With a chance for Washington State to record its first 10-win season since 2003, things fell apart in San Diego on Thursday night.
SAN DIEGO — Umm … at least the weather was nice?
Unfortunately for the Cougs, that’s the only warm memory they’re taking from the Holiday Bowl. The room-temperature air in America’s Finest City was the only thing that made this game tolerable.
You thought last year’s loss to Minnesota was bad? That looked like a 60-minute highlight reel compared to the effort this time around.
Washington State appeared in its second straight Holiday Bowl Thursday, but after falling to Michigan State, 42-17, it’s hard to say they played in it.
Perhaps that was to be somewhat expected considering the 21st-ranked Cougs were without quarterback Luke Falk, the Pac-12’s all-time passing leader. A left-wrist injury sidelined the senior, thus giving sophomore Tyler Hilinski his first career start behind center.
Hilinkski looked good in the first quarter when he led a drive that resulted in a 45-yard field goal to put WSU up, 3-0. Then, the 18th-ranked Spartans decided to score 35 unanswered points.
That was probably the most disconcerting thing about that massacre Thursday. The difference between this year’s Cougs vs. those of teams past has been their ability to D up.
Washington State finished second in the Pac-12 in total defense this season, which is the best in the Mike Leach era. Against Michigan State, however, they looked like a team that finished 13th.
“We never could get them off the field,” said Leach, adding that it was “disturbing” given how Michigan State didn’t do anything unexpected. “I didn’t think we played well consistently on defense.”
Wouldn’t it have been nice to see a little more fight? The Holiday Bowl isn’t exactly iconic, but it isn’t without prestige.
This was a chance for the Cougs to record their first 10-win season since 2003. It was an opportunity for the program to confirm its rebuild with a victory over a top-20 team.
Instead, WSU tainted an otherwise uplifting year by getting destroyed in its final two games. An extracurricular defeat like that might not be soul-crushing, but it does raise questions about how consistent a Leach-coached team can be.
Last year, remember, the Cougs had a chance to go to their first Pac-12 title game, only for Washington to crush them by 28 points in the Apple Cup. One month later, they fell to Minnesota in the Holiday Bowl.
This year, the Cougs (9-4) were the only team that beat USC and Stanford — the schools that eventually met in the Pac-12 title game — but they also lost by at least 21 points to Washington, Michigan State, Arizona and (inexplicably) Cal. And though Leach did win six bowl games while at Texas Tech, his recent resume makes you wonder how productive he is when he has time to prepare.
Offensively, the Spartans (10-3) did whatever they wanted Thursday. They had 213 yards passing, 227 yards rushing and managed to score 35 points in a 20-minute span. Missing All-American defensive tackle Hercules Mata’afa for the first half certainly didn’t help the Cougs’ cause. But his return didn’t remedy the defensive struggles, as Michigan State posted 21 points in the second half.
Do you think it’s been an issue having more than a week to prepare?, a reporter asked.
“Next question,” responded Leach.
To Wazzu’s credit, it didn’t quit when victory seemed all but impossible. That would have been easy to do when down 32 in a game that is played primarily for pride. Hilinski flung two second-half touchdown passes and racked up 272 yards passing, but the Cougs never put a scare into Michigan State, which never led by less than 18 in the second half.
It’s hard to win when you rush for only 24 yards, which is what Washington State did Thursday. It’s tough to win when you fail to force a punt for the first 59 minutes of the game, which the Cougs also did Thursday.
The attendance was officially 47,092, but that number looked like it got sliced in half midway through the third quarter.
This isn’t to say the Holiday Bowl invalidated the Cougs’ season. They have improved steadily under Leach, and have now won at least eight games in three straight years.
They also have a talented freshman class coming in, which includes one of the top 15 quarterbacks in the country.
But man, when Wazzu loses, it loses big. No drama, no suspense — and, really, no consistency.
It was 40 degrees warmer in San Diego Thursday than it was in Pullman — but you get the feeling the Cougs couldn’t wait to leave.