Michigan State fans probably would have preferred a New Year’s Day bowl against an SEC opponent, but a top-20 matchup with a Pac 12 school is a pretty good consolation prize. The Spartans first ever trip to the Holiday Bowl will be their eighth all-time meeting with Washington State, and the first time the two schools have played since 1977.
Unless you were a regular viewer of Pac 12 After Dark, you may not be very familiar with the Cougars of Washington State. Never fear, we have you covered, with stats galore and some other fun tidbits as well.
If there is one thing Mike Leach coached teams tend to do it is score points and throw the ball around. This Washington State team is no different. The Cougars average 31.4 point per game (41st nationally), and 446.4 yards of total offense (32nd nationally). However, they are 68th in yards per play with a 5.59 average.
As was mentioned, most of the offense comes through the air. Wazzu is second nationally with 374.8 passing yards per game. They attempt more passes per game, 55.3, than anyone else in the country. In fact they average 6.4 more passes per game than the next closest team. Despite all the yards, the Cougars are 90th in yards per attempt at 6.8 per pass. That is only 0.4 yards per attempt better than Michigan State.
So as you might expect, Washington State isn’t much of a ground threat. In fact they are second to last in the country in rushing yards per game with a 71.67 per game average. They have the fewest rushing attempts per game with 24.58 rushes. They are also second from the bottom in yards per rush, averaging less than three yards per attempt.
The Cougars offense is led by senior quarterback Luke Falk. If you aren’t familiar with Falk, well you probably should be. He is the all-time Pac 12 leader in pass attempts, completions, completion percentage, yards, and touchdowns. And, maybe most impressively, he doesn’t even crack the conference’s top-25 in all-time interceptions.
As for this season, Falk attempted and completed more passes than any other quarterback in the country. He was seventh in completion percentage, 13th in yards, 10th in touchdowns, and 11th in yards per game. Lots of volume led to his totals but as a result his efficiency numbers weren’t great. He was 84th in yards per attempt and 54 in passer rating. He threw 13 interceptions this year, the most he has thrown in a season.
Unlike his counterpart in the game, Falk is not going to beat you running. That is pretty evident when you see his -147 yard rushing total for the season and a long run of 16 for the year. That number is so bad because Washington State allowed the fourth most sacks of any team in the country. Wazzu quarterbacks were sacked 44 times this year, an average of 3.67 per game. When you throw the ball 534 times, you are going to take some sacks.
As mentioned above running isn’t the Cougars strong suit. Their leading rushing is senior Jamal Morrow with 522 yards and four touchdowns on 86 carries. Sophomore James Williams leads the team in carries with 89, and totaled 381 yards.
But the running backs are quite active in the passing game. Williams caught 61 passes this year for 417 yards and three touchdowns. Morrow hauled in 56 passes for 479 yards and five scores. Combined the two of them had 117 receptions for 896 yards and eight touchdowns. That is 18 more catches than MSU’s top two receivers combined for this year.
This is where things have gotten weird for Washington State in the last week. The Cougars top two wide receivers have both left the program in the last week. Tavares Martin Jr. was dismissed from the team for violating a team rule. Martin claimed he was dismissed after asking for his release, while Mike Leach says the dismissal came first. Either way, Martin led the team in catches, receiving yards, and touchdowns this year.
Similarly, Isiah Johnson-Mack is no longer with the team after being granted his release to transfer. Johnson-Mack says he wants to play closer to home. Johnson-Mack was second on the team in receiving yards, tied for second in touchdowns, and third in receptions.
With the loss of Martin and Johnson-Mack, who were high school teammates, Wazzu loses 130 receptions, 1,386 yards, and 14 touchdowns worth of production.
That leaves the two running backs, Morrow and Williams, as the leading receivers in terms of receptions.
Needing to step up and fill the gap will be junior Kyle Sweet, and freshman Renard Bell. Sweet had 50 catches for 481 yards and two touchdowns, while Bell had 525 yards on just 36 receptions, a 14.58 yards per catch average that led the team. Neither Bell nor Sweet bring much size to the game, as Bell is just 5-8, 162 pounds and Sweet is 6-0, 193 pounds. They are more slot receivers than big outside threats.
The players that will really need to step up are sophomore Dezmon Patmon (6-4, 212 lbs.) and freshman Davontavean Martin (6-3, 182 lbs.). Those two bring more size to the outside receiver spots and both averaged more than 11 yards per catch while hauling in a total of 55 passes for 656 yards and four touchdowns.
We mentioned that the Wazzu offensive line allowed the fourth most sacks in the country this year, but part of that is a product of the system. When you are throwing the ball that much, sacks are an inevitable part of it.
The Cougars did have two offensive lineman receive All-Pac 12 honors this year. Fifth-year senior left guard Cody O’Connell is one of the best in the country. O’Connell was named first-team All-Pac 12 this year, and was a unanimous All-American selection last year as well as an Outland Trophy (best interior lineman) finalist.
