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Grip on Sports: When Cougars and Spartans meet it’s a clash of styles as well as teams

Washington State Cougars head coach Mike Leach steals the show as he improvises to cool his drink during a Holiday Bowl press conference on Wednesday, December 27, 2017, in San Diego, Calif. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Washington State Cougars head coach Mike Leach steals the show as he improvises to cool his drink during a Holiday Bowl press conference on Wednesday, December 27, 2017, in San Diego, Calif. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

A GRIP ON SPORTS • There was a time when college football’s bowl games brought together teams from different parts of the country to showcase their area’s style of football. Rare matchups pitting teams that would never usually play. You know, like tonight’s Holiday Bowl. Read on.

••••••••••

• That was then. This is now. And the twain did meet.

Back in the day of long train trips – before my time, actually – bowl games were all about pitting the best team in area of the country, say the Midwest, against a team from a different area, say the Pacific Coast.

Football was played differently in those areas, so the games were a referendum on which way was better.

But with the advent of air travel, television ratings and playoff rankings, those type of matchups happen consistently, or whenever Jim Harbaugh’s Michigan team plays a nonconference game.

Remember when the Pac-8 was considered a pass-happy group of hippies from the Left Coast? Actually, remember the Pac-8? Or when the Big Ten was populated by three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-snow Neanderthals? That’s what made the Rose Bowl so much fun. USC or Stanford or UCLA would throw the ball all around and Michigan or Ohio State – no one else, because that’s all that ever came to Pasadena for years – would try to jam it down the Pac-8’s throat.

Those days are gone, right? If you watched the Foster Farm Bowl last night, in which Purdue faked a kneel-down and passed its way past Arizona 38-35, you would think so.

That was then. This is now. And the Holiday Bowl should be a throwback. As in a throwback to the ‘60s, not a throwback-pass, trick-play type of way.

It was a bit of one yesterday at the coaches’ press conference, with Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio playing the role of a Nixonian White House aide and Mike Leach acting like Abbie Hoffman, enthralled by his cup of green tea – or whatever.

The contrast was startling. As is the way their teams play. The Spartans are the brute force monster truck, the Cougars the speedy race car – on both sides of the ball.

Michigan State is the British Army, marching down the road. Washington State acts more like the Minutemen, sniping away from behind a tree.

Will that be the way it plays out on the field? Will the Spartans try to pound through the Cougars on offense, and bull-rush their way through the WSU offensive line in the hope of giving Luke Falk a matching pair of gloves – or whatever it is he is wearing on his left wrist.

Yes they will.

Washington State has to counter with a Roadrunner-like dodge-and-move.

The young receiving corps – having lost two of their better pass catchers in a drama-filled run-up to the bowl, this group is really inexperienced – will have to figure out a way to get open. The offensive line, last seen being run over by Vita Vea and the Huskies, will have to figure out a way to protect Falk. And the defense, last seen being run over by Miles Gaskin and the Huskies, will have to figure out a way to compensate for not having Hercules Mata’afa for the first half.

Who will do it better? That will be determined tonight in San Diego. In a game that seems a better fit for the 1965 Rose Bowl than the 2017 Holiday.

• Conference basketball play gets underway this week and tonight Gonzaga begins another in its long line of WCC title defenses.

And though Pacific doesn’t look as if it should give GU much of an opening-night battle, there is something to be learned.

After all, the Tigers are coming off a 39-point road loss to the nation’s third-ranked team, Arizona. Oops, make that Arizona State. That’s just odd to write.

The Bulldogs are always considered good enough for top-10 mention so Pacific is a good measuring stick. If the Zags struggle tonight, at home, then maybe the rest of the conference schedule will be a struggle as well.

The conference is once again top-heavy, with Gonzaga, Saint Mary’s and BYU the top trio. There are a couple schools that can surprise, like San Diego, with its revamped defensive focus, and San Francisco, with one of the best nonconference wins on its resume (recently versus Nevada in Las Vegas).

