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The Only Questions: Q&A with Washington State

The Spartans travel to San Diego to face the Cougars in the Holiday Bowl

NCAA Football: Stanford at Washington State James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

Hello Spartan fans! We’re back for the bowl season. Michigan State has been matched up against the Washington State Cougars.

Both teams finished in the Top 25 (unlike some) and are one victory away from a ten win season. If Michigan State wins, it would be Mark Dantonio’s sixth in eleven years.

In order to better our fans knowledge of WSU we have brought in Jeff Nusser, one of the best managing editors the CougCenter has to offer.

He was able to provide us with extremely insightful answers that will most certainly help anyone get ready for kickoff.

Let's get to know the Washington State Cougars. Mike Leach is in his sixth season as head coach. So far in 2017 he has led the Cougars to a 9-3 record with wins over USC (their only conference loss) and Stanford. Both of them finished in the Top 25. But let's rewind just a bit, back in 2014 Washington State finished 3-9. Since then they are 26-12. What has been the key to these last three years? What expectations do you have moving forward? And how does the fan base currently feel about their football team?

When Leach took over at WSU, the Cougs were coming off the worst four-year stretch in the history of the school. The talent level was far below what was needed to compete in the Pac-12 on a weekly basis, and even though Leach got us to a bowl game in his second year, it really took a few years to restock the cupboard — not just in terms of ability, but in terms of guys who wanted to truly buy into how Leach wanted to do things. When things started to turn, you could see both the elevated talent level and the toughness Leach preaches start to come through.

The biggest thing, though, has to do with the arrival of Alex Grinch at defensive coordinator. The defense had been patently atrocious in those first three years under previous coordinator Mike Breske, and 2014 proved that Leach wasn’t going to be able to just win with a ridiculous offense. We knew that WSU had to at least get a serviceable defense, and Grinch has brought us that — and then some. The Cougs were 99th in total defense in Breske’s final season; Grinch took them to 84th then 62nd then 14th in his three seasons. It’s no coincidence that the Cougs have won nine, eight and nine games in those seasons, and there’s a reason Ohio State wants to lure him away with what is presumed to be a big raise, even though he won’t be a coordinator any longer.

How do you feel about Mike Leach after six years? Will he continue to be the long term option at the head coaching position?

Very pleased. This is the second-best three-year run in the history of the school, and although next year is likely to be a step back, it doesn’t feel like the program is going to fall off a cliff as it has in the past — Leach just signed 19 guys who represent the best recruiting class we’ve had at least 15 years, and maybe ever.

As for the second part of the question? That’s a lot tougher to answer. Our fans would love to keep him around for the long haul, but it remains to be seen if that’s what Leach wants. Conventional thinking had been that Leach was happy in Pullman, but circumstances changed a little when the president and athletics director who brought him in each departed over the course of the last couple of years — President Elson Floyd died of cancer in June 2015, and Bill Moos left for Nebraska this past October. Both were ardent supporters of Leach, and there have been rumors of friction with the new president, Kirk Schulz, culminating with Leach reportedly agreeing to become the next coach at Tennessee.

In the end, Phillip Fulmer did us a solid and pulled the rug out from under the Tennessee deal, and Leach ended up with a raise to stay in Pullman — that means most of the band will be together for at least another year, with the notable exception of Grinch. That’s great news, as we transition to a new set of core players. Whether Leach sticks for longer than that? I’m guessing it largely depends on whether anyone else is willing to pay him a bunch of money to coach their team, as it’s become clear that he really likes money. Only one issue: Even with WSU’s incredible — by WSU standards — success over the past three years, and even with all the vacancies this past month, nobody (except for a desperate AD who was about to get fired) came after him.

Is he content to stay in Pullman for the long haul? Again, we always thought the answer was yes, but recent evidence suggests otherwise. Personally, I’m just hoping he doesn’t get upset and leave behind a smoldering pile of ashes like he did at Tech when he finally does move on.

NCAA Football: Michigan State at Rutgers Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

Luke Falk vs. Brian Lewerke. What are your thoughts on both quarterbacks and who will be more effective on the football field come Thursday?

I’m not going to lie: I know nothing about Lewerke beyond what his stats say, and his stats tell me that he and Falk actually are remarkably similar. With Falk running the Air Raid, the counting stats obviously are vastly different, but when you look at yards per pass, touchdown to interception ratio, and the consistency of their performance ... they look a lot more alike than they do different.

