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Washington State to make Holiday Bowl return for Dec. 28 date versus Michigan State

UPDATED: Sun., Dec. 3, 2017, 9:41 p.m.

Washington State warms up before the 2016 National Funding Holiday Bowl on Tuesday, Dec. 27, 2016, at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, Calif. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Washington State warms up before the 2016 National Funding Holiday Bowl on Tuesday, Dec. 27, 2016, at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, Calif. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

PULLMAN – Washington State will get a mulligan in the Holiday Bowl after all.

One year after suffering a humiliating 17-12 loss to a depleted Minnesota team, the Cougars will return to San Diego this bowl season for another matchup against the Big Ten Conference. The 2017 Holiday Bowl will pit No. 21 WSU against No. 18 Michigan State on Dec. 28 at SDCCU Stadium – formerly Qualcomm Stadium. FS1 will air the game in San Diego, which is slated to kick off at 6 p.m.

ESPN had televised the game each of the last 30 years.

“It’s such a wonderful destination for our team,” WSU interim athletic director John Johnson said Sunday during a conference call. “It’s a terrific bowl for our fans, it’s easy to get to. Last year, we had great attendance and look for that in the future as we get ready for this bowl game.”

It’s rare that a non-New Year’s Six Bowl will select the same team two years in a row, but Johnson said Holiday Bowl committee members once again found the Cougars to be an attractive draw. WSU won nine games in the regular season for the first time under Mike Leach and beat both of the teams that appeared in the Pac-12 championship – USC and Stanford. The Cougars beat another conference champ, Boise State, in a triple-overtime thriller the second week of the season.

Leach is as polarizing as any coach out there and it probably didn’t hurt that the Cougars boast a senior quarterback in Luke Falk who’s broken every significant career Pac-12 Conference passing record.

“They liked Washington State as a matchup and we pulled up a spot because of what went on within the league,” Johnson said. “… Typically you don’t see teams go back-to-back to bowls, unless it’s a championship like a Rose Bowl. I think it’s a tribute to our fans and our program.”

WSU sold just under 7,000 tickets for the 2016 Holiday Bowl, Johnson said, and the school will have a similar allotment for this year’s game. Some might theorize that the repeat appearance discourages fans from returning to the same site, but Johnson believes that given WSU’s success this season, and given the turnout for last year’s game, there should be plenty of crimson in the bleachers on Dec. 28.

The Holiday Bowl announced a crowd of 48,704 last season.

“We had a great year, had some terrific games and we’re exciting to watch,” Johnson said. “Our fans are as much or more excited to go to the bowl as they were last year.”

The fourth bowl in five years for WSU will also mark the eighth appearance between the Cougars and the Spartans. Michigan State owns a 5-2 record in the all-time series, but WSU won the last game played between the two teams in 1977.

Entering Sunday, most speculated that the Cougars would be making their debut in the Foster Farms Bowl later this month. That changed when Washington checked in at No. 11 in the College Football Playoff rankings and secured a bid to the Fiesta Bowl, bumping up every other team in the Pac-12.

The Alamo Bowl picked up Stanford – No. 13 in the CFP rankings – and the Holiday Bowl was left to choose WSU (9-3), Arizona (7-5) or Arizona State (7-5).

Johnson said WSU had been in contact with the Alamo Bowl, but “a lot of things had to happen nationally” for the Cougars to wind up in San Antonio.

“You give them information of course, the lobbying is kind of out like it used to be,” Johnson said. “We give them updates of where we’re at, we certainly had interest, we’ve talked to them the last few days.”

The Cougars will hope to give their fan base a better show after a halfhearted performance against the Golden Gophers in 2016. In the five-point loss, WSU’s offense accumulated just 303 yards and went three quarters without a touchdown.

Michigan State finished third in the East division of the Big Ten and like WSU, heads into the bowl game with a 9-3 record. The Spartans, in their 11th year under coach Mark Dantonio, lost games against Notre Dame, Northwestern and Ohio State.

Michigan State could also make it hard for the Cougars to get into the end zone. Next to UW, the Spartans, statistically speaking, will have the best defense WSU has seen this year. MSU ranks No. 9 nationally in total defense, allowing 297.8 yards per game, but the Cougars might be glad to know the Spartans are better at stopping the run than the pass. MSU allows just 101.3 rushing yards per game – which is fifth in the FBS – but the pass defense allows 196.5 yards, only good enough for 30th.

The Cougars are required to be in San Diego by Christmas Eve, so Johnson said they’ll either travel on Dec. 23 or 24.


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