Scouting Report and Prediction: #16 Michigan State 9-3 vs. #18 Washington State 9-3
A look at this week’s opponent…
The #16 Michigan State Spartans (9-3) find themselves on the brink of another double-digit winning season and Mark Dantonio’s 100th win as the head coach at MSU when they take on #18 Washington State (9-3) tonight. That game will kick off at 9:07 PM on FS1.
This year’s edition of the Spartans are looking to become just the eighth team in school history to record double-digit wins in a single season. The Spartans have recorded at least 10 wins five times under Dantonio (11 in 2010, 11 in 2011, school-record 13 in 2013, 11 in 2014, 12 in 2015) and they additionally won 10 games in 1965 and 1999.
Mark Dantonio said of that historic tenth win should MSU win, “I think every time you have an opportunity to play a football game you've got to be ready and you've got to be fresh and your mindset has to be correct, so we have to make sure that is in place. The opportunity to get ten, whether it is us or Washington State puts us in a double digit-type win category, both football teams, and not too many football teams in the country can do that on a yearly basis. That's our goal. That's our goal as we came out here was to play our best football and move it forward.”
While these teams have played before, it is a long time back in the rearview mirror. This Holiday Bowl marks the eighth meeting between Michigan State and Washington State. MSU leads the all-time series, 5-2, with the last meeting taking place in 1977.
The Cougars come in with a very key weapon in Luke Falk, the Pac-12's all-time leading passer. The Spartans are ninth in the nation in total defense (297.8 yards per game) and 31st in passing yards per game allowed (196.5 yards per game).
Eccentric but highly respected offensive genius, Mike Leach’s offense runs out of the shotgun with four wide receivers. They are unique in that while they are a passing attack (nicknamed Air Raid) they do not do just one thing in the air. They are very opportunistic. When healthy Falk can make ANY throw and has a certain NFL career ahead.
When MSU has the ball…
There is one big area that I do not think is getting talked about enough. While MSU has fielded (rightfully so) many questions about the WSU offensive air raid attack, very few have been asking the Cougars how they plan on handling the Spartan brute force strength. MSU is a team that prides itself on toughness and while the Cougars are small and fast and run away from you, Michigan State wants to run you over.
So I asked Leach about the dynamic of toughness the Spartans bring to the game that his team isn’t used to seeing much of. Leach told me, “They're a little different. They remind me of Utah and Stanford in some ways. They're not exactly like that, but they have some power run philosophy somewhat like Stanford and Utah.”
Michigan State QB Brian Lewerke is a creator. He likes to make things happen and he will get that chance tonight. He told me of his creative ability, “I am. I like making plays out of nothing and just trying to scheme the defense and try to get their eyes away from where the ball is. That’s a big part of our offense and I think that’s good for us.”
I talked with Spartan WR Felton Davis III (FD3) about Lewerke’s creativity and the opportunities it provides for the Spartans. “Oh yeah, it turns into what we call ‘razzle dazzle’. Once he (Brian Lewerke) runs out of the pocket it’s razzle-dazzle and you’ve got to find a way to get open. With them being an aggressive team it’s like, ‘okay I can make a play.’ When B (Lewerke) breaks out of the pocket if they collapse too far inside he’ll get out and he’ll find you.”
Here is a very critical stat. Michigan State ranks first in the Big Ten and second in the FBS in time of possession (35:12). Now one thing you need to remember is that when you essentially take the air out of the ball to limit possessions, it means you as a team must be more successful putting the ball in the end zone when you have it.
While I expect MSU to handily take care of the possession clock, I do not expect a low scoring affair. Starting with the Northwestern game, the Spartans have put their foot on the gas and tried to be more aggressive scoring.
Consider this nugget of information. Under Dantonio, MSU stands 81-17 (.827) when outrushing its opponent, including a 65-10 record (.867) since 2010. Be careful what you read there. It doesn’t mean that MSU has to rush for more yards than they throw for; it simply means outrushing their opponent. I am certain MSU will do that.
This Spartan offense has been run masterfully this year by OC Dave Warner. In my opinion and I have shared this with him, I think he was the best offensive coordinator in the Big Ten and the nation. Warner has used every part of this team and it shows. Consider this, fifteen different Spartans have caught at least one pass this season for the Spartans, including seven with at least double-figure receptions or more.
