SAN DIEGO – Even Hercules would have crumbled under this weight.
With starting quarterback Luke Falk unable to play, the burden fell even heavier on the Washington State defenders in Thursday night’s 42-17 Holiday Bowl loss to Michigan State.
The burden was too much. By halftime, the Cougars were down 21-3 against MSU’s balanced offense.
That’s when Cougars All-American defensive tackle Hercules Mata’afa returned to the lineup after serving his penance for a targeting penalty in the Apple Cup.
It didn’t matter.
Even with Mata’afa in the lineup, the Cougars couldn’t contain MSU quarterback Brian Lewerke, giving up another TD on the Spartans’ first series in the third quarter.
The collapse was as profound as it was unexpected.
WSU was rock-solid through MSU’s first three series, making the Spartans look just like the nation’s 91st-ranked offense.
“I thought we had pretty good effort early,” WSU coach Mike Leach said.
At that point, MSU had 59 yards on the ground and zero through the air, as the Cougars’ front seven harassed Lewerke and also held up against an MSU interior line that averages 320 pounds.
Late in the first quarter, the Cougs still led 3-0 and had held MSU to 48 yards of total offense.
The first cracks appeared on MSU’s fourth possession, a 16-play, 81-yard epic drive ended with Lewerke’s 15-yard touchdown pass to Cody White.
Until then, MSU had zero passing yards and Lewerke was 0 for 4. But Lewerke found his rhythm early in the second quarter, picking on WSU cornerback Marcus Strong on the right sideline for several completions.
That drive not only consumed 9 1/2 minutes but seemed to take something out of WSU.
“I didn’t think they did anything we didn’t expect,” Leach said. “I don’t think we played consistently well on defense and couldn’t get them off the field.”
The fissure cracked wide-open on MSU’s next possession, which followed a three-and-out by WSU’s offense.
On first-and-10 from the WSU 49, Lewerke rolled out and briefly appeared poised to run. WSU safety Jalen Thompson bit, allowing receiver Felton Davis to slide past behind the secondary for a 49-yard touchdown reception.
“Our eyes weren’t in the right place,” Thompson said.
That made it 14-3, nothing insurmountable on the scoreboard. But the Cougars’ morale appeared to sink with that setback.
“I think it affected our team,” Leach said. “Collectively, a lot of things affected our team. … The answer is that you do your job and continue to execute the defense, but we did unravel after that play.”
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