Sometimes mid-tier bowl games feature high-scoring antics, superstar performances and thrilling finishes to turn them in to classics. The 2016 Holiday Bowl was not one of those contests.
But quarterback Mitch Leidner and running back Rodney Smith did just enough offensively, and the Minnesota defense turned in a stellar performance, as the Gophers came away with a 17-12 win over Washington State on Tuesday to end their season with a win.
The Gophers won nine games in a season for the first time since 2003 and their second bowl game in a row after failing to win one for more than a decade. ESPN Stats & Info provided context about coach Tracy Claeys:
Rodger Sherman of The Ringer handed out the crown:
It was a forgettable overall performance but one that nearly did not happen at all. Minnesota's preparation for the Holiday Bowl was mired in controversy after players boycotted team activities due to the suspension of 10 players over an alleged sexual assault at a player's apartment. The players have not been charged with a crime, but a detailed report on the incident led to a perception the boycott was for the wrong reasons.
"The most important thing is, this was not a stance about sexual misconduct," linebacker Nick Rallis told Joe Christensen of the Star Tribune. "It's not our place to say whether they committed misconduct, and those found responsible will be held accountable."
On the football field, Minnesota led for nearly the entire second half and thwarted a Washington State offense that had dominated Pac-12 competition through the air.
The two sides went the entire first half without a touchdown. Washington State finished a 17-play, 76-yard drive with an Erik Powell field goal in the first quarter, and then both teams took advantage of miscues to set up short field-goal drives in the second.
Washington State punter Kyle Sweet shanked a 25-yarder to set up Minnesota inside Cougars territory, and the Gophers kept things on the ground to set up a Emmit Carpenter field goal to tie the game. Washington State went into the break ahead 6-3 after Minnesota fumbled inside its own territory to set up a Powell field goal from 41 yards out.
Minnesota scored the game's first touchdown with 3:23 remaining in the third, with a Leidner pass to Shannon Brooks capping off a 10-play, 83-yard drive. The ball bounced off a defender's hands and was nearly intercepted, which led to this tweet from Tom Dienhart of the Big Ten Network:
The final 2:06 nearly featured more scoring than the first 57-plus minutes combined. After a Luke Falk interception set Minnesota up in Washington State territory, Smith sealed the victory for the Gophers with a nine-yard touchdown.
Washington State then did something it couldn't for almost the entire game: put together a cogent passing attack. Falk went 79 yards in 10 plays, connecting with Kyle Sweet from eight yards out with 19 seconds remaining.
The Cougars quarterback finished 30-of-51 passing for 264 yards and a touchdown against an interception. He finished the season with two straight games under the 300-yard mark after hitting the number in nine of his first 11 games. Barstool's Big Cat had some highlights from Falk's poor showing:
The Washington State running game did not help matters, gaining just 39 yards on 23 carries.
While Leidner went for just 129 yards and a score through the air, Minnesota rushed for 150 yards on 41 carries. The Gophers quarterback accounted for 26 yards, while Smith had 74 and a score and Brooks finished with 51 on 13 carries.
Claeys spoke to reporters about stopping the passing game: "We did a good job forcing them to keep dumping the ball underneath without giving up the play over the top. It still goes back to, some people want to call it bend don't break, but that’s how you play that type of offense."
Falk thought it was more a matter of what Washington State didn't do: "We really did that to ourselves today, shot ourselves in the foot. Nothing special they did."
Leach concurred and seemed upset with his team's attitude: "We never got in a rhythm. I thought we tried to make too much happen and then when it didn't work out we got frantic. I didn’t think we were very mentally tough as far as getting discouraged. … The worst thing I saw is we had a certain number of people pouting on the sideline."
Leidner spoke of what it meant to win his last game: "You couldn’t ask for a better way to go out. I'm just really proud of these guys, especially our defense the way they played all night."