SAN DIEGO-What could have easily been perceived as a sluggish, walkthrough game, the National Funding Holiday Bowl lived up to its expectations by the energized fan base from both teams as each side waited to see in those final seconds who will claim the victory.
Turns out that the Minnesota Gophers proved once again that defense can snuff out a good offense.
The Gophers also proved that the Big Ten Conference can still play elite ball after shutting down Washington State’s prolific offense, holding the nation’s No. 2 passing offense to just 264 yards in the air and 12 points. The Cougars came into the game averaging just over 40 points per game in finishing second in the Pac-12 Conference North Division.
Minnesota’s defense shut all that offensive noise down, bullying Washington State all game long to record a 17-12 upset of the Cougars.
” I think we did a good job with forcing them to keep dumping the ball underneath without giving up the play or the top,” Minnesota coach Tracy Claeys said. “It still goes back to some people they want to call it, bend don’t break, but I think that’s how you play that type of offense like that, so we — if you’re going to stop ’em, they’ve got awfully good players. You’ve got to tackle well in space, and that credit goes to the kids. We got them to dump the ball off in space and our guys ran and tackled extremely well.”
Both teams started the game like normal, trying to find a rhythm. The Gophers struggled early on, doing squat in their first series, a sequence that would continue throughout the rest of the first half. Minnesota tried a little bit of everything as they looked for an offensive advantage they needed in order to put themselves ahead of the “dynamic” Wazzu attack.
The Wazzu is widely known for its explosive offensive attack. The Gophers, led by defensive-back Coney Durr and Jalen Myrick, boasts one of the top defensive secondaries in all of college football. Something had to give. Washington State and its star quarterback, Luke Faulk, blinked first.
All year long, Faulk had been the star around the Cougar’s passing attack, throwing for 4, 204 yards and 37 touchdowns. Those are Heisman Trophy-type numbers. This game was not Faulk’s finest hour. This would turn out to be one of his shakiest games this year as he found himself laid on the ground time and time again due to the incredible swarming relentlessness of Minnesota’s front seven.
Both teams had a hard time doing much through the air and was not up to speed in generating any real sustained offensive outbreak, whether it was the run or pass. Multiple series of 3 and out-seemed to occupy much of the first half and early in the third quarter.
Washington State led 6-3 at the half, so by this juncture in the game, the contest seemed to be tilted in the direction that Minnesota had hoped it would go. In the second half, things began to start to shift in multiple directions; both teams were gaining momentum from their respective offenses, though Minnesota looked like it was beginning to have more success in the run game against the Cougars.
It is interesting to note that for all of its offensive prowess, Washington State couldn’t even beat the Gophers in the first down department, coming out on the short of that stick, 17-16.
The Wazzu, despite moving the ball with ease at times, failed on convert any of those positive drives into touchdowns. Minnesota, on the other hand, took advantage of the mistakes that the Cougars failed to convert by continuing to connect on offense.
The game’s first touchdown of the night came when Minnesota quarterback Mitch Leidner connected with Shannon Brooks for a touchdown pass in the back of the endzone after the ball was tipped.
“I thought it would go out the back of the end zone,” said Leidner. “We were getting heated and I thought I would let it rip and let it be Shannon’s ball or nobody’s ball, but that guy played a good play and tipped it into Shannon’s hands for me.”
That score put Minnesota up for good. Those points shifted the momentum in favor of the Gophers, which now lead the Cougars, 10-6. With the game winding down, there were more excitement in the last two minutes than the rest of the 58 minutes that saw the two teams hit an offensive wall.
Minnesota took another advantage of Wazzu, as it capped a drive in where the Cougars had another yet failed drive, which lead to the only interception of the game. Down just four points and desperately trying to make something happen for his team, Faulk threw up an ill-advised pass that sailed right into the hands of Minnesota defensive back Adekinle Ayinde.
The Gophers took advantage of the miscue, building their lead to 17-6 after Rodney Smith dived into the endzone to punctuate a 9-yard touchdown run.
In real desperation, the Cougars drove down the field on an 80-yard plus drive to make the score close. Falk connected with Kyle Sweet for the Cougars’ first touchdown of the game, making the score 17-12.
A squashed attempt at a 2-pt conversion and a missed opportunity on the ensuing kickoff sealed the fate of the Cougars as the Gophers walked out of Qualcomm Stadium as the 2016 National Funding Holiday Bowl champs.
Considering all the swirling controversy surrounding the team coming into the game, this win was almost like a rallying cry for members of the Minnesota team that were not part of the festivities, said Leidner.
” I don’t think it’s a matter of nobody wanting to be here,” Leidner said. “It’s just a matter of we wish our brothers would be better with us. Our coaches, you couldn’t ask for a better way to go out, I’m proud of these guys, especially our defense, the way these guys played all night. Offensively, we knew they were probably going to score some points and we’re going to have to keep answering, and it didn’t end up that way at all. These guys played tremendous and this guy to the left of me, it’s fun to be a part of.”