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Holiday Bowl Preview: Michigan State Spartans vs Washington State Cougars

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NCAA Football: Pac-12 Media Day
You, with the boring bowl opponent
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The Who

Michigan State, 9-3 (7-2 B1G) vs Washington State, 9-3 (6-3 PAC-12)

All-time series: MSU leads 5-2 (last matchup: 1977, WSU victory)

Line as of press time: WSU -2.5

Over/under: 45.5

The When

Thursday, December 28, 9:00 EST, Fox

The Where

SDCCU Stadium, San Diego

The Why

MSU rebounded from a horrendous-in-all-ways 2016 to finish 2nd in the B1G East and was in the division title hunt until about 30 seconds into the Ohio State game. That loss, plus the non-conference defeat by Notre Dame and the 3OT loss to Northwestern, placed MSU fairly high in the pecking order - BUT the Orange Bowl took wisconsin, meaning the B1G did not get a Citrus Bowl invite this year. Wouldn’t want vitamin C poisoning, or something. That, combined with the Outback Bowl’s laughable decision to pass on both MSU and Northwestern, sent MSU here.

Wazzu, meanwhile, started the season 6-0 and rose as high as #5 in the country before receiving a surprising roundhouse to the chops from Cal. The 3 losses Mike Leach’s team took were all pretty bad, and sent WSU to the back burner nationally. Nonetheless, they also finished 9-3 and, with Washington and USC both off to NY6 bowls, the Cougs find themselves in a good bowl spot for a third-place division finish.

The What

Per Football Outsiders’ S&P+ rankings, this should be a fairly even matchup. MSU finished #27 by that metric; WSU was 31st.

You would guess this matchup would be highlighted by a high-flying WSU offense against the again-robust MSU defense; however, the stats indicated both teams were led by their defenses. MSU’s offense struggled to a #106 S&P+ ranking; WSU’s offense was better but not their typical selves at #57. Meanwhile, MSU did field the #7 S&P+ defense, but WSU was better than you might have expected, finishing a solid 23rd in that measure.

The straw that stirs Wazzu’s quietly strong defensive drink is All-American DL Hercules (!) Fata’ata, he of the 21.5 TFLs and 9.5 sacks. Wazzu doesn’t use a customary defensive scheme, instead deploying what they call a “Speed defense” devised by DC Alex Grinch, who sources confirm is indeed a mean one (and may be on his way to the B1G).

You will typically see 3 down linemen and a couple of hybrid players - a S/LB and a LB/DE capable of doing a lot of different things. It’s a defense, however, that deliberately traded size for speed, which has served them well against the Pac-12’s tempo and pass-oriented offenses but may find itself challenged by MSU’s preferred pro-style sets.

Offensively, Luke Falk is the guy everyone has heard of for Wazzu, and with good reason, as the senior has thrown for several miles’ worth of yardage in his career and is the engine for this version of Mike Leach’s Air Raid. WSU doesn’t run much, but does so efficiently with Jamal Morrow and James Williams. Normally, a team dismissing their top receiver (Tavares Martin Jr.) before the bowl would be a big problem, but if there’s a system built to withstand losing a wideout, this would be it, as the Cougars have 4 other guys with at least 50 catches, including both tailbacks.

Systematically, Wazzu’s continued adherence to the doctrine of mesh, and how MSU deals with it, will be determinative. The Spartans’ LBs really struggled against Northwestern’s constant use of shallow and intermediate crossing routes, and they will see much more of the same there.

To counter it, MSU will need great games from LBs Joe Bachie and Andrew Dowell; Dowell in particular might have the biggest impact on whether MSU stops this passing game or not. Bachie, meanwhile, is your prototypical run-thumping MLB, but will need to be good in coverage against a pair of tailbacks who might as well be slot receivers. MSU could help themselves somewhat if the reinvigorated pass rush gets home, but good luck hitting Falk fast enough.

Offensively, MSU will likely be tempted to go back to its power run game against a smaller defense, despite MSU’s poor results running the ball this season. LJ Scott took the lead there after a slow start to the season, and QB Brian Lewerke can chew up yards with his legs as well. But MSU’s offense worked best this year when it put the ball in Lewerke’s hands and let him use a deep group of receivers, and with essentially the entire passing game other than center Brian Allen returning next year, banking on Lewerke’s current talent and remaining potential should be the play here.

The Call

Forget about weather factors inuring to MSU’s benefit in relentlessly pleasant San Diego. Dantonio and his staff might also have their biggest test of the year, facing both an offense and a defense that break the B1G mold. But it’s worth noting that they’ve generally been up for the task. I’ll lose some money here and take MSU and the over, call it 34-28.