That probably surprises you, given the praise that’s heaped on Falk in the context of his career accomplishments — he owns every major conference and school passing record. But the truth is that he hasn’t actually been very good this year; he was benched twice this season for ineffective play, for goodness sake. He’s inexplicably regressed this season, and if it weren’t for the defense, there’s a pretty good chance this is a six- or seven-win team.

I’m not optimistic he’ll suddenly break back out of his shell against Michigan State. The Spartans have a heck of a defense — the kind with which he has struggled mightily over the past two seasons. Frankly, I’m terrified we’ll see a repeat of last season’s Holiday Bowl, when Minnesota got physical with our receivers and Falk stood paralyzed in the backfield, indecisive — and inaccurate when he finally did throw the ball. It’s something we’ve seen too many times in the past 14 months or so when WSU goes up against a strong defense, particularly away from home.

What is the match up you will be paying most attention to?

Probably WSU’s outside receivers against MSU’s corners. The Cougs have lost both their starters for this game, as Isaiah Johnson-Mack and Tavares Martin Jr. have each announced their intention to transfer. They combined for 191 targets — nearly 30 percent of WSU’s total. Stepping into their place are a true freshman (Tay Martin) and a sophomore (Dezmon Patmon) who combined for 86 targets. They’re both talented, and both played much better as the year went along, but ... yeah, that’s a big drop off, and it’s also big when you consider that the third stringers will be taking their second-string snaps, as WSU plays a minimum of eight wide receivers in a game.

NCAA Football: Michigan State at Rutgers Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

Washington State gives up 146.2 rushing yards per game while the Spartans average 162.9. Will the Cougars stop MSU from having their way on the ground? If so how?

On the whole, the Cougars have been outstanding against the run this season. That average is skewed quite a bit by two really awful games against Arizona and Washington, in which they gave up more than 300 yards to each. In the other 10 games, WSU didn’t allow more than 164 yards and averaged 111 — that includes limiting Bryce Love and Stanford to just 93 yards.

WSU features a light, penetrating defensive line that tries to disrupt running plays before they can get going. The key to that is first team AP all-American Hercules Mata’afa, who racked up 21.5 tackles for loss and 9.5 sacks from his interior line position, despite standing just 6-foot-2 and 252 pounds. He’s practically unblockable at times, but there’s just one problem: He’ll be sitting out the first half after picking up a targeting penalty in the second half of the Apple Cup. Frankly, there’s a chance the whole thing falls apart if the opponent doesn’t have to worry about Mata’afa.

Give me an X-factor from each side of the ball and explain their importance.

On offense, I’ll actually go with Falk. How he plays largely will determine the effectiveness of the WSU offense, given that the Cougs will drop back to throw about 70 percent of the time. Will he come out and show the world why he was once considered a top NFL Draft prospect?

On defense, I’ll go with inside linebackers Jahad Woods and Isaac Dotson. It’s probably cheating a little bit to take both, but if WSU is going to slow down MSU’s rushing attack, both are going to need to have big games. Additionally, each has a penchant for making big plays; there’s a good chance WSU will need a couple of those in order to swing the game.

NCAA Football: Washington State at Washington Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

What are three things that will help lead Washington State to victory?

I think we’ve covered the first two pretty extensively at this point: 1) WSU needs good Luke Falk to show up, and 2) WSU needs to contain Michigan State’s rushing attack and make the Spartans a passing team.

The third one has to do with WSU’s special teams, which have been prone to blunders throughout Leach’s tenure in Pullman. In what figures to be a close game, a big mistake on special teams could cost the Cougars dearly, so they’ll need to be sound in that phase.

Prediction time: Final score? Who wins? Why?

I’m guessing this will be another low-scoring affair — the Vegas total of 46 even seems optimistic to me. I’ll go 24-17 Michigan State. Falk has too long of a track record of playing poorly against these types of opponents, and the WSU defense probably will struggle a little early without Mata’afa.

NCAA Football: Michigan State at Rutgers Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

On behalf of everyone here at The Only Colors I would like to extend a huge thank you to Jeff and the CougCenter for giving us amazing content and participating in our Q&A.

We appreciate it!

Go Green!