But otherwise it’s once again Gonzaga’s (and to a lesser degree, Saint Mary’s) to lose.

•••

WSU: We will get you ready for tonight’s Holiday Bowl by beginning with John Blanchette’s column concerning the drama around the Cougars. Then we will pivot to Theo Lawson’s story on the contrast between the teams as well as his keys to a WSU victory. That’s something he believes will happen, by the way. … There was a battle last night. It was between the bands. Tyler Tjomsland took a lot of photos. … The schools’ fans have enjoyed the San Diego weather, as Jim Allen tells us. … A Michigan State alum, reporter Jonathan Brunt, explains how the schools are similar – and different. … This Washington State senior class has done wonderful things in Pullman. Now Matt Calkins believes its time to pass the torch. … Stefanie Loh has a story on one of the seniors, Jamal Morrow and another on Falk’s left wrist. … From Michigan, we have more than enough stories to keep you busy until kickoff, from ones on Falk to looking at the matchup with Theo. … Finally, Leach had a story on the Players Tribune this week.

Elsewhere in the Pac-12, we start with football and a bowl season that hasn’t been great for the conference as of yet. Arizona rallied in the second half but fell short against Purdue. (If you see teams attack when their opponent looks to be kneeling with the ball, just go back to the end of the first half of last night’s game and you’ll know why.) … Washington’s Vea once played quarterback. Dante Pettis probably would have been better at it. … Utah is unmatched in its bowl success under Kyle Whittingham. … Will Stanford’s Bryce Love stick around for his senior year? … Josh Rosen has to make a decision about the NFL as well. … Arizona State wonders if one of North Carolina State’s better players will sit to protect his NFL status. … Ronald Jones wasn’t one of them, but USC has benefitted from the play of walk-ons. … In basketball, the Arizona teams seem to be the class of the conference. … Former Gonzaga women’s coach Kelly Graves is dealing with NCAA violations. … Colorado has lost one of its best players.

Gonzaga: The Bulldogs will be trying to extend a 21-game, WCC-opening win streak. Jim Meehan has that nugget in his preview of tonight’s game on ESPN2. It starts at 6. … Jim also has a look at one Tiger who must be contained. … We also found a preview from Stockton (the city, not the guy). … Elsewhere in the WCC, the San Francisco Chronicle previews the WCC race for the Bay Area schools. … BYU is one of the teams to watch.

EWU: Eastern begins conference play Friday at Northern Colorado, one of the Bug Sky’s surprise team. As Jim Allen tells us in this preview, there are a lot of surprise teams in the conference. … Around the conference, Northern Arizona opens Big Sky play hosting Montana and Montana State.

Idaho: The Vandals’ Victor Sanders is looking for a title in his last season.

Chiefs: Spokane battled back and defeated the visiting Seattle Thunderbirds 4-3 in overtime last night at the Arena. Kevin Dudley was there and has this story. … Elsewhere in the WHL, Everett crushed host Vancouver 11-0 last night, setting a franchise record in the process. … Visiting Tri-City scored three quick third-period goals and defeated Portland 6-3.

Preps: It’s a busy weekend for high school hoops, with non-league and tournament games everywhere. Dave Nichols has a story on the Cam Jam hosted by Central Valley, Steve Christilaw has another on the Eagle Holiday Classic, hosted by West Valley and Lakeside, and we can over roundups from girls and boys action.

Seahawks: Bruce Arians’ comment about “home field?” K.J. Wright is downplaying it – for now. He also wants Earl Thomas to stick around for a while. … Thomas Rawls did a nice thing for Christmas. … Byron Maxwell has an interesting move. … The Hawks, looking for another 10-win season and a playoff berth, aren’t totally healthy.

•••       

• Wish me luck tonight. After watching the Cougars play like most of you, on FS1, I have to make my way through the snow to the KXLY studios for the last postgame radio show of the season. Win or lose, hopefully the callers will be kind. You can listen on the TuneIn app everywhere and, if you are on the snowy side of the mountains, on most Eastern Washington radio stations that carry the Cougars. Until then … 

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