What to make of WSU's defeat to the Spartans in the Holiday Bowl

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SAN DIEGO — Washington State got blown out the building in its Holiday Bowl loss to Michigan State on Thursday night. It wasn’t pretty, but here are three thoughts from the Cougars’ 42-17 defeat.

1. Another underwhelming finish to a once-promising season

This was supposed to be the year that WSU put it all together. The Cougars returned 17 starters – most in the Pac-12 – and had all the key components back on both offense and defense. Yet, for the second-straight year, WSU lost miserably to UW in the regular season finale, then was entirely non-competitive in its bowl game.

The Cougars’ defense looked lost early on against Michigan State, and the offense didn’t help them either. Four three-and-outs from your first five drives won’t give you much to work with.

WSU is used to the quick-strike spread teams of the Pac-12, and the Spartans’ long, methodical drives seemed to throw off the Cougars, who had the ball for eight minutes in the second and third quarters combined.

So when one team is able to assert its will by playing its style of offense, and the other team can’t get its typically efficient, quick-strike offense going at all, that, ladies and gentlemen, is how you end up trailing your opponent 35-3 by late in the third quarter. It didn’t help either that WSU never managed to establish even a semblance of a run game. The Cougars had 24 rushing yards. Twenty-four.

If the last two seasons have shown us anything, it’s that the Cougars are at a point in their evolution where they’ve figured out how to string wins together. But they have yet to figure out how to finish a season strong.

The 2015 Sun Bowl remains Mike Leach’s only bowl win at WSU.

2. Hercules Mata’afa’s absence in the first half mattered, but perhaps not by as much as you might think

With Mata’afa sitting out the first half due to a targeting penalty from the UW game, WSU defensive line coach Jeff Phelps was forced to play some younger, less experienced guys in his rotation at defensive tackle. Which is why you saw guys like junior Taylor Comfort and sophomore Hunter Mattox get the first meaningful snaps of their careers in place of Mata’afa.

Garrett McBroom started at defensive tackle next to Daniel Ekuale, but Comfort, Mattox and Nick Begg repped in to spell the starters. It appeared as if the Cougars were subbing linemen in and out more than usual and struggling to contain the Spartans’ mobile quarterback, Brian Lewerke.

However, the defensive front wasn’t the only group that struggled. There were several breakdowns in the secondary, and, on numerous occasions, WSU was fooled by the fake option.

The Cougars played some of their better defensive series of the game late in the third quarter, with Mata’afa back and having found his rhythm. Mata’afa definitely helped the Cougars make things a little tougher for Lewerke in the backfield. But, the Spartans scored the same number of touchdowns in the second half as they did in the first – three.

3. The Cougs have some talent coming back next year, but they’ll need some seasoning

Every team deals with injuries in football, it’s part of the game.

But this Cougars’ team was hit by an inordinate number of injuries to some of its best players this year, and the team that walked off the field at SDCCU Stadium at the end of the game looked very different than the team that first took the field at Martin Stadium against Montana State in September.

QB Luke Falk, LBs Peyton Pelluer and Nate DeRider, RBs Jamal Morrow and Gerard Wicks and WR Robert Lewis all finished that final game on the sideline. LB Isaac Dotson and CB Darrien Molton each missed some time during the season due to injury, as did DEs Nnamdi Oguayo and Derek Moore. Starting WRs Isaiah Johnson-Mack and Tavares Martin left the team at the beginning of December.

The only silver lining in this is that many young players whom WSU will have to count on next year got significant playing time this season due to all the attrition.

Linebackers Jahad Woods and Justus Rogers wouldn’t have gotten much playing time this season behind the three senior linebackers if Pelluer, DeRider and Dotson all hadn’t gone down at some point this season.

Same goes for the receiver position, where Tay Martin and Dez Patmon will return for next season a little more experienced thanks to the departure of Johnson-Mack and Martin Jr. The Cougars were so thin at outside receiver against MSU that slot receiver Jamire Calvin took several snaps at the X receiver spot to spell Martin. WSU will need to replenish its receiver depth with the incoming freshman class.

At quarterback, this was not Luke Falk’s finest season, but as we now know, he played hurt for most of the year. Hilinski’s significant minutes in two games, and his bowl game start, should give the Cougars’ coaching staff a solid base from which to evaluate him going into next year.

As Hilinski showed in the bowl game, his mobility brings an added dimension to the Cougars’ offense.