Minnesota (8-4) vs. Washington State (8-4)
Time: 6:00 P.M. CT, Tuesday, December 27th
TV: ESPN - Bob Wischusen (Play by Play), Brock Huard (Analyst) and Allison Williams (Sideline)
Last game: Minnesota lost to Wisconsin on the road 31-17, and Washington State lost to Washington 45-17
All-time series: Washington State 3-2 (Washington State won 41-9 in September of 1988 in the Metrodome)
Vegas betting line: Washington State (-10.5)
Know Your Enemy: Five questions with Washington State publisher Barry Bolton
Five things you need to know
1. Minnesota will face Washington State in the 2016 National Funding Holiday Bowl on Dec. 27 at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, Calif. The 2016 Holiday Bowl will mark the 39th staging of the game, but it will be the first time that Minnesota will play in the historic bowl. The contest will also mark Minnesota's first bowl game in California since it beat UCLA 21-3 in the 1962 Rose Bowl. The Gophers have played Washington State five times and are 2-3 all-time against the Pac-12 member. All five games were contested in Minneapolis, but the teams have not met since 1988. Minnesota beat Washington State in 1976 and 1982 and fell to the Cougars in 1965, 1971 and 1988.
2. Minnesota will play in its fifth straight bowl game and 19th overall against Washington State in the Holiday Bowl. The streak of five consecutive bowls is tied for the longest stretch in program history, as the Gophers also played in five straight bowls from 2002-06. Minnesota ended a seven-game bowl losing streak last year at the Quick Lane Bowl.
3. Minnesota and Washington State represent a rarity in college football in that their head coaches did not play football at the collegiate level. Minnesota’s Tracy Claeys attended both Kansas and Kansas State and graduated with a degree in Mathematics Education from Kansas State. Washington State’s Mike Leach graduated from BYU and went to Pepperdine for law school. He did play rugby at BYU.
4. This year’s senior class (2013-16) has won 30 games (8 in 2013, 8 in 2014, 6 in 2015 and 8 in 2016), which is the most since 2006 when that class also won 30. The 2005 class won 32 games (8 in 2002, 10 in 2003, 7 in 2004 and 7 in 2005). Prior to the 2005 class, the last class to win at least 30 games was the 1905 class as it won 46 games (9 in 1902, 14 in 1903, 13 in 1904 and 10 in 1905). This year’s seniors were 20-8 at TCF Bank Stadium. Minnesota is 8-4 this year and also won eight games in 2013 and 2014. The last time Minnesota won eight games three times in a four-year span was 1903-05 (14, 13 and 10 wins). The Gophers have now won at least eight games in a season 20 times in school history and nine times since 1942 (six times since 1968). The last time the Gophers won nine games in a season was 2003 when they won 10 games. Before that it was 1905 (10 wins).
5. Minnesota was 5-4 in the Big Ten this year and had a winning conference record for the second time in three years (5-3 in 2014). Prior to 2014, Minnesota last had a winning Big Ten record in 2003 (5-3). The last time Minnesota had a winning Big Ten record in two out of three years was 1968 (5-2 in B1G) and 1969 (4-3 in B1G). Since 1970, Minnesota has now had a winning record in the Big Ten seven times (1973, 1986, 1990, 1999, 2003, 2014 and 2016). Minnesota started 0-2 in the Big Ten, but then rattled off four straight wins. The Gophers last won four straight Big Ten games in 2013. Tracy Claeys was the acting head coach in 2013 when Minnesota won those four games, as then-head coach Jerry Kill was dealing with health issues. Prior to 2013, the last time Minnesota won four straight Big Ten games was in 1973
Washington State players to watch
1) Luke Falk, quarterback: Falk’s reads, both pre- and post-snap, improved from last year and he showed a lot of toughness shrugging off some hard hits along the way. A quiet guy by nature, his leadership skills increased in 2016, and if they gave an award for most selfless QB he’d win it. Falk trusted his receivers to go make a play after the first two losses, and he checked to the run more than some quarterbacks would do in the same situation. At the same time, there remain plenty of things he can improve on, as the final two losses illustrated.
2) Gabe Marks, wide receiver: Marks became the all-time leading receiver in the 101-year history of the Pac-12 earlier this season. 85 receptions for 867 receiving yards and 13 receiving touchdowns will do that in a season after he put up over 100 catches. Minnesota's depleted secondary is going to have their hands full.
3) Shalom Luani, safety: Luani was the glue that held the defense together. He’s played both safety and in the nickel spot closer to the line – solid in run support and he has a knack for interceptions.
Keys to the game
1. Take the air out of the ball on offense: If Minnesota's going to have a chance in this game, they're going to have to control the time of possession on offense. Washington State comes into the game twentieth in the country in time of possession and with a top five passing attack, Minnesota's going to have to move on the ball on offense. The Cougars defense comes in as the 41st best against the run, but where they can be exploited is also through the air where they rank as a bottom 25 pass defense per Football Outsiders.
Running backs Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks are going to need to get some help up front from their offensive line so that the Gophers offense can be put in advantageous situations in the passing game, where hopefully Mitch Leidner and his receivers can get on the same page to create some big plays via play action.
Gophers have to be able to control the ball and limit the amount of times Luke Falk can touch the ball.
2. Get off the field on third down and limit the big plays in front of you: Washington State on offense comes in as the 13th best team on third down as they're converting 47.5% on third down, and Minnesota's going to have to keep that below 40% if they're going to be in this game. Washington State is averaging 370 yards a game through the air and over three passing touchdowns a game. On paper when this match-up was announced, things looked promising, but now that Minnesota's down five defensive backs against one of the most prolific passing attacks in the country, so this group is going to have to play over their heads.
Gophers will likely start true freshman Coney Durr at corner and those will be his first collegiate reps at the position, so Jay Sawvel and company's game plan should be to try and get off the field as soon as possible. I know, theoretically, that sounds great, but if Falk and company can be limited and this Gopher secondary can limit the big plays from these talented Cougar receivers, things will bode well for Minnesota.
3. Come out, play loose and win the special teams battle: There's been a lot of negativity around this team for the last few weeks, and the hope is that this team rallies around themselves and plays with a lot of energy. If they're going to pull of this upset (yes, it's an upset with the amount significant players that Minnesota is missing on defense), they're going to have to win the special teams battle. Washington State ended the season as a bottom 10 special teams unit, and Minnesota a top 10 ST unit, so this on paper should be a place where Minnesota can get some momentum rolling.
Unless Minnesota's offense plays as effective and efficiently as we've seen this season, sustaining long drives and converting those into touchdowns, and not field goals, I'm not sure how close this game will be in the second half. Minnesota's defense is going to have to be able to get after the passer against a top 35 pass protecting offensive line, but if all those things are able to fall into line, Minnesota's going to have a chance.
Ultimately, I think it's a great effort for the Golden Gophers, but not a winning one.