Hercules Mata'afa incurred a targeting penalty against UW that will force him to miss the first half of WSU's Dec. 28 bowl game against Michigan State. But could this also be Mata'afa's last college game?
SAN DIEGO, Calif. – The numbers and accolades speak for themselves.
Washington State defensive tackle Hercules Mata’afa amassed nine sacks and 21.5 tackles-for-loss to become a consensus All-American and finish as a semifinalist for the Bednarik and Walter Camp Awards this season.
But his dominance in WSU’s win over Utah is the best illustrator of how dramatically he can affect a football game.
Mata’afa was relentless against the Utes, set personal single game records with three sacks and five tackles-for-loss and. In the first quarter, he strip-sacked Utah quarterback Tyler Huntley and recovered the fumble, then came out blazing hot on Utah’s next offensive drive and sacked Huntley again on third-and-26 from the Utes’ 9.
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Utah had so much trouble against him in the first half that the mismatch became comic fodder for even the players during the game.
“We were in the third quarter, and I was looking at (Utah’s) offensive linemen and I said, ‘Y’all gotta start blocking Herc. Don’t block me,’” said WSU nose tackle Daniel Ekuale. “They laughed and said ‘We were trying to block Hercules from the beginning of the game. But he’s all in the backfield.”
That’s the sort of attention Mata’afa demands from opposing offenses, and that’s exactly what the 18th-ranked Cougars will have to duplicate without Mata’afa in the first half of the Holiday Bowl game against No. 16 Michigan State on Dec. 28
With Mata’afa sitting out the first half of the bowl game due to a targeting penalty he incurred in the second half of WSU’s defeat to UW in the regular season finale, the Cougars will look to some backups to hold the line until his return.
Junior Nick Begg will likely make his first career start at defensive tackle against the Spartans. Begg, a 6-foot-5, 264-pounder from Rancho Santa Margarita, filled in for Mata’afa after he was ejected from the Apple Cup, and he’s expected to operate in a rotation with Kingston Fernandez at the tackle spot until Mata’afa returns.
“Like anything, it’s next man up,” said WSU defensive line coach Jeff Phelps, “They’ll split the load there and hold down the fort. We’ll get Hercules ready. I’m sure it’ll be different for him in terms of prep and getting locked in when he’s in the locker room for the first half. … Hopefully we can keep the scoring down in the first half and go from there.”
Mata’afa is known for his intensity on the field, and Phelps says he’s cautioned his star pass rusher to try to relax.
“The big thing we’re focused on with him is, ‘Don’t try to make up for the first half,’” Phelps said. “When you get in, just go in and start playing. You don’t have to do anything extraordinary to try and catch back up.”
There’s a chance that the second half of the Michigan State game might be Mata’afa’s final half of college football.
The junior from Lahaina, Hawaii said before the Apple Cup that he had not decided whether he will return for his senior season or leave early for the NFL.
“We’ve still got work ahead of us, and that would be selfish for me to think of that for now,” Mata’afa said in late November.
But after the Holiday Bowl, Mata’afa is expected to at least explore his options by asking the NFL’s College Advisory Committee that evaluates the draft stock of underclassmen where he might be drafted if he comes out early.
Phelps said he has not yet addressed the NFL issue with Mata’afa, but that he’ll support his player in whatever decision he makes.
“Obviously we’d love to have him,” Phelps said. “But if he’s got an opportunity to go, he’s done a tremendous job here. We’ll see. I’m not 100 percent sure what will happen, but we’ll support him either way.”
Phelps has helped some talented players navigate this decision before. He molded Northern Illinois defensive end Larry English into the Chargers’ first round draft pick in 2009, and also coached Minnesota defensive tackle Ra’Shede Hageman, who was a second round selection by the Atlanta Falcons in 2014.
From that standpoint, Phelps believes Mata’afa should take whatever advice the NFL’s draft evaluation committee gives him.
“If it stays to stay, maybe you should stay” Phelps said. “But if it says you can be a first or second round draft pick, you probably need to go. And that’s not just Herc, that’s (for) anybody.”
Mata’afa has produced consistently over three seasons. With 46 tackles for loss, he’s second only to DeWayne Patterson’s 52.5 for the WSU career record. Mata’afa also ranks fifth in WSU history in sacks (21.5), and he’s sixth nationally in tackles-for-loss this season, and 10th in sacks.
However, at 6-foot-2, 252-pounds, Mata’afa is undersized for an NFL defensive lineman. His body frame better fits the profile of a rush linebacker, but he’s never played that position. That might make it difficult for NFL teams to evaluate him.
“He’s kind of that tweener,” said Phelps. “Obviously, he works at keeping his weight on, and he’ll need to continue to do that at the next level. But he’s a great athlete and a tremendous player.”
If Mata’afa does return for his senior season, Phelps believes he could help make him even more unstoppable as a pass rusher.
“We would just like him to continue to develop and dominate the way he’s been doing and take his game to the next level,” Phelps said. “It would be great for him to be a two-time All-American, and I know it’s a great honor as far as (getting Pac-12) defensive player of the year. And that’s out there for him to get next year.
“And he’s a team guy. He has team goals – to help the team get an Apple Cup win or a Pac-12 championship. There’s still a couple of plays he left out there. And he can continue to get a little bigger and stronger and keep his speed. That’s what you want.”
A big decision is looming. But regardless whether he stays or goes, Mata’afa has left his mark on Cougar football.
“The kid is always confident,” Ekuale said. “He might be the smallest (defensive line) player in the Pac-12, but he has that mindset that he can be anything he wants to be if he puts his mind to it. I can’t explain how unique the guy is. He’s special”