving targets in Tavares Martin Jr. and Isaiah Johnson-Mack. Martin, a second team AP All-Pac-12 selection, was dismissed from the program on Dec. 10 for a second violation of team rules. With the two combining for 1,386 yards and 14 touchdowns, the Cougars will need more production from guys like James Williams, Renard Bell and Kyle Sweet.

“There’s 120 people out there and over almost 30 years, am I surprised people make screwy decisions? No,” Leach said. “You don’t always know where it’s going to land, but it happens all the time. We’re far more concerned about the people here than the ones that aren’t.”

The Cougars will be without their star defensive lineman, Hercules Mata’afa, who has to sit the first half out due to a targeting penalty he got called for in their season finale. The 6-foot-2, 252 pound junior leads the conference in sacks (9.5) and tackles for loss (21.5). Mata’afa is a guy who can line up inside on the defensive line or with his speed and quickness, can line up as an effective pass rusher coming off the edge.

A Mike Leach-coached team usually isn’t one known for a stellar defense, but the Cougars have one of the more overlooked units in the country. Giving up 314 yards per game, Wazzu ranks 15th nationally and second in the Pac-12 in total defense. Sophomore safety Jalen Thompson leads the conference with three fumble recoveries and is tied for third with four interceptions. Senior linebacker Frankie Luvu anchors the defense, with 10.5 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks on the year.

While Dantonio is looking to guide his team to their tenth win this season, a win on Thursday would give Dantonio his 100th win in his 11-year tenure at Michigan State. Dantonio would be just the eighth active FBS coach to own 100 wins at his current school. The Spartans also will have something to prove, having felt disrespected after losing out on an Outback Bowl berth to a Michigan team they beat back in October.

MSU leads the overall series between the two teams at 5-2 and will look to keep their winning ways against the Cougars going. Kickoff is set for 9:05 p.m. EST with Gus Johnson and Joel Klatt having the call on FS1.