Upon Further Review: Gophers vs. Washington State (Holiday Bowl)

Rodney Smith was named the Holiday Bowl offensive MVP.
Orlando Ramirez/USA TODAY Sports

It’s hard to imagine a team going through as much turmoil before a bowl game as Minnesota did before the Holiday Bowl against Washington State.

Yes, these problems were primarily self-inflicted but nevertheless they were still things that needed to be overcome. With all of that, plus going against a pass-happy team like Washington State with a depleted secondary, it seemed like a recipe for disaster.

But instead, Minnesota came to play. The Gophers’ defensive game plan stymied a potent Cougars offense. Minnesota’s offense wasn’t crisp, but a couple of good second-half drives resulted in touchdowns to lift the Gophers to a surprising 17-12 win over Washington State.

Here’s a recap of Tuesday’s game:

CLASS LESSONS

— Minnesota’s secondary was obviously depleted, yet Washington State came out running and throwing short passes. In fact, the Gophers back end was rarely if ever tested deep all game, which seems like a strange offensive strategy considering the condition of Minnesota’s secondary.

— The Gophers helped themselves out on defense, often rushing only three and dropping back eight players. The increased coverage certainly helped throw a wrench into Washington State’s plans. However, it really made a difference because somehow the Gophers kept getting pressure on the quarterback despite rushing only three or four players. Luke Falk didn’t have the time to wait for receivers to get open downfield and Washington State settled for short passes all game.

— How different would the game have been if Washington State got a touchdown on its opening possession? The Cougars had a 17-play drive but only came away with three points, which had to buoy Minnesota’s defense. Washington State actually did get into the end zone on a fourth-and-short from the 11, but a holding penalty nullified the play. The Cougars eventually would kick a short field goal and wouldn’t get a touchdown until the game’s waning moments.

— Mitch Leidner completed just two passes in the first half (2 of 9, 26 yards). But on Minnesota’s opening drive of the third quarter he had three big completions, two to Drew Wolitarsky and another to Rashad Still, all of which got the Gophers a first down.

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— Minnesota’s first touchdown, which came at the end of the above-mentioned drive, was just ludicrous. Leidner threw into the left side of the end zone, apparently for Brooks, who was running a wheel route. Except Brooks wasn’t even in the end zone yet and had three defenders near him. The only other player it could have been intended for was Still, who was in the middle of the end zone, so that would have been one massive miscommunication. But, as it happened, the Cougars’ Marcellus Pippins missed an easy interception and instead deflected the ball, which went right into the arms of Brooks, who was completing his route into the end zone.

— The Gophers tried a few trick plays. A flea flicker in the first quarter didn’t work as Mitch Leidner missed Eric Carter deep, although he was hit as he threw the ball. In the third quarter, Minnesota executed a reverse, with Still getting a first down to the Washington State 39 (in the box score it is actually listed as a pass to Shannon Brooks for a loss of 3 and then Still gaining 16; it did not count as a rush). An attempted halfback pass by Brooks in the fourth quarter was thwarted, as Washington State blew up the play in the backfield and Brooks never had a chance to throw and instead was tackled for a loss.

— With 5:30 remaining in the game, Minnesota had a third-and-7 from the Washington State 49. The Gophers were holding a slim 10-6 lead, yet lined up under center and handed off to Rodney Smith, who gained only three yards. That’s having a lot of confidence in your defense and/or your punter, or is just a foolish play call. Or perhaps a combination of all three.

— Let’s take a second to note the intelligence and toughness of Brooks. After Minnesota got the ball back with an interception and was looking to run out the clock, Brooks got caught near the sideline on a rush, but he smartly stayed in bounds — then fought his way forward for a couple of more yards to get a first down. All of this forced Washington State to burn a timeout. The drive ended with a Smith touchdown, his 16th. Only Gary Russell (18 in 2005) and Marion Barber (17 in 2003) have had more rushing touchdowns in a season for Minnesota.

— With starting center Tyler Moore hurt, Matt Leidner, who saw only a handful of snaps this season, got his first career start. Minnesota’s offensive line was OK but did enough. The Gophers averaged 3.7 yards per carry and Mitch Leidner was sacked three times.

