SAN DIEGO – For the 20 Washington State seniors who sulked off the field at SDCCU Stadium, a 42-17 loss to Michigan State in hand, the tail end of a once-promising 2017 football season may still be marinating a few months from now.
The Cougars were tantalizingly close to a berth in the Pac-12 championship for the second consecutive year before falling hard in the Apple Cup – also for the second consecutive year – and thus stumbling out of the title game picture.
The Holiday Bowl lined up a second consecutive appearance for WSU. However, the Cougars’ offense found almost no room to work against Michigan State’s tough-minded, high-motored defense. After a respectable showing from Alex Grinch’s defense in 2016 against Minnesota, the “Speed D” played much of this game as if it were stuck in mud.
History books won’t necessarily remember WSU’s senior class for what happened during those three hours in San Diego, but they’ll surely make note of the 29 wins, three bowl appearances and 14 All-Pac-12 selections the group collected over the last four to five years – not to mention some major school and Pac-12 records that were set along the way.
As WSU heads into a busy offseason, here should be plenty of storylines to tide the Cougars over until their next chance to play someone wearing a different jersey.
Of those, the most pressing are the ones regarding the two most important pieces of WSU’s defense: Grinch, the third-year defensive coordinator who’s rumored to leave Pullman soon in order to become the 10th assistant at Ohio State, and Hercules Mata’afa, the consensus All-American defensive tackle weighing the options of taking his talents to the NFL or returning to the Palouse for his senior season.
Thursday’s postgame press conference didn’t provide much clarity regarding either dilemma, but it’s likely that both questions will be answered within the coming weeks.
Leach didn’t budge when asked if he’d met with Mata’afa: “Any conversations I have with him on whether he’s coming back or what he’s doing I will share with him and probably not anybody in here.”
Sophomore safety Jalen Thompson neglected to reveal anything about Grinch: “Next question.”
Within the first month of the New Year, WSU might also have a new face in the office formerly occupied by Bill Moos. The school has set its target date at late January/early February to hire a new athletic director. WSU President Kirk Schulz has oft-cited his wish to hire someone with a strong fundraising background and Moos’ successor should come in prepared to shave off an athletics deficit that was reported at $10.7 million for the 2017 fiscal year alone.
Another priority will be collecting private funds for the expected construction of an indoor practice facility – a project that should welcome a few more developments over the next six months, according to Schulz.
The current Cougars begin their annual “Midnight Maneuvers” conditioning regimen soon. A handful of the departed ones are playing in senior All-Star games – quarterback Luke Falk and offensive tackle Cole Madison in the Reese’s Senior Bowl and running back Jamal Morrow, offensive guard Cody O’Connell and Rush linebacker Frankie Luvu are headed to the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl.
Some grouping of those players – plus Mata’afa perhaps – should hear their names called April 26-28 at the 2018 NFL Draft.
At that point, their ex-teammates in Pullman may have already put a bow on spring camp. The spring finale, held annually at Spokane’s Albi Stadium, could be an intriguing showcase between Tyler Hilinski, the quarterback who started for WSU in the Holiday Bowl, and promising four-star signee Cammon Cooper, the top candidate to push Hilinski for starting reps.
All of that should be enough to distract the Cougars from Thursday’s setback in San Diego. As Leach might remind his departing seniors, they would be ill-advised to place the entire season into the context of one game.
WSU finished 9-4 with a 7-0 record in Pullman and signature wins over then-No. 5 USC and No. 18 Stanford. The 21-point comeback victory over Boise State in triple-overtime was entertaining in its own right.
“The one thing that is indisputable is we had a tremendous season. We had a better season than most people expected,” Leach said. “Probably a few games short of what we as a team expected, as coaches, as players, a few games short of what we expected, but it was a good season for us and one where we got plenty of space to improve on.”