Feature graphic courtesy of Sarah Sopher
Minnesota (8-4) v. Washington State (8-4)
Where: Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, CA
When: Tuesday, December 27th at 7:00 PM on ESPN
How they got here:
The Golden Gophers benefitted from an easier schedule and an improved recruiting class from last year. Minnesota started off the season strong, going 3-0 in their non-conference games. Shortly after, the Golden Gophers hit a road bump as they lost their first two conference games, but quickly righted the ship by winning their next four. To finish the season, they went 1-2, but their two losses, both away games to ranked opposition, were close, though-fought games. Minnesota ended up finishing 5-4 in the Big Ten, with all four of their losses coming against tough opposition: Penn State, Iowa, Nebraska, and Wisconsin.
Controversy struck the team when ten players were suspended by the university due to accusations of sexual abuse stemming from an incident in September. In response, the rest of the team threatened to boycott the game, even holding a press conference on the matter. The boycott lasted only a few days and now, the team is back to training for the game. Had they boycotted the game, the 5-7 Northern Illinois Huskies would have taken Minnesota’s place because they had the highest Academic Progress Rate among all other 5-7 teams.
Why they can win:
Minnesota’s offense is dominated by their rushing game. Two running backs on the team have each scored at least ten touchdowns this season, and their top two rushers have over 1,600 rushing yards combined. Overall, the Golden Gophers averaged a robust 186.4 yards on the ground this season. The team averaged 30.3 points per game and outscored their opponents 203-96 in the first half, so if the Golden Gophers are going to win, they need to come out strong and score quickly.
On the defensive end, the Golden Gophers have not given up more than 32 points in a game this season, giving up an average of 22.9 points per game. Minnesota held their opponents to less than 14 points four times this season, going 3-1 in those games. The Golden Gophers’ rush defense was their strength, limiting opponents to 124.4 rushing yards a game. Along with a quick start, the Gophers need to stop the Cougars on the run. Washington State only averages 126.8 rushing yards a game, so Minnesota should have an easy time stopping the rush. However, it is the passing game that Minnesota has to watch out for. Though they only let up 228.2 passing yards a game this season, they are facing an offense that averages 370.8 passing yards a game. Minnesota’s secondary will have to tighten up to try and contain Mike Leach’s famous Air Raid offense.
Player to watch: Running back Rodney Smith
The sophomore ran for 1,084 yards and 15 touchdowns on the season. Smith had six games with 100 rushing yards or more, averaging 90.3 rushing yards per game. Since Minnesota’s passing game is weak this season, Smith has had to take on a lot more responsibility as the focal point of the Golden Gophers’ offense. Compared to last season, Smith rushed for over 400 more yards and scored 13 more touchdowns. His stock is on the rise, and going up against a weak rushing defense like Washington State’s, Smith could have a monster day in San Diego.
Washington State (8-4)
How they got here:
Washington State played a relatively tough schedule this season, facing three ranked opponents. The Cougars started off the season roughly, going 1-2 in their non-conference games. However, they quickly turned their bad start around, winning their first seven conference games, including a 42-16 win on the road at then-No. 15 Stanford. They were ranked as high as No. 23 in the College Football Playoff rankings before losing their last two games of the season to then-No. 12 Colorado and then-No. 6 Washington. Overall, the Cougars finished with a 1-2 record against ranked opposition, a 7-2 conference record, and an 8-4 record overall.
Why they can win:
The Cougars’ offense is one of the highest-scoring offenses in the country, averaging 40.3 points per game. Their offense is led by quarterback Luke Falk, who threw for 4,204 yards and 37 touchdowns this season. Washington State has three receivers who have over 700 receiving yards and four who have at least five touchdowns on the year. The Cougars averaged 497.6 total yards of offense this season, so they will be a formidable force coming into the game. Minnesota’s -35 point differential in the 3rd quarter, compared to Washington State’s +43 point could prove to be the deciding factor in this one.
On the defensive end, the Cougars let up an average of 27.2 points per game. These numbers are skewed by their losses, in which they have let up an average of 39.8 points a game. In their wins, however, they only give up 20.9 points a game. While Minnesota’s running game is strong, the Cougars only let up 132.9 rushing yards a game this season. Where Washington State can capitalize is on Minnesota’s passing game. Minnesota quarterback Mitch Leidner only threw for 2,040 yards this season, while throwing five more interceptions than touchdowns. Washington State had 30 takeaways this season, averaging 2.5 per game. If the Cougars are going to win this game, they need Falk to be on his A-game and they need to pressure Leidner throughout.
Player to watch: Quarterback Luke Falk
Falk threw for 4,204 yards and 37 touchdowns, averaging 350.3 passing yards a game this season. This is the second straight season that Falk threw for over 4,200 yards and over 37 touchdowns, which are impressive numbers by college standards, not to mention that his 71 percent completion rate was second in the country by 0.2 percent. He improved his completion percentage by almost 2 percent from last season, when he finished second in the nation as well. He is also a veteran on the team, which comes as a major bonus. Look for Falk to put up big numbers against the Golden Gophers in the Holiday Bowl.
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