7:00 Pm EST, ESPN – Line: Washington State -11, Over/Under: 61
A pair of teams looking to create some momentum heading into 2017 meet tonight at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, as the Minnesota Golden Gophers and Washington State Cougars face off in the National Funding Holiday Bowl. Tonight’s game couldn’t come at a better time for Minnesota (8-4, 5-4 in Big Ten), who after a two-day boycott from many of their players in regards to the involvement of some of their number in an alleged Sexual Assault Case, are no doubt looking for a nice distraction. Of course, that controversy shouldn’t take away from what has been a very successful season for the Golden Gophers, who with a win tonight could earn their ninth victory, which would be the most since they racked up ten wins back in 2003. After picking up the pieces following the resignation of Jerry Kill back in October of 2015, Tracy Claeys has done a tremendous job of moving forward, building upon the foundation that the former head Coach laid in his four years on the job; Claeys earned the full-time gig after leading his charges to a 21-14 victory over Central Michigan in the Quick Lane Bowl, However, thanks to that off-the-field mess, he will be without a litany of players, particularly on the defensive side of the ball, including the likes of KiAnte Hardin (39 TKL, 3.0 TFL, 2 INT, 4 PD), Antoine Winfield Jr. (52 TKL, 2.5 TFL, 1 INT, 1 TD, 3 PD), and Antonio Shenault (32 TKL, 0.5 TFL, 2 PD), all able members of what has been at times a rather porous Secondary. It remains to be seen just well how this unit will fair against the Cougars’ aerial attack, which is amongst the most formidable in the country; Minnesota yielded an average of 228.2 yards through the air, next-to-last in the Big Ten, while picking off a meager eight passes. What they lack against the pass, they’ve made up in pressure, amassing thirty-five sacks (21st Overall); Defensive Tackle Steven Richardson (30 TKL, 11.0 TFL, 7.0 SK, 2 FF), Linebacker Jonathan Celestin (79 TKL, 7.0 TFL, 2.5 SK, 4 PD, 1 FF), and Hybrid Linebacker/Safety Blake Cashman (33 TKL, 8.5 TFL, 6.5 SK, 1 FF) have each wrecked havoc in opponents’ Backfields on a regular basis, while the Gophers as a team have proven adept at getting their hands on loose footballs, securing a whopping sixteen fumbles. As is usually the case, what this team does best is run the football, which hasn’t changed under Claeys’ watch; Minnesota has rushed for an average 186.4 yards on the ground, picking up a healthy 4.3 Yards per Carry, topping 200 yards on six occasions this year. Rodney Smith leads the team with 1,084 yards (4.9 Y/C) and fifteen touchdowns, while Shannon Brooks has added another 599 yards (4.8 Y/C) and five scores. Senior Quarterback Mitch Leidner factors into the equation too, rushing for 340 yards and ten touchdowns, but his prowess passing the ball has left a lot to be desired. Leidner simply hasn’t progressed the way you’d want a third-year strater to; a year after completing a career-high 59.5% of his attempts for 2,701 yards, fourteen touchdowns and eleven interceptions, the Quarterback has regressed across the board, connecting on 56.4% of his passes for 2,040 yards, seven touchdowns and twelve interceptions. Indeed, the gameplan here is rather elementary, folks; the Gophers need to run the ball, and do so successfully, so that they can limit how frequently the Cougars’ explosive offense is on the field. This is something that they failed to do in their final three games, averaging just 3.07 yards per carry against the likes of Nebraska, Northwestern, and Wisconsin.
Meanwhile, don’t look now, folks, but Washington State (8-4, 7-2 in Pac-12) is on the up and up. After eleven consecutive non-winning seasons, the Cougars have secured their first back-to-back winning campaigns since 2003. In his fifth year on the job in Pullman, Mike Leach has transformed the program into one of the conference’s more competitive, employing his wide-open spread passing game to rather successful results. The aerial attack ranks second in the country in passing yards (370.8 Y/G), surpassing 400 yards on five occasions. At the controls is Luke Falk, who over the last two years has become one of the most prolific passers in the country; the Junior Quarterback ranks fifth overall with 4,204 passing yards and thirty-seven passing touchdowns in 2016 alone. He led the Cougars to their first bowl win in twelve years in last year’s 20-14 victory over Miami (Fla) in the Sun Bowl. Falk completed 29-of-53 passes for 295 yards and a pair of touchdowns, taking advantage of three Hurricanes’ turnovers and nine penalties (105 yards lost). No. 4 has done a solid job of distributing the wealth, seven different players totaling at least 300 receiving yards, including three with over 700 yards. Chief among them has been Gabe Marks, who leads the Receiving Corps with eighty-five receptions for 867 yards and thirteen touchdowns, with Tavares Martin Jr. (61 REC, 708 YDS, 7 TD) and River Cracraft (53 REC, 701 YDS, 5 TD) not far behind. However, the real issue, at least for Minnesota is figuring it out they’re going to cover not just all those Receivers, but the Tailbacks out of the Backfield, for Leach has long been a proponent of utilizing his Backs in such a manner; both James Williams (47 REC, 313 YDS, 1 TD) and Jamal Morrow (43 REC, 464 YDS, 5 TD) have hauled in over forty passes apiece, while Gerard Wicks (28 REC, 180 YDS, 1 TD) adds yet another able pass-catcher to the arsenal. With that said, Washington State still finds enough time to run the ball too, averaging 128.0 yards on 28.1 carries per game, providing just enough balance to keep opposing Defenses honest. Speaking of defense, that’s been a completely different story in Pullman, for there is always a downside to such an up-tempo offensive attack: you give possession back to the opponent frequently. Leach’s Defense has given up a ton of yards this year, relinquishing 416.8 Total Yards, getting shredded for 500+ yards on four occasions, including each of the last three contests. Part of the reason for they’ve given up so many yards is the fact that they are a very aggressive unit, taking a lot of chances, which have worked out in their favor a good bit. The Cougars have forced twenty-two turnovers, while totaling seventeen sacks. Junior Linebacker Peyton Pelleur (89 TKL, 7.5 TFL, 1.0 SK, 2 PD, 1 FF) leads the team in tackles, while Senior Safety Shalom Luani (58 TKL, 8.5 TFL, 2.0 SK, 4 INT, 6 PD, 1 FF) has been the consummate playmaker, with Sophomore Lineman Hercules Mata’afa (45 TKL, 12.5 TFL, 4.0 SK) has frequently taken residence in opponents’ Backfields. We doubt Minnesota is going to try to throw the ball against them very often, so these guys had better buckle up their chinstraps and get ready to defend the run, which is something that they haven’t prospered against lately; Colorado trampled them to the tune of 258 yards and five touchdowns on fifty-nine carries in a 38-24 loss, while Washington hung 168 yards and three scores on thirty-five carries in a 45-17 loss the following week.