SAN DIEGO — In tomorrow’s 40th Holiday Bowl, No. 16 Michigan State has a chance to reach the 10-win mark for the fifth time under Mark Dantonio. A win would feel like a return to form for a program that dipped in 2016, but has been otherwise excellent in this decade. Their opponents, No. 18 Washington State, may have recently turned into underdogs according to Vegas, but Dantonio’s team must be careful not to overlook a solid Cougar defense during their first trip to California since 2013’s Rose Bowl.
The important numbers to know heading into tomorrow’s match-up:
The Cougars have allowed the fourth-least rushing yards per game in the Pac-12, a number that is just barely in the top third nationally. No one is suggesting WSU has an elite defense, but it does feature playmakers in sophomore safety Jalen Thompson and junior defensive tackle Hercules Mata’afa. The likely-NFL-bound Mata’afa will be suspended for the first half as result of a targeting penalty in their regular season finale against Washington, so a hot start from Michigan State’s running game may be crucial.
“I think what gets lost in the shuffle a little bit is how good Washington State’s defense is,” Dantonio said at Wednesday’s press conference. “15th in total defense, No. 1 on third down in the country in third down defense and they get on you, they play you tight, they provide pressure.”
Washington State’s defense is statistically the best in the nation on third down ahead of two solid defenses at Virginia Tech and Michigan. The advanced stats agree as well, with the Cougars owning the top spot in third-down S&P+, a measure of efficiency adjusted for opponent. Part of that is the speed of their 3-4 defense thanks to the pressure provided by Mata’afa and linebacker Frankie Luvu, but their secondary had 14 interceptions in the regular season and is the eighth-best passing defense in the country according to S&P+.
“When you talk critical to winning, you’re always talking about protecting our quarterback and pressuring third down,” Dantonio said. “That’s the name of the game in college football.”
While the number is propped up by big defensive performances against Michigan and Penn State, Michigan State’s turnover margin is positive compared to the -5 mark it put up last year. Spartan quarterback Brian Lewerke has cleaned up his fumbling habit from the start of the year and has thrown just seven interceptions in 2017, but fumbling from the running backs and receivers has had massive adverse effects in games against Notre Dame, Indiana and Northwestern. On the other side of the ball, big interceptions in the Penn State match-up kept MSU in the game, and if the Spartan secondary can take advantage of a Falk without two of his top targets, Michigan State can win.
Michigan State’s rushing attack may not be putting up the same numbers it did at its peak, but it will need to have a big first half in the absence of Mata’afa. A great deal of attention will be paid to junior LJ Scott and his performance, as his future surrounding the NFL Draft is still unclear. If MSU’s offense isn’t getting the job done without the best player on Washington State’s defense off the field, that’s a major cause for concern. If Michigan State can run the ball at all, the dynamic of the Spartan offense changes completely.
Mark Dantonio currently ranks second in both games played and games won while coaching Michigan State behind Duffy Daugherty, and is just a win away from the century mark. A nice, round number would serve as a personal milestone for a head coach that has given Michigan State its second-winningest decade in school history. Dantonio does own a sub-.500 record in bowl games, currently sitting at 4-5 after their Playoff loss to Alabama in 2015, but this evenly-matched game against the Cougars gives MSU a chance to set expectations high for 2018 and reach the 10-win mark in the process.