Right tackle Cole Madison was named second-team All-Pac 12 this year and is a three year starter for the Cougars.
On to the other side of the ball now to check out the Washington State defense which was 47th in scoring allowing 24.4 points per game. They were 15th in total defense allowing 313.6 yards per game and 28th in yards per play at 5.02.
They were the ninth best passing defense in terms of total yards, allowing 167.4 yards per game through the air and 13th in yards per attempt at 6.1 yards per pass.
Teams had a little more success on the ground as the Cougars were 42nd in total rush defense at 146.17 yards per game and 55th in yards per attempt allowing 4.17 yards per carry. For a comparison, MSU averaged 162.92 yards per game on 3.92 yards per carry.
Washington State was also very good at getting to the quarterback. The Cougars had 36 sacks this year, tied for 13th most in the country. They averaged exactly three sacks per game. Leading the way in that department was defensive tackle Hercules Mata’afa, who was ninth in the nation with 9.5 sacks on the year.
Mata’afa, who hails from Hawaii, was just named the Polynesian College Football Player of the Year. He was also first-team All-Pac 12 and a picked up several first-team All-American honors as well. Mata’afa has lived in opposing backfields this year, as he has 21.5 tackles for loss to go along with his 9.5 sacks.
NOTE: As was pointed out by several people both here and on twitter, I forgot to include that Mata’afa is suspended for the first half of the game after being ejected for targeting in the second half of Wazzu’s loss to Washington in their season finale.
Senior linebacker Frankie Luvu chipped in 6.5 sacks this year while adding 10.5 tackles for loss as the rush specialist linebacker. He also had a fumble return for a touchdown.
The team’s leading tackler was safety Jalen Thompson, who was second-team All-Pac 12. Thompson had a nice year with 69 total tackles. He also led the team with four interceptions, picked up 5.5 tackles for loss, and recovered a fumble.
The Cougars defense was very opportunistic this year, forcing 27 turnovers, the sixth most in the country. However, the Wazzu offense turned the ball over 29 times, the fourth most in the country.
The Cougars special teams are led by one of the best kickers in the Pac-12 in Erik Powell. The senior was named second-team All-Pac 12 this year converting 19 of 23 field goals (82.6%) and 44 of 45 extra points. He had a long of 56 yards against Arizona and also connected twice from 52 yards out.
Oh and did we mention he is also the team’s main punting specialist? He averaged 42.53 yards per punt on 19 punts this year and dropped four punts inside the 20 yard line.
Receiver Kyle Sweet is actually the team leader in terms of punt attempts with 32, and averaged a solid 38.44 yards per kick.
The return game hasn’t been great for Wazzu. They check in at 112th nationally in kick returns, averaging 18.63 yards per return. Receiver Renard Bell and defensive back Robert Taylor have essentially split the duties.
Punt returns aren’t any better as Washington State is 118th in that department averaging 4.14 yards per return, just two spots ahead of MSU. Running back Jamal Morrow has 19 of the 22 punt returns for Wazzu and averages 3.63 yards per return.
On the flip side, the coverage units are a mixed bag. They are 101st in kickoff returns allowing 23.38 yards per return, although they haven’t allowed a kickoff return touchdown. However the punt return unit ranks eighth nationally allowing just 2.89 yards per return on just 18 attempts.
This is a very good football team. They have wins over #25 Boise State, #15 Stanford, and #8 USC. The one thing all those wins have in common is that they were at home, where Wazzu went 7-0 this year. On the road they were 2-3, where they lost to Cal, Arizona, and Washington by a combined score of 136-54, allowing at least 37 points in all three games.
Wazzu has some very good individual players can that be issues on both sides of the ball. Luke Falk is seasoned at quarterback and if given time, will pick any team apart. Mata’afa is a beast in the interior of the defensive line and can disrupt an offense almost all by himself.
Defensively this will be a big test for MSU’s pass defense. They have faced spread offenses this year, but nothing like the pass heavy Washington State attack. Expect the Cougars to try and exploit the Spartans linebackers in coverage with their backs out of the backfield. MSU will need to get pressure on Falk, if they do, he is prone to mistakes.
On offense MSU will need to come up with a game plan to attack the edges, rather than trying to run right at Mata’afa in the middle of the line. Wazzu has solid pass defense numbers, but they were picked apart by some of the better quarterbacks. The two worst losses were when teams got the ball moving on the ground, as they allowed over 300 yards on the ground to Arizona and Washington.
This will be a very interesting matchup, which I could see turning into a high scoring game, or being a tight low scoring affair. Either way I expect it to be very competitive, as long as MSU’s offense doesn’t come out flat. Should be fun as MSU plays part in Pac 12 After Dark during bowl season.