A tumultuous month for Washington State football that began with a blowout in the Apple Cup ended with a blowout in the Holiday Bowl Thursday night in San Diego, a 42-17 pasting from 16th-ranked Michigan State (10-3) that proved the 18th-ranked Cougars can lose without QB Luke Falk as easily as they can lose with him.
The game was over sometime in the past week when Falk’s mysteriously injured left, non-throwing, hand made him highly unlikely to play, even if coach Mike Leach hid the fact as if it were a stolen Rembrandt.
Falk warmed up in uniform, but was declared out just before the game, with sophomore Tyler Hilinski forced into his first start. In the pre-game press conference Wednesday, Leach finally acknowledged what everyone was seeing: Falk was wearing some kind of cast.
“He has had something on his hand all year,” Leach said. “Hence, we gave him the nickname the Kingslayer. Beyond that, you’re on your own.”
Whatever that meant. After the game, Leach finally acknowledged the coaches knew Falk wasn’t going to play.
“I guess we had a sense of it, yeah, which is unfortunate for what he’s done here,” he said. “We have to look out for what’s in his best interests, and the best interests of players.”
Without their leader — WSU’s all-time winningest quarterback who broke Oregon Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota’s Pac-12 record for career total offense — the Cougars were exposed early and often. Hilinski was 39 of 50 for 272 yards but had an interception and a fumble, and had no running game to help him. WSU rushed eight times for 24 yards.
Also missing were two other key offensive players, WRs Tavares Martin Jr. and Isaiah Johnson-Mack. The top-producing receivers with 70 and 60 catches, respectively, asked out of the program earlier in the month. Grumpily, Leach granted their requests, leaving a big void of experienced talent.
The best player on defense, DT Hercules Mata’afa, had to sit out a first-half suspension following a helmet-to-helmet hit on Huskies QB Jake Browning in the Apple Cup, which was a similar rout, 41-14, although Falk played all of that one.
By the time Mata’afa took the field, the Cougars were down 21-3 on the way to a 35-3 deficit that came after touchdowns on five consecutive Spartans possessions. MSU had 440 yards of total offense, led by sophomore QB Brian Lewerke, who lit up the alleged Speed D with explosive plays, completing 13 of 21 for 213 yards and three touchdowns.
The Cougars lost a second straight Holiday Bowl to a Big 10 Conference foe. Last year’s 17-12 defeat at the hands of woebegone Minnesota was another study in offensive futility. Counting the past two years of Apple Cups and bowls, the Air Raid offense has managed 60 points in those four games.
Leach attributed the season-ending fall-offs to the consequences of being part of the Pac-12 Conference.
“I do think we have a very tough conference,” he said. “When you get body-punched through the year, I think that has a cumulative effect.”
After starting 6-0, the Cougars lost four of the season’s final seven, the final pair resoundingly. All defeats were by at least 21 points, which Leach attributed to the risk-taking nature of the offense.
“Don’t gauge the losses by point (margins),” he said. “You have to take chances to win games. We’re not one of those teams that is going to win at the finish line by keeping it as close as we can. Some sort of style points if it’s closer . . . that’s pointless.
“The point is to win the game, so we’re going to take chances that potentially could hurt us. There’s a cost. You lose by more points.”
So Leach is blaming the blowout defeats on the toughness of the conference and the absence of sufficient manpower on the roster. But apparently the handicaps weren’t enough to have him refuse the offer a couple of weeks ago from WSU president Kirk Schulz to extend his contract to 2022, worth up to $20 million.
After the Apple Cup defeat, his fourth in a row, Leach apparently entertained an offer to coach Tennessee, and was rumored for the coaching vacancies at Nebraska and Oregon. All three would appear to be in tough conferences, but perhaps he could have recruited higher caliber players there so he wouldn’t have to take so many risks.
But give Leach credit for getting WSU regularly bowl-eligible, even if he is 1-3 in those bowls with his emaciated roster made worse by a couple of players who wanted out. The roster despair apparently is why the odds flipped — Michigan State went from a 4½-point underdog when the matchup was announced to a 1½-point favorite on game day.
And now defensive coordinator Alex Grinch, given much credit for making his side of the ball credible the past three years, is reported ready to accept an unspecified assistant’s job at Ohio State.
Presumably, Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer has already accepted the excuse of WSU’s defensive helplessness against Michigan State as a consequence of playing in a tough conference. Hey, it worked to get Leach a raise.