Mike Leach’s starting quarterback might have been injured. His All-American lineman may or may not return to Washington State’s program for his senior year. Predictably, the Cougars’ 56-year-old coach did not care to shed any light on pressing questions after his “Air Raid” offense was grounded yet again in a Holiday Bowl dud, a 42-17 loss to No. 16 Michigan State on Thursday night at SDCCU Stadium.
“I will tell you when you guys start getting invitations to these meetings and stuff you ask me about, when we ask you to the meeting we’ll probably have some hors d’oeuvres, maybe tea, coffee, might even ask you what you like,” Leach said. “But you guys can figure about the time we start inviting you to these meetings is about the time we’re going to tell you this stuff.”
Don’t hold your breath.
In defeat, Leach was especially elusive about the status of quarterback Luke Falk, the Pac-12’s all-time leading passer. The departing senior arrived for Tuesday’s practice at Southwestern College with a cast on his forearm and was warming up before Thursday’s game only to have the start go to backup Tyler Hilinski.
Leach’s explanation echoed comments earlier in the week.
“Luke is doing exactly what we want Luke to do and Luke has had a fine career here,” Leach said. “ … We felt like Tyler was the ideal guy to start with our lineup today, and so he’s the one we selected.”
Falk reportedly sustained a wrist injury earlier in the season.
Pressed for clarity on Falk’s status, Leach said “you’re going to remain unclear on it. Next question.”
At the helm of the nation’s second-best passing offense (374.8 yards per game), Hilinski attempted 50 passes in throwing for 272 yards in his first college start.
The problem was Michigan State had scored 35 straight points before Hilinksi hooked up with Tay Martin for a 14-yard touchdown with 2:06 left in the third quarter.
Washington State went three-and-out on four of their first five possessions, managed just 24 yards on the ground and lost the clock battle, 36:42 to 23:18.
It didn’t help having All-American defensive lineman Hercules Mata’afa – the team’s leader in sacks (9½) – sidelined the first two quarters because of last month’s targeting foul against Washington.
“The first half, I thought some of our youth on offense was exposed,” Leach said. “We got in sync, but it started to get away from us and we didn’t get ’em off the field the second half either.”
The loss dropped Leach to 6-7 in bowl games, including 1-3 in his six years at Washington State.
He had won five of six at one point at his previous post at Texas Tech, including a 45-31 upset of Aaron Rodgers’ Rose Bowl-snubbed Cal Bears at the 2004 Holiday Bowl.
But Leach’s offense produced just 12 points even with Falk under center in a loss here last year to Minnesota and trailed by as much as 35-3 late in the third quarter despite Hilinski completing 39 of his 50 attempts.
One key for Michigan State was ensuring the check-down passes did not turn into explosive plays. The Cougars’ longest gain went for 19 yards.
“Even without Luke, they’re a great team,” said linebacker Chris Frey, the game’s defensive MVP after registering six tackles and a fumble recovery. “They have a very good quarterback that has some playing experience. I think it shows how much we studied film in the few weeks that we had to get ready for this team. We used that extra time to try and master what they do and figure out how we can key on specific plays.
“Our offense came out ready to play and put points up on the board and the defense tackled well and executed our game plan very well.”
Said Leach: “That’s kind one of the disturbing things about the game. I didn’t think they did anything we didn’t expect. I didn’t think we played well consistently on defense, then we never could get them off the field and they had the luxury of using the clock and they were able to keep our offense off the field most of the night.”
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