Here are my five takeaways from tonight's bowl victory.
1) Jay Sawvel masters the Cougars
In what was one of the best defensive performances in a long-time for Gopher fans, Minnesota's defensive coordinator Jay Sawvel absolutely stymied a Washington State passing attack that was top five in the country coming into the Holiday Bowl game this evening.
Washington State Luke Falk came into tonight's game averaging over three passing scores a game and over 350 passing yards, and this Gopher defense held him to 264 passing yards with a touchdown and interception. Take out the final drive, which was garbage time, and Sawvel and this defense held Falk to under 200 yards passing and no touchdowns.
Seriously, with Minnesota down four of their top six defensive backs and then losing starting corner Coney Durr during the game, the way Minnesota was able to keep this Washington State offense on it's heels all night is quite remarkable.
2) Pressure puts Falk off his game
One of the big reason's why this defense was able to put Falk and the Cougar offense in a tizzy for most of the evening was because of the pressure they were able to generate.
Three sacks and five tackles for loss don't tell the whole stories as Falk was feeling pressure constantly throughout the night and the front six was helping out their depleted defensive backfield. The game plan for Minnesota was to keep everything in front of them and make sure that Washington State was going to have to dink and dunk they're way down the field if they were going to put points on the board. Falk and this Washington State defense couldn't sustain drives as the Gophers forced them into seven of 19 on third down.
After a 17 play drive to start the game for Washington State that ended in a field goal, the Gophers defense eight punts on the subsequent ten drives, one ended in an interception and the other in a field goal after a Leidner turnover.
I cannot praise this defensive effort enough from the Minnesota coaches installing the winning game plan to the players going out and executing it.
3) Offense does just enough
It certainly wasn't pretty, but the Gophers offense did just enough for Minnesota to get the victory.
After struggling in the first half, the offense came out with a 10 play, 84 yard drive capped off by one of the most improbable touchdown receptions by Shannon Brooks.
Then after a Kunle Ayinde interception to turn the tide for the Gophers in the fourth quarter, Minnesota was able to salt away the game on the ground with the dagger being a nine yard touchdown run from offensive MVP Rodney Smith.
Quarterback Mitch Leidner ended his final game as a Golden Gopher by completing 55% of his passes for 129 yards and a passing touchdown. Leidner had one of the most tumultuous and scrutinized career's that a Gopher quarterback has had in quite some time, so for him to go out on top is great to see.
4) End of an era for the seniors
This year’s senior class (2013-16) has won 31 games (8 in 2013, 8 in 2014, 6 in 2015 and 9 in 2016), which is the most since 2005 when that 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 9-4 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).
There was a lot to be said for this senior group when they signed with Minnesota as Jerry Kill was still in the process of building this program up from the shambles Tim Brewster left it in.
They believed in this coaching staff and now their hard work and dedication has turned this into one of the most successful classes in quite some time.
5) What's next for this Gopher Football team?
It's time for Eric Kaler to make some moves.
Either extend Tracy Claeys and staff coming off a nine win campaign that was riddled with sexual assault allegations, but they have won eight games three of the last four years, and that hasn't happened for over 100 years. And if you're not going to extend him, just let the staff go and start fresh with another group of coaches.
I've said this for quite some time now, and that's that the WRONG thing to do, is nothing at all.
Claeys has two years left on his deal, and the assistant coaches one, and if you don't give them an extension, you're not giving them the ammunition to compete at the level they could with an extension on the recruiting trail here in a few weeks.
Make a decision Eric Kaler. Extend them, or let them go.
I'm in the boat that an extension is in order, but we'll see what this University of Minnesota administration decides.