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Scouting Report: Washington State Cougars

Michigan State and Washington State meet on Dec. 28 in the Holiday Bowl

Washington State v Washington Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

While many believed that the Michigan State Spartans would be headed to Florida for a New Year’s Day game, such as the Outback Bowl, the Spartans were passed up by less deserving teams (cough, Michigan) and are instead California-bound.

The 9-3 Michigan State Spartans will head to San Diego to take on the 9-3 Washington State Cougars on Dec. 28 at 9 p.m. for the San Diego County Credit Union Holiday Bowl.

But hey, San Diego is seriously an amazing city for anybody planning to travel. And Washington State is a formidable foe. So let’s make the most of it. To start, let’s take a look at the opponent.

Washington State is a pretty unfamiliar opponent. The two teams have faced off seven times, with the Spartans winning five, but the programs have not met since 1977.

Scouting Report: Washington State

Offensive Scheme: Air Raid

Washington State wants to throw the football — a lot. The Cougars have thrown the ball 663 times for 4,409 yards, while only running the ball 295 times for 860 yards. Head coach Mike Leach runs an air raid system, and he has an extremely talented quarterback to do so effectively in Luke Falk, who has the most passing touchdowns in Pac-12 Conference history.

The air raid offense is essentially just what it sounds like: heavy shotgun formations, usually with four receivers and single running back ace sets, with a lot of passing plays. Washington State likes to use 10-personnel and rarely, if ever, uses a tight end. You’ll see the Cougars often use two outside receiver and two slot receivers, with the running back and quarterback lined up in the shotgun. You may also see Washington State use trip formations with an isolated receiver to one side. The Cougars will also use five-receiver sets with no running backs and other variations of the air raid offense.

Bottom line: this team throws the football an average of 55 times per game. Even in torrential downpours, the Cougars are letting it rip.

Falk is comfortable in the pocket. Check out this play against Stanford. He scans the field well, sets his feet and places the ball where only his receiver can get it. Making it look easy is what Falk does.

He does make mistakes, as he’s thrown 13 interceptions, but when you throw the ball at that volume you’re bound to throw a few to the other team. His touchdown to interception ratio is still quite impressive at 30:13.

Defense Scheme: 3-4 Multiple, “Speed D”

This is a lot harder to define that the air raid offense. A Mike Leach team is typically known for its offense, but thanks to defensive coordinator Alex Grinch and the team’s “Speed D” moniker, the Cougars made tremendous strides on defense this year. Washington State ranks 23rd in S&P rankings this season, after ranking 64th in 2016.

I am certainly no expert, but from my understanding, Grinch’s defense is based on a three-man front and focuses on speed to keep up with the Pac-12 powerhouses on offense. The unit may be a bit undersized overall, but it relies on its speed and athleticism by rushing linebackers and using hybrid safeties and linebackers.

Grinch wants fast, ball-hawking players on his defense and isn’t quite as worried about size. Grinch uses a lot of pre-snap movement as well, which can really throw an offense off. You’ll notice a lot of stunts or shades, and the Cougars will also move around to disguise blitzes.

Check out how nearly the entire defense shifts to the motion side here, and then the Cougars are able to use their edge rushing speed to sack the quarterback.

What this team does on defense is truly unique. If you want to know more about Washington State’s defense, the Seattle Times does a much better job of explaining it than I can.

All I know is that the defensive unit is really good.


Overall Record: 9-3
Pac-12 Record: 6-3
Home Record: 7-0
Away Record: 2-3
Neutral Site Record: 0-0

Week 1: vs. Montana State, won 31-0
Week 2: vs. Boise State, won 47-44
Week 3: vs. Oregon State, won 52-23
Week 4: vs. Nevada, won, 45-7
Week 5: vs. USC, won 30-27
Week 6: @ Oregon, won 33-10
Week 7: @ California, lost 37-3
Week 8: vs. Colorado, won 28-0
Week 9: @ Arizona, lost 58-37
Week 10: vs. Stanford, won 24-21
Week 11: @ Utah, won 33-25
Week 12: Bye
Week 13: @ Washington, lost 41-14

Recap: The Cougars got off to an impressive 6-0 start with wins over Boise State, USC and Oregon. But then lost two of the next three badly to a subpar California team and Arizona. The Cougars bounced back with good wins against Stanford and Utah, but then were dominated by in-state rival Washington in the Apple Cup to end the season. Washington State was 7-0 at home, but just 2-3 on the road. The Holiday Bowl will be the first neutral-site game for the Cougars.

Team Statistics (Pac-12 Ranking)

Points per game: 31.4 (8th)
Points per game allowed: 24.4 (4th)

Total yards per game: 446.4 (4th)
Total yards allowed per game: 313.6 (2nd)

Passing yards per game: 374.8 (1st)
Passing yards per game allowed: 167.4 (1st)

Rushing yards per game: 71.7 (12th)
Rushing yards per game allowed: 146.2 (4th)

Third down conversion percentage: 42 percent (5th)
Third down conversion percentage allowed: 25 percent (1st)

S&P Rankings (nationally)

Offense: 57th
Defense: 23rd
Total: 31st

Head coach: Mike Leach

Overall career record: 122-80
Record at Washington State: 38-37
Pac-12 record: 26-28
Bowl Record: 6-6
Holiday Bowl Record: 1-1
Awards: Pac-12 Coach of the Year (2015), Big 12 Coach of the Year (2008), Woody Hayes Trophy (2008), George Munger Award (2008), FieldTurf/Howie Long Coach of the Year (2008)

Key Players

QB: Luke Falk-357-534, 67 percent completion rate, 3,593 yards, 30 touchdowns, 13 interceptions, 137 efficiency rating
RB: Jamal Morrow-86 rushes, 522 yards, 6.1 yards per carry, 56 catches, 479 receiving yards, nine total touchdowns
RB: James Williams-89 carries, 381 yards, 4.3 yards per carry, 61 receptions, 417 receiving yards, four total touchdowns
WR: Tavares Martin Jr.- 70 receptions, 831 yards, 12 yards per catch, nine touchdowns
Note: The Washington State offense has five players who have recorded 50 receptions or more, and eight players with at least 30 catches.

Update: Tavares Martin, Jr., WSU’s leading receiver, was released from the team. Isaiah Johnson-Mack, the team’s second-leading receiver, is not expected to play in the Holiday Bowl, either.

S: Jalen Thompson-69 total tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, four interceptions, two pass breakups, three fumble recoveries
LB: Jahad Woods-61 total tackles, 11 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, one interception, one fumble forced
LB: Frankie Luvu-44 total tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks, one interception, two fumble recoveries
DL: Hercules Mata’afa-43 total tackles, 21.5 tackles for loss, 9.5 sacks, two fumbles forced, one fumble recovered
Note: The Washington State defense has seven players with at least two sacks or more.

Washington State is a really good team, folks. What are your thoughts on this opponent? How well do you think Michigan State matches up with Washington State? Discuss in the comments section below.