Holiday Bowl preview: Michigan State vs. Washington State

Holiday Bowl preview: Michigan State vs. Washington State

After missing the postseason in 2016, Michigan State is back in the bowl business with a trip to Holiday Bowl, the program’s first-ever appearance in the game.

[ MORE: View the full 2017-18 bowl schedule ]

The Holiday Bowl marks the eighth meeting between Michigan State and Washington State of the Pac-12. MSU leads the all-time series, 5-2, with the last meeting being in 1977, with Warren Powers leading Wazzu and Darryl Rogers coaching MSU. It will be the first meeting between the two teams in a bowl game.

This will be the 10th bowl in 11 seasons for Mark Dantonio as MSU’s boss. And a victory would be No. 100 in the Spartan career of Dantonio. The 9-3 Spartans are in position to record their sixth double-digit win season in the last eight years with a victory. The Spartans are 4-5 in bowl games since Dantonio took over in 2007.

Michigan State may be motivated by the fact it was passed over in the bowl selection process by rival Michigan. Most projections had the Spartans in the Citrus Bowl or the Outback Bowl. Although Michigan State beat Michigan this season, has a better resume and is ranked unlike Michigan, the Outback Bowl picked the Wolverines over the Spartans. Because Wisconsin was selected for the Orange Bowl, the Big Ten couldn’t have a team in the Citrus Bowl.

Michigan State has had a stunning reversal of fortunes in 2017 after a 3-9 mark in 2016. A big part of that has been excelling in close games, an area where Wazzu also had done well. The Spartans are 5-1 in games decided by one possession, while Washington State is 4-0 in one-possession games. Both have been on the wrong side of blowouts, however. The Spartans have lost two games by at least 20 points, while all three of Washington State’s losses have come by at least 21 points.

Washington State was in the Holiday Bowl last season, falling to a Minnesota squad that was in tumult amid player suspensions and a threatened boycott of the bowl by the team. Still, the Gophers overcame those distractions and won.

The Cougars are led by eccentric coach Mike Leach, who has one of the most prolific offenses in the nation. The Cougs are in a bowl for the fourth time in five years under Leach. Prior to this run, Wazzu hadn’t been to a bowl since 2003.

While offense is the calling card of Leach’s team, keep an eye on the Cougar defense. It’s strong. Wazzu is very aggressive and makes plays, ranking 15th nationally in total defense in allowing 314 yards per game. The Cougars also have allowed just eight touchdown passes, which is tied for the second-fewest in the nation. Defensive linemen Vita Vea and Hercules Mata’afa are studs up front, while Frankie Luvu is a star linebacker.

***

HOLIDAY BOWL
Who:
 Michigan State (9-3) vs. Washington State (9-3)
When: Dec. 28, 9 p.m. ET
Where: SDCCU Stadium, San Diego, CA

Player on the spot: QB Brian Lewerke. The Michigan State signal-caller has been a revelation this season, proving to be an ideal dual-threat option. He is hitting 58 percent of his attempts for 2,580 yards with 17 touchdowns and seven picks. He also is second on the team in rushing with 486 yards with five TDs. Lewerke has developed a nice chemistry with wideouts Felton Davis, Darrell Stewart and Cody White.

Best individual matchup: Washington State QB Luke Falk vs. MSU safety David Dowell. Falk directs the No. 2 passing attack in the nation, as the Cougars average 374.8 yards through the air. Falk has accumulated 3,593 yards passing with 30 TDs and 13 interceptions. He has thrown (534) and completed (357) more passes than anyone in the nation. Dowell must be on alert in the secondary. He is No. 2 in the Big Ten in picks with five. He will get help from precocious corner Josiah Scott.

Best unit matchup: Michigan State defensive line vs. the Washington State offensive line. The Cougs have some standout blockers in Cole Madison, Andre Dillard and Cody O’Connell, who will try to spring running back Jamal Morrow. They will take on a Spartan front led by Kenny Willekes, Mike Panasiuk and Raequan Williams. If MSU can mute the Washington State rush game, then it can get after star Wazzu quarterback Luke Falk.

Number: 13, as in true freshmen used in 2017 by Michigan State. That’s the most ever in one season under Mark Dantonio.

Tom Dienhart, BTN.com Senior Writer

About Tom Dienhart: BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men's basketball for BTN.com and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, and send him questions to his weekly mailbag.

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