This year’s San Diego County Credit Union Holiday Bowl between the Washington State Cougars and Michigan State Spartans is an underrated battle between two Top 25 programs featuring two very different styles.
Mike Leach's No. 18 Cougars (9-3) exploded to a 6-0 start highlighted by a win over USC – the No. 5 team in the country at the time. But Wazzu struggled down the stretch, losing three of their last six games, giving up a combined 136 points in those losses.
Mark Dantonio's No. 16 Spartans had one of the better bounce-back years in college football. They enter this game 9-3 just a season after slumping to 3-9. All three of Michigan State’s losses were to teams that are currently ranked – Ohio State, Notre Dame and Northwestern.
The winner out in San Diego will put the finishing touches on a 10-win season.
San Diego County Credit Union Holiday Bowl: Washington State vs. Michigan State
Kickoff: Thursday, Dec. 28 at 9 p.m. ET
Where: SDCCU Stadium (San Diego)
TV Channel: FS1
Spread: Washington State -1.5
Three Things to Watch
1. The battle of contrasting quarterbacks
When it comes to playing styles, you'd be hard-pressed to find two quarterbacks facing off during this bowl season on opposite ends of the spectrum than Washington State's Luke Falk and Michigan State's Brian Lewerke (above, right). Falk is the perfect man to operate Mike Leach's "Air Raid" offense, using his big arm and accuracy to constantly force the ball downfield and put pressure on opposing secondaries. He's been nothing short of one of the most prolific passers in the history of college football, throwing for 14,481 yards and 119 touchdowns during his career.
He'll be trading blows with Lewerke, one of the most underrated dual-threat quarterbacks in the country. Lewerke is a competent passer, but his legs make him a nightmare to defend – especially with an already impressive group of running backs in the backfield with him. He is Michigan State's second-leading rusher this season, gaining 486 yards at 4.5 yards per carry. If you like variety in offense, this game is for you.
2. Can Washington State slow down the Spartan rushing attack?
As mentioned, Lewerke and Michigan State’s running backs are a handful. It will take a focused, concerted effort for the Cougar defense to slow down a dangerous rushing attack that is capable of shortening games – something that doesn't bode well for what Washington State does on offense. The Spartans average 162.9 rushing yards a game, while the Cougars give up 146.2. This is where Michigan State can control the matchup, so don't be shocked if the Cougars load the box early to force some early three-and-outs. If that happens, it will change the complexion of this game.
3. Can Michigan State protect Lewerke on obvious passing downs?
As much as they may want to, the Spartans are not going to be able to run the ball on every play if they want to keep pace with Washington State. Lewerke is going to need to drop back to pass. When he does, he'll be staring at one of the best passes rushes in the country. The Cougars have logged 37 sacks so far in 2017, good enough for 13th nationally. They'll already be crowding the line of scrimmage to stop the run, so the Spartan linemen will be tested constantly. If Washington State can slow down the run early and then wreak havoc when Lewerke drops back to pass, this game might not be close.
This will be a chess match between two of the best head coaches in college football. Preparation will be key, but in this case, matchups and style of play are going to win out. Washington State's pace of play on offense combined with a much-improved defense is going to make it very difficult for the Spartans to keep pace in this one. Expect Washington State to take and early lead and Michigan State to try forcing this issue to play catch up – something the Spartans aren't exactly built to do. This game could very well be over by the third quarter.
Prediction: Washington State 38, Michigan State 20
— Written by J.P. Scott, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. His work has appeared on SI.com, FoxSports.com, Yahoo!, SBNation and Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @TheJPScott