San Diego -- Despite the lingering distrust between the University of Minnesota football team and school officials following the recent suspension of several players for an alleged off-the-field incident, the Golden Gophers managed to ignore the distractions and play determined football, winning the 2016 Holiday Bowl by a score of 17-12 over the Washington State Cougars Tuesday night at Qualcomm Stadium in front of 48,704 fans.
With steady running from Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks, who produced 74 and 51 yards respectively, the Gophers kept the tempo to their liking in what ended up being the third lowest scoring Holiday Bowl.
In addition, Minnesota's defense kept Washington State -- one of the most prolific offenses in the country with a 38.2 points-per-game average -- at bay all game long.
The game started slowly, as the first half ended with Washington State up 6-3 at the half. The Cougars started with a methodical 17-play, 76-yard drive that lasted 6:33 and ended with a short field goal.
Luke Falk was effective early, completing 11 of 14 attempts, passing for 81 yards in the first quarter, and appearing as if he would have a big day. To Minnesota's credit however, the Gophers' defense limited Falk's effectiveness for the rest of the game.
Except for another Cougars field goal that came after a Minnesota fumble gave Washington State a short field, the Gopher defense would not give up another point until very late in the game. In fact, the fumble was the only Minnesota turnover -- one of the keys to the win, as stated by Gophers head coach, Tracy Cleays.
Minnesota took the lead for good shortly after the half, as the Gophers marched down the field for the game's first touchdown. The 84-yard, 10-play drive ate up 5:22 on the clock and was capped by an unusual 13-yard touchdown reception by Brooks. On a third-and-8, quarterback Mitch Leidner's overthrown ball was tipped by Cougar defender Marcellus Pippins, and fell into the hands of a releasing Brooks.
From that point, Minnesota's ground game, coupled with some strategic passes and excellent special teams play (particularly by punter Ryan Santoso), allowed the Gophers to play at their own pace. Santoso, who time and again pinned Washington State near its own endzone, ended up with a 43.9 average on the evening, as he had four of his seven kicks fall inside the 20-yard line.
Minnesota's defense also rose to the occasion by not allowing the Cougars to air it out, as they forced Washington State to run the ball and throw a lot of short passes.
With 3:05 remaining in the game, the struggling Washington State offense decided to take a chance on fourth-and-six from their own 45-yard line and paid for it. After scrambling for a few seconds, Falk floated a ball to the right side, where it was intercepted by Adekunle Ayinde. Ayinde returned the pick to the Cougars 30-yard line.
Minnesota then finished off Washington State by wearing down the Cougars front seven, as Offensive Most Valuable Player Rodney Smith capped off a one-minute, four-play drive with a nine-yard touchdown run to put the Gophers up 17-6.
Although Washington State mounted a late drive and scored its only touchdown, it was too little, too late. After recovering the ensuing onside kick, Minnesota claimed its first back-to-back bowl game wins, something the program can build on for the future.