COUGFAN.COM: What’s the overall climate surrounding the football team these days, how do you see the off-field issues affecting Minnesota in the Holiday Bowl?
Burns: I'd say the overall climate surrounding this Gopher football team right now is tumultuous. There has been a lot of media coverage in the Twin Cities and across the country about the boycott, and it still seems that there's some confusion on what the players were upset about. I can tell you the boycott is about the "due process" that wasn't given in these players’ minds -- and that some of the players suspended weren't a part of the police investigation, but then spoke with Title IX group not knowing they were "suspects." And then they found out they were being suspended and their hearing wouldn't be until the middle of January.
There's no doubt that these issues are going to affect Minnesota as they're down five players in the secondary against one of the most prolific passing attacks in college football. The team has rallied around itself, but the lack of depth and experience in the secondary for this game is frightening.
COUGFAN.COM: How do you envision the Minnesota secondary holding up down two starters, and tell our readers a little more on the players who will replace the two suspended defensive backs.
Burns: I don't see them holding up for an entire game. Minnesota will be without one of their starting corners in KiAnte Hardin who has arguably been their best corner this season, and they'll be without freshman safety Antoine Winfield Jr. who was absolutely fantastic in Big Ten play and who made true freshman All-America teams. They'll also be without their two backup corners in Ray Buford and Antonio Shenault, so you can see how things are worrisome for this group heading into Tuesday's game.
I expect true freshman Coney Durr to start along side Jalen Myrick at corner, and when he steps on the field Tuesday on defense, those reps will be his first defensive snaps of the season. Durr has been a key contributor on special teams, but because of the depth ahead of him, he hadn't seen snaps at corner this season before the Holiday Bowl. Durr was a very good get for Minnesota over North Carolina and Virginia Tech last recruiting class, and now it's going to be time to shine for the Louisiana freshman. I also expect a combination of Kunle Ayinde and Duke McGhee in at nickel and the other safety spot with stud safety Damarius Travis. Ayinde was benched earlier this year because of inconsistent play, and McGhee is a big hitter from the safety spot.
The depth behind this group is inexperienced in Zo Craighton, Jacob Huff and Eric Amoako, so Jay Sawvel has his work cut out for him.
COUGFAN.COM: Give our readers the scoop on the Minnesota O, including the key players to watch. Strengths? Weaknesses?
Burns: Minnesota's strengths on offense lie in its running backs. Rodney Smith was third team All-Big-Ten selection (should have been second team, but he doesn't wear Ohio State or Michigan colors) and he was sensational for the Gophers this season. He ran for 15 rushing touchdowns and over 1,000 rushing yards behind what I consider a bottom 25 run blocking offensive line. Smith constantly had to create for himself because of stacked boxes and average execution up front, and he's going to be fun to watch against this defense. Shannon Brooks is another running back to watch as he's Minnesota's home run threat for this offense. Every time he touches the ball, he's a threat to take it to the house and while he battled some injuries earlier in the season, he's healthy now.
Gophers senior quarterback Mitch Leidner didn't quite have the senior season that many Minnesota fans were hoping to see after completing 56 percent of his passes for only 2,040 passing yards and a touchdown to interception ratio of 7:12. He was a great threat in the red zone with his legs, though, as he's been throughout his entire career -- he rushed for 10 scores this season, but he's been inconsistent with his arm and accuracy when things mattered most for Minnesota in 2016. The passing game as a whole has struggled mightly, so it'll be an interesting matchup on Tuesday.
COUGFAN.COM: Same questions for the Minnesota D.
Burns: If everyone was going to be active for Minnesota in this contest, I'd say this would be an intriguing battle between a very capable Cougar offense vs. a top 25 passing and running defense in the Golden Gophers. That being said, you take out four of Minnesota's top secondary players and I'm not sure how much resistance there's actually going to be now.
Minnesota's front seven got it done all year as defensive tackle Steven Richardson was a workhorse on each and every snap, earning himself third team All-Big-Ten honors. Minnesota's linebackers also came on during the latter half of the season with Blake Cashman becoming a fantastic pass rusher for the Gophers.
The back seven had been solid, but now with the lack of bodies and experience there now, I don't think that'll quite be the case in this game.
COUGFAN.COM: What's your WSU-Minnesota prediction including score? Write as much as you'd like for our readers on how you see this Holiday Bowl playing out.
Burns: I see this as an 11-point victory for Washington State, 35-24. If Minnesota can consistently create pressure throughout the game, I think they'll have a shot as that can help out the secondary. But if Luke Falk is given plenty of time, I don't know how this Gopher offense can compete.
COUGFAN.COM: Bonus question ... There has been media speculation Tracy Claeys might not hold onto his job in 2017. What’s your take?
Burns: There has absolutely a ton of speculation that Claeys may not be at Minnesota following the bowl game. There was supposed to be an extension coming, but that was before Minnesota's Title IX group released their findings. We at GopherIllustrated.com have heard things on both sides for Claeys being retained, being extended and being fired, so we'll see what president Eric Kaler and athletic director Mark Coyle decide.
I have little to no faith in Kaler and Coyle to make a prompt decision, as that's been Kaler's MO throughout his time here, so we'll see what happens following the bowl.