By Kirk Kenney, The San Diego Union-Tribune
The difference is that Michigan State had its starter from the start.
And Brian Lewerke was good. Really good.
Lewerke, a 6-foot-3 sophomore from Phoenix, made plays with his arm and legs, and displayed tremendous poise while leading No. 16 Michigan State to a 42-17 win Thursday night over No. 18 Washington State in the 40th edition of the Holiday Bowl before an announced crowd of 47,092 at SDCCU Stadium.
“We came out here sort of on a mission,” said Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio, who picked up his 100th career win at the school with the victory. “We played very well defensively throughout, with the exception of one or two drives. Played well against a good offense. … We came up with a couple turnovers, offensively we got up on the board, ran the ball effectively and had big plays in the passing game.
“I said in the football game that because of their pressure, the quarterback was going to have to create, and that’s what he did. He created with his feet, and then with his arm as well, and big things happened.”
Lewerke completed 13-of-21 passes for 213 yards and three touchdowns and was leading Michigan State in rushing with 78 yards when he left the game after a jarring collision near the goal line midway through the third quarter.
Michigan State (10-3) had a commanding 28-3 lead over Washington State (9-4) at that point, an advantage backup quarterback Damion Terry extended to 35-3 after rushing for a 1-yard touchdown moments after replacing Lewerke.
Lewerke, whose left knee was examined by trainers before he walked off the field, returned for Michigan State’s next series before Terry took over in the fourth quarter when Lewerke was hit again.
With the game in hand for the Spartans, Lewerke just as well could have called it a day after the first hit. He had done more than enough to be named the game’s offensive MVP.
The day was over before it started for Washington State starting quarterback Luke Falk, who did not play and, in fact, was but a face in the crowd on the sidelines.
Speculation about Falk’s status began Tuesday when he was pictured with a cast on his left (non-throwing) wrist/forearm as he made his way to the team’s practice at Southwestern College.
Washington State head coach Mike Leach downplayed it at Wednesday’s coaches’ news conference — “He looks good to me,” Leach said — but Falk looked uncomfortable during warmups before the game. He stiffly moved his left hand, which was covered with a black glove and wrist band that likely concealed a cast and/or heavy wrap.
So it was backup quarterback Tyler Hilinski who started for Washington State. Hilinski had his ups — leading a triple overtime win over Boise State in September — and downs — throwing four interceptions in a loss to Arizona in October — for the Cougars this season.
It led Leach to comment to the Spokane-Review after one game: “Hilinski does a good job of bouncing around, pushing the ball downfield, but he gets reckless.”
On this night, Hilinski was helpless against the Michigan State defense until leading a pair of second-half scoring drives with the game all but decided.
Luke is doing exactly what we want Luke to do,” Leach said after the game, when asked about Falk. “Luke has had a fine career here and also done a great deal for the program, probably more than most people will ever realize.
“We felt like Tyler was the ideal guy to start with our lineup today, and so he’s the one we selected. So that’s what happened there.”
For the second straight year, Washington State’s Air Raid offense was a false alarm.
Minnesota beat the Cougars 17-12 last year, limiting Falk to short completions while keeping them out of the end zone until the game’s final minute.
Dantonio employed a similar strategy, content to allow short completions underneath as long as the Spartans did not allow a big play.
Hilinski completed nearly 80 percent of his passes (39-for-50 for 272 yards), but those attempts averaged barely five yards apiece and he never burned the Spartans deep.
Washington State opened the scoring with a 45-yard field goal by Eric Powell midway through the first quarter that capped a 14-play drive.
It was the only Cougars possession of the first half that lasted more than four plays and did not require a Powell punt.
Lewerke was equally adept at directing a methodical, time-consuming drive or moving quickly down the field for a score.
Michigan State’s first touchdown came on a 16-play drive that consumed 9:24 by the time Lewerke threw a 15-yard touchdown pass to Cody White for a 7-3 Spartans lead midway through the second quarter.
“We were able to pick it up a little bit the second quarter and start executing,” Lewerke said. “I was able to set my feet and make my reads a little the better, settle into the game as it went on.”
Michigan State made it 14-3 three minutes later when Lewerke hit Felton Davis III for a 49-yard touchdown pass. Washington State had a safety and cornerback both break toward a shallow receiver, leaving Davis wide open over the middle, seemingly 48 yards in the clear.
I saw how wide open he was and I tried to throw it right at him and make sure — I knew if I had to stop and catch it he would score, anyway,” Lewerke said.
Michigan State forced Washington State’s fourth punt of the first two quarters with 3:12 remaining in the half and Lewerke moved them rapidly downfield once again. Starting from the Spartans 32-yard line, Lewerke moved much of the way with completions of 27, 12 and 16 yards. He handed off to running back LJ Scott for the final 3 yards and a 21-3 halftime lead.
Michigan State was on the way to one of the five biggest blowouts in Holiday Bowl history before Hilinski tossed a 14-yard touchdown pass to Tay Martin late in the third quarter and a 15-yard TD throw to Martin midway through the fourth quarter to draw within 35-17.
A 28-yard touchdown run by Scott , who finished with a game-high 110 yards, with 6:14 remaining dashed any Cougars comeback hopes. Michigan State safety Khari Willis added an exclamation mark with a late interception.
Two timeouts Leach called in the final 65 seconds of the game only delayed the inevitable — having to answer postgame questions about what happened to Falk.