The 2016 National Funding Holiday Bowl: It's the bowl game that almost wasn't. Or, at least, the 39th edition of the San Diego-hosted contest almost got a drastic makeover when the Minnesota Golden Gophers teased a boycott, the result of 10 player suspensions.
Much to the chagrin of Northern Illinois – the next team up in line for a bowl bid – Minnesota reversed course. The Holiday Bowl's Big Ten vs. Pac-12 showcase is on as planned.
The bowl season does not have another game pitting two more differently constructed teams than this. Washington State boasts the nation's second-ranked passing offense – typical for any team coached by air-raid offense guru Mike Leach. Minnesota ranks No. 108 nationally with the pass, and the Gophers have more interceptions (12) than touchdowns (8) through the air.
Nevertheless, Minnesota reached eight wins under head coach Tracy Claeys with a multifaceted rushing attack and stout defense, keeping in place the identity Claeys' former colleague Jerry Kill instilled while turning this program around earlier in the decade.
Indicative of just how substantially Kill improved Minnesota football, consider that 2016 marks the Gophers' fifth consecutive bowl season, matching a program-best run from 2002-06. Washington State's enjoying its own milestone of prosperity, pursuing the nine-win mark for the second time in as many seasons.
The last time the Cougars hit nine wins in back-to-back campaign was 2002-03. The latter campaign also ended in the Holiday Bowl, which Washington State won over Texas, 28-20.
National Funding Holiday Bowl: Minnesota vs. Washington State (San Diego)
Kickoff: Tuesday, Dec. 27 at 7 p.m. ET
Where: Qualcomm Stadium (San Diego)
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Washington State -10.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Luke Falk's Last Hurrah?
Washington State’s quarterback has not yet announced his intentions for the 2017 season. However, NFL scouts reportedly warmed on him over the course of a 2016 regular season in which Falk threw for 37 touchdowns, 4,204 yards and completed 71 percent of his attempts.
Falk could give professional scouts and front-office personnel more warm feelings with a grand finale at the Holiday Bowl, but the Minnesota passing defense will test him.
The Golden Gophers limited opponents to 6.3 yards per attempt, tied for 16th-best in college football. Falk isn't necessarily a quarterback reliant on lofty per-attempt numbers to flourish – his 7.2 ranks near the bottom of the nation's most prolific passers. That's a byproduct of the diversity needed to make the Washington State air raid work.
To that same end, however, Falk needs an effective deep ball to effectively spread the field. Losing River Cracraft to injury late in the campaign limited Falk's ability to stretch the field to its max, and result in losses against Colorado and Washington were two of the quarterback's worst statistical outings of 2016.
2. Getting it Going on the Ground
The importance of an effective rushing game plan goes without saying for Minnesota. The Gophers average nearly 190 rushing yards per game, have scored more than four times as many touchdowns on the ground (33) as through the air (8), and employ a multiple-ball carrier look that's resulted in four different players rushing for at least 242 yards on the season.
For Washington State, however, a multifaceted rushing approach has given an offense that previously relied almost exclusively on the pass a new look.
None of the Cougars' three primary ball carriers – James Williams, Jamal Morrow and Gerard Wicks – match Minnesota's Rodney Smith or Shannon Brooks. Smith has 1,084 yards on the season, with Brooks providing 599. However, each of the three Washington State running backs exceeded or approached 500 yards – a downright astronomical number in Leach's offense – and all three average between 5.4 and 6.6 yards per game.
Neither offense is likely to have an easy time establishing its rushing attack. Minnesota and Washington State boast two of the best defenses against the run in their respective conferences. The Gophers held opponents to just 3.47 yards per carry, powered by an outstanding front seven.
Linebacker Jonathan Celestin does a little of everything, while the team's best blitzer, Steven Richardson, wreaks havoc in the backfield.
Washington State's holding opponents to 4.1 yards per carry, with the line setting the tone. Hercules Mata'afa and Nnamdi Oguayo are two of the best the Pac-12 has to offer up front.
3. Turnovers Come at a Premium
Barring a sudden rainstorm – they do roll into typically sunny San Diego this time of year (see last week’s Poinsettia Bowl) – expect a cleanly played game on offense for both teams. The Gophers and Cougars each rank in the top 26 nationally in turnover margin, and have matching 16 giveaways on the season.
Washington State’s tendency to throw the ball does not translate to many interceptions, surprisingly. Minnesota's ability to generate one could be game-changing. Falk was picked off at least once in all four of the Cougars' losses.
Moreover, Washington State went 1-2 in games it lost the turnover battle this season. The lone win came over Oregon State, a common opponent shared with Minnesota.
Maintaining possession is equally vital to Minnesota's outlook – perhaps more so, since the Gophers play a slower tempo. Claeys' ball club went 0-3 in games it fell on the negative side of the turnover margin.
"Distraction" is one of those clichés tossed around during bowl season, the significance of which is debatable. Teams play with interim head coaches, without star players, and with little more on the line than pride. Minnesota enters the Holiday Bowl in uncharted territory on this front, however, only lifting its boycott a few days prior to the Gophers' schedule leave date of Dec. 23.
Las Vegas sees the possibility for shake-up, evident in a full touchdown jump in the Vegas Insider point-spread consensus.
Still, this is an intriguing styles clash, one in which the Golden Gophers could force the Cougars into their style of play. Washington State must get its defense off the field quickly in the early going to establish a heightened tempo.