Senior center and Captain Brian Allen described the Cougars defense. “Their defense isn’t as big but I’d say more athletic, faster. It’s something we’re not used to and it will be a challenge and it will definitely take a couple series to get used to. But we’re excited to play them and they’re a pretty good team, a ranked team kind of like us. They beat USC, beat Stanford, both teams in their conference championship, so it’s not just a middle of the road Pac-12 team.”
The WSU defense is undervalued because of the up-tempo offense that can put them unfairly behind the proverbial eight ball with little rest or poor field position. They are fast and they attack. But they also over pursue at times and that is where Lewerke can make a massive difference in his creativity.
MSU will rush for more yards and win the battle of possession time, but they must be opportunistic. MSU will make some mistakes, this is a good defense, but they must pound WSU. Even when throwing they need to make this a physical ballgame and keep pounding a WSU team that I think will slow down in the fourth quarter when facing a tough street fight.
When MSU is on defense…
Cougar star Luke Falk was 357-for-534 this season for 3,593 yards and 30 touchdowns with 13 interceptions. Washington State has scored at least 30 points in eight games this season and ranks #41 in the nation in scoring offense at 31.4 points per game.
Pressure is the name of the game. In all three Cougar losses, Falk who is similar to Tom Brady (in style) in that he likes to stay in the pocket was moved. He faced pressure and had to be mobile and move.
Falk is a great QB, but when pressured he makes mistakes. No one has written what I am about to say, but I believe MSU will run more 3-4 (Viper) than they have all season.
I believe Harlon Barnett, Mike Tressel, Mark Snyder, Ron Burton, and Dantonio himself have dug deep in Santa’s sack of goodies and come up with some new looks that the Cougars have not seen from Michigan State. MSU has not been great getting pressure this year, but with the creativity of the staff, I think you will see more pressure in this game than prior.
While I am not certain of how many sacks the Spartans will garner, I am certain of the pressure being ratcheted up. MSU is coming into this game with the mentality of a big game hunter and Falk is the prey.
Mark Dantonio surmised the WSU offense very well. "They're going to be in empty, they're going to be in open sets, four-wide sets. They don't use a tight end, their running backs are going to catch the ball on check downs and swings and things of that nature and they're going to get the ball out quick at times and throw it downfield at other times."
I asked Leach about pictures that have surfaced with his star QB in a cast. He didn’t want to talk much about Falk’s injury. He simply said, “He's doing great. You can use your imagination all you want about the cast. He has had something on his hand all year and hence we named him the King Slayer. Beyond that you're on your own.”
The Cougars are without their two top pass catchers from the regular season. Tavares Martin Jr. and Isaiah Johnson-Mack are no longer with the program. Add to that the Spartans expect Falk to play with an injured left wrist. While Michigan State will not be dirty, they will get their chances to hit that wrist and we will see how the Cougar star handles more pressure and a wrist that is not 100%.
MLB and team MVP Joe Bachie summed up the unique style of Washington State when he told me, “You come to this team (Washington State) and they don’t even have a tight end, I don’t think, on their roster. But they throw the ball 65 times a game. That’s something you got to prepare for. We’ve been putting in some different stuff, throwing some different looks at them. It’s gonna be a challenge but we’re up for it.”
With their two top wide-outs not playing as referenced above, do not think the Cougars are sitting here anemic of talent. There are six other players that have recorded a minimum of 30 receptions this year. That is concerning because that includes running backs Jamal Morrow and James Williams, who combined have 117 catches for 896 yards and eight touchdowns. The Cougars love to use the wheel route and get their running back active downfield.
I asked senior captain and outside linebacker Chris Frey how he felt the team was preparing for a different look Cougars. He said, “We’ve been studying a lot more. We’re not used to seeing a team throwing the ball 60 times a game so we definitely have to get used to that. It took a practice or two to really understand and figure out their gaps and their wide splits. But these last four practices we’ve gotten a lot better at understanding gap responsibility and getting a feel for their offense and where we fit.”
Safety David Dowell said of this Cougar aerial attack, "They throw the ball, primarily. It's just about when the ball is in the air, being able to come down and make a play on it and just keep playing throughout the game. They're going to make plays, we're going to make plays, but ultimately (the focus is) being able to finish."
Cougars have also given up 44 sacks this season, which ranks 126th in the nation. Chris Frey addressed that fact. He told me, "When he's moving around and has to get out of the pocket is when he makes his mistakes and that's key for us to be able to take advantage of that, make him get out of the pocket and force him to make mistakes. We have a great secondary and great defensive line that's going to force him to get out of the pocket and our DBs can make plays."