DULY NOTED

— Minnesota won nine games in a season for the first time since 2003.

— Rodney Smith was named the Holiday Bowl offensive MVP and Blake Cashman the defensive MVP.

— The 12 points allowed by Minnesota is the second fewest given up by the Gophers their bowl history behind just 3 points in the 1962 Rose Bowl. The 12 points was also the fewest scored by Washington State this season.

— Minnesota had only one drive which went longer than 34 yards, the 10-play, 84-yard TD drive in the third quarter. The Gophers’ other scores came on 31- (TD) and 28- (FG) yard drives.

— Running back Rodney Smith practiced with the secondary in bowl preparations after offering his services to the depleted group. However, Smith did not play on defense in the game.

— What would a Minnesota game be without a targeting call? Duke McGhee was called for one on Washington State’s late two-point conversion. It was the ninth ejection for the Gophers this season and eighth targeting call (most in FBS), not to mention McGhee’s third.

— Minnesota committed six false start penalties.

WHAT IT MEANT

It’s hard to say if this game will have any long-lasting impact, but in the short term, the Gophers showed they could put distractions behind them. No matter what you thought of the team’s short boycott, it definitely didn’t affect Minnesota’s performance. Also, the coaching staff and players did as well as anyone could expect with a short-handed secondary.

PLAYER OF THE GAME

We’re going to cheat here and give this to the entire Minnesota secondary. Surely Washington wanted to throw deep, but the longest pass of the game for the Cougars was just 29 yards — and that came at the tail end of the fourth quarter. The Gophers had six pass breakups, with Jalen Myrick coming up with two, plus an Adekunle Ayinde interception. This was entirely unexpected and there aren’t enough kudos to go around for this unit.

DON’T FORGET ABOUT ME

Washington quarterback Luke Falk was pressured all game and due credit has to be given to Minnesota’s front seven, which largely rushed just three or four players all game. If we had to point out one player, it would be Blake Cashman, who recorded one of the Gophers’ three sacks and led the team with 12 tackles — he had but 33 this season coming into the game –nine of which were solo, as well as two tackles for loss. No quarterback hurries were tallied in the official stat sheet, but don’t tell that to Falk, who was on the run all too often.

THAT MOMENT

Minnesota led 10-6 and Washington State was facing a fourth-and-6 from its own 45-yard line with 3:19 remaining in the game. The Gophers didn’t blitz, instead going with just a three-man rush. Nevertheless, Falk felt some pressure and ran around — unable to find an open receiver anywhere — finally having to heave up a pass which was picked off by Ayinde. That play was representative of how Minnesota performed all game, only this time it was as key a play as there was in the Holiday Bowl.

THIS NUMBER

303 — Total yards for Washington State, which is the lowest for the Cougars since they had 266 yards against Stanford on Oct. 10, 2014. Washington State was averaging nearly 500 yards of offense a game. And of the 303 allowed by Minnesota, 79 of those came on the Cougars’ last, desperate drive with the Gophers holding an 11-point lead, and 76 on WSU’s opening drive. Meaning in between, Minnesota allowed just 148 yards on the Cougars’ other 10 drives. Just a stellar effort. Stellar.

THEY SAID IT

“It’s a great bowl. We were excited to be here. The win shows us that we’re moving in the right direction.” — head coach Tracy Claeys

“We tried to make things happen and then when it didn’t happen, we got frantic. We unraveled. We were pouting on the sidelines.” — Washington State head coach Mike Leach on his team’s offense

“I was excited. It’s unfortunate he has loose ankles and stepped out of bounds.” — Rodney Smith on Adekunle Ayinde’s interception, in which the cornerback nearly scored a touchdown

WHAT’S NEXT

Minnesota heads into the 2017 season with a number of question marks: What will the fallout be from the 10 suspended players? Will any other players transfer? Is Tracy Claeys’ job safe? Or, can the Gophers actually build off a nine-win season?

Dave Heller is the author of the upcoming book Ken Williams: A Slugger in Ruth’s Shadow as well as Facing Ted Williams Players from the Golden Age of Baseball Recall the Greatest Hitter Who Ever Lived and As Good As It Got: The 1944 St. Louis Browns