Will WSU still have Hercules Mata'afa and Alex Grinch in the fold when spring practice begins anew? And with Luke Falk and his top two receivers gone, who are the Cougars looking to rebuild around on offense?
SAN DIEGO – Has Hercules Mata’afa played his last game in a Washington State uniform?
Washington State coach Mike Leach refused to reveal any clues about whether Mata’afa will return for his senior year or go to the NFL.
“Any conversations I have with him about whether he’s coming back or what he’s doing, I’ll share with him and probably not anybody in here,” Leach said during his post-game news conference.
Mata’afa, a junior, has until Jan. 15 to declare himself eligible for the NFL draft if he chooses to do so. But if he opts to do that, he’ll lose his final year of eligibility.
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Mata’afa entered the game in the second half of WSU’s 42-17 defeat to Michigan State in the Holiday Bowl on Thursday night, and while his presence didn’t entirely change the tenor of the game – it was a beatdown long before Mata’afa got into the game –it did help WSU’s defense find some traction against a Michigan State offense that scored a season-high 42 points.
Mata’afa added one sack to and one tackle-for-loss to set a new single season tackle-for-loss record, with 22.5, and bring his career tackle-for-loss number to 47 – second-most in WSU history.
WSU coach Mike Leach said Thursday that the Cougars missed Mata’afa’s presence in the first half against the Spartans, but, as safety Jalen Thompson noted, “When he came back, they were still getting a lot of plays off on us, so overall, as a defense, we just didn’t do our jobs.
Michigan State kept WSU’s defense guessing with Brian Lewerke’s ability to scramble and improvise when the pocket broke down.
Lewerke had 14 rush attempts for 73 yards to go with his 213 passing yards and three passing touchdowns.
“It was kinda tough guarding him,” Thompson said. “Him rolling out like that bought him time for the receivers to get open. He made our job kinda hard, but we just didn’t do our jobs and didn’t execute.”
Eyes on Grinch now
Mata’afa’s not the only important member of the Cougars’ defense who might not be around next season.
WSU defensive coordinator Alex Grinch has been linked to an assistant coaching job at Ohio State, and he’s expected to leave when new NCAA rules go into effect on Jan. 9 that allow schools to hire a 10th assistant coach.
However, it’s not a done deal quite yet. Per Landof10.com, Ohio State coach Urban Meyer told reporters Thursday that “nothing has been finalized yet” regarding Grinch’s hire, though, “there’s been some conversation.”
“There’s nothing that has been finalized,” Meyer said. “Certainly until after the bowl.”
The Buckeyes will play USC in the Cotton Bowl on Friday.
Grinch is a native of Grove City, Ohio, a town about 10 miles southwest of Columbus. He’s just completed his third season as defensive coordinator at WSU and has completely rebuilt a Cougars’ defense that was ranked 97th nationally in total defense prior to Grinch’s arrival. The Cougars entered the Holiday Bowl ranking 15th nationally in total defense.
WSU safety Jalen Thompson looked visibly uncomfortable Thursday night when asked in the post-game news conference if Grinch had addressed his pending departure with the team.
“Next question,” Thompson said, testily.
When pressed about whether the Grinch-to-Ohio State rumors had affected the defense going into the Holiday Bowl, Thompson said, “Uh, no. We try not to worry about any of that, try to go out there and do our jobs and play.”
Tay Martin looks like the receiver to build around
In his first career start, freshman receiver Tay Martin hauled in seven balls for 51 yards and two touchdowns. But it took a while for Martin and Tyler Hilinski to get on the same page – five of his catches, for 44 yards, came after halftime.
“I felt good at the end,” said Martin. “I was connecting with Tyler and getting real comfortable with teammates.”
With his two touchdowns, Martin has six scores on the year, tying WSU’s single season touchdown record by a freshman.
He’s clearly emerged as a key component around which the Cougars will try to rebuild their passing game this offseason.
“He’s getting a lot more comfortable,” Hilinski said. “He came in a little raw, but is getting more precise on his routes. He goes 110 percent on every route and I can trust him when I throw the ball.”