With more 3-4 and plenty of pressure, MSU will put itself in the driver’s seat. Falk is incredibly talented, but he is also prone to mistakes under pressure. Will the Spartans follow that roadmap? I suspect it, but we shall see.
Remember the rule of five. If MSU wins that, this game is over. For those who don’t remember it, it has to do with sacks and turnovers. If the Spartans have three sacks and give up two that means they are plus one. If they then get four turnovers and give up only one that means they are plus three. That would give them a plus four for the day. They want to get to a plus-five ratio at least every game.
I asked Dantonio about pressure being the key to this game by his defense on Falk and the Cougars. He agrees with me. “When you talk critical to winning, you're always talking about protecting our quarterback and pressuring third down that's the name of the game in college football and pro football as well as, get him off his dime, his landmark and good things happen with the defense and if he's able to throw with time bad things happen for our defense.”
He continued, “That usually leads to turnovers or sacks, which takes -- that's always a key in every football game, I think, they have an outstanding quarterback. I don't know how many records he has broken in the Pac-12. You go back a lot of years, a lot of great players. I think what they do is cutting edge conceptually, so we are going to have to play well and play up here. They are going to have to play fast, but play with their minds as well.”
Khari Willis has grown not only into a great player for the Spartans but a leader. He says of the Cougars’ offense, “I haven't really seen a ball that (Falk) couldn't throw. He can throw it to the sideline, he can throw down the middle, he checks it down a lot. The running back gets a lot of balls too, that's one thing I noticed."
The Spartans have nearly 23,000 alumni living in the state of California, including nearly 1,500 in San Diego. I am the only one saying this, but I will reiterate it again. I expect Michigan State to have the home field advantage. I know that will baffle many of you, but Spartans have poured into San Diego and I think that is an undervalued intangible that people are not recognizing.
The Cougars have thrown the ball 663 times in 12 games this season averaging more than 55 attempts a game. Conversely, Michigan State has thrown 402 times in 12 games for an averaging 33.5 attempts.
While there is no mistaking that the MSU’s linebackers have struggled against short and intermediate routes this season, that doesn’t mean they haven’t worked on it. They were at their worst against Northwestern, but like one person suggested, this is their final exam to show they have fixed the leak.
Don’t think because MSU doesn’t face this type of offense regularly that they aren’t ready. Dantonio made it very clear that he knows what he is up against. “We played with great concepts across the country. Somebody is going to always take part of that and implement it in their offense. We've got some of the same things they do in our offense, okay. But we're not just totally in that regard. We played against Texas Tech when I was at Ohio State. We played against Texas Tech when we were at Michigan State in '09, so there is a little similarity there, a little bit. I think what they do now, everybody is always changing their offense or defense and critiquing what they do and implementing new concepts. This is 2017, a new game. I can tell you we're going to have to pressure well and make plays on the quarterback and take away deep balls in general.”
Here is another extra point to digest. MSU is 5-1 in bowl games in the state of California. MSU owns the highest winning percentage of any team with at least five appearances in the Rose Bowl (.800 at 4-1) and also won the 2001 Silicon Valley Bowl over Fresno State in San Jose, California. The Holiday Bowl marks MSU’s first-ever game in San Diego.
Dantonio has steadied the ship and returned MSU to stability. How much so? He is the second-winningest coach in school history with 99 victories, trailing only Hall of Famer Duffy Daugherty (109). Mark Dantonio also ranks first in program history in conference winning percentage (.667, 60-30 record, minimum 10 games), second in Big Ten wins (60), home wins (59) and AP Top 25 victories (19), tied for second in AP Top 25 finishes (six), and fifth in overall winning percentage (.688).
Washington State, after the regular season, ranked # 41 in the nation in scoring offense at 31.4 points per game. But the Cougars are anything but balanced on that side of the ball. They rank #128 (out of 129 teams) in the nation in rushing offense at 71.7 yards per game and are #2 in passing offense at 374.8 yards per game.
Since the beginning of the 2010 season, Michigan State is 25-12 (.676) in games decided by one score or less, including all four bowl victories. I am not so sure this one is that close. With an injured Falk, his two top wide-outs gone, and a Spartan team bringing pressure, I am not certain the Cougars have caught the Spartans by the tail and will find themselves in a street fight. I think MSU gets this by double digits.
Make it Michigan State 38 and Washington State 27.
The Spartans matchup with the Cougars can be seen tonight on FS1. That game kicks off just after 9 PM EST.
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