National Funding Holiday Bowl Preview

Dec. 21, 2016

Minnesota is set to do battle with Washington State in the National Funding Holiday Bowl on Tuesday, Dec. 27, at 7 p.m. ET at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, Calif. The 39th annual event will be televised on ESPN.

Minnesota enters the postseason 8-4 on the year and is set to play in its fifth straight bowl game and 19th overall when it faces the Cougars. The streak of five consecutive bowls is tied for the longest stretch in program history, as the Gophers also played in five straight bowl games from 2002-06. Minnesota snapped a seven-game bowl losing streak last year with a win in the Quick Lane Bowl, under the direction of then first-year head coach Tracy Claeys. Now the Gophers travel to California for the postseason, something they have not done since they beat UCLA 21-3 in the 1962 Rose Bowl. With the Gophers reaching the eight-win mark this season, just as they did in 2013 and 2014, it marks the first time the program has reached that plateau three times in the course of four years since 1903-05. Minnesota is 1-0 this season against the Pac-12, as it opened the season with a 30-23 home win against Oregon State. The victory against Oregon State was Minnesota's first win against a team from the Pac-12 since Dec. 31, 2003, when the Gophers beat Oregon 31-30 in the Sun Bowl.

Under fifth-year head coach Mike Leach, the Cougars finished the regular season 8-4 overall, 7-2 in the Pac-12 play, the second-straight season WSU posted an 8-4 record prior to the bowl game. Washington State is making its second-straight bowl appearance and third overall in Leach's five years, a first for a Cougar head coach. It also marks the 13th overall bowl game for the Cougar program.  Last season WSU defeated Miami, 20-14, in the Sun Bowl. The Cougars, who are 7-5 all-time in bowl games, are making their third appearance in the Holiday Bowl, having lost to No. 14 Brigham Young in 1981 and defeating No. 5 Texas in 2003.

The Gophers have played Washington State five times and are 2-3 all-time. All five games were contested in Minneapolis, but the teams have not met since 1988, when WSU topped the Gophers, 41-9. This is the 12th occasion the Big Ten has played in the National Funding Holiday Bowl.





Scoring Defense

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Total Defense

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Rushing Defense

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Minnesota is fourth in the Big Ten in scoring (30.3), fifth in rushing (186.4), 10th in passing (177.3), and 11th in total yards (363.8). Senior quarterback Mitch Leidner is under center for the Gophers, and is looking to conclude his final season with a fourth-straight impressive performance in a bowl game. He has completed 56-of-83 passes (67.4%) for 686 yards and four touchdowns in games against Syracuse (2013 Texas Bowl), Missouri (2015 Citrus Bowl) and Central Michigan (2015 Quick Lane Bowl). The ground game stars Rodney Smith, an All-Big Ten third-team selection that gained 1,084 yards on 223 carries this year. The sophomore is the 20th Gopher to have ever rushed for 1,000 yards in a season, and his 15 rushing touchdowns are currently third in school history. Joining Smith in the backfield is Shannon Brooks, who was named honorable mention by the Big Ten. Brooks, who missed three games with an injury earlier this season, has rushed 125 times for 599 yards and five touchdowns. The sophomore has rushed 244 times in his career for 1,308 yards in 21 games. Minnesota's go-to receiver this year has been Drew Wolitarsky. The senior has 61 catches for 787 yards and five touchdowns this year, to go along with career totals of 125 catches and 1,676 yards, which both rank in the top 10 in program history. He has caught a pass in 25 straight games (9/3/15 - 11/26/16), which is tied for the sixth longest streak is school history.

Washington State’s defense ranks third in the Pac-12 against the rush (132.9), sixth in scoring (27.2), seventh in total yards allowed (416.5) and 11th in passing (283.6). The Cougars are paced on defense by All-Pac-12 standouts at each of the three levels. In the trenches, a redshirt-sophomore defensive lineman Hercules Mata'afa was honored by the league after finishing fifth in the Pac-12 with 12.5 tackles-for-loss including a team-best four sacks. He enters the Cougars bowl game sixth on the team with 45 tackles. Redshirt-junior linebacker Peyton Pelluer was an honorable mention All-Pac-12 honoree after placing fifth in the Pac-12 with 89 tackles including 7.5 for loss, two fumble recoveries and one forced fumble. He recorded 10-plus tackles three times this season and led the Cougars in tackles the final three games. The featured standout of the Cougars’ defense is senior defensive back Shalom Luani, the program’s first All-Pac-12 First-Team defensive back since Deone Bucannon in 2013. Luani finished the regular season tied for second in the conference with four interceptions along with 58 tackles including 8.5 for loss, second-most on the team and six pass breakups in 11 games.

On offense, Washington State is first in the Pac-12 in passing (370.8), second in total yards (497.6) and scoring (40.3), and 11th in rushing (126.8). The program also locks down the nation’s-best completion percentage at .713. The success of the WSU passing attack begins in the trenches with redshirt-juniors Cole Madison at right tackle and unanimous All-American Cody O’Connell at left guard. O’Connell started 11 games this season, protecting the nation's second-rated passing offense (370.8) and blocked for a rushing attack that owns seven 100-yard efforts including three 200-yard performances. Every dominant passing attack must at least one impressive wideout and a quarterback who can find him constantly, and that is what WSU has. Redshirt-junior QB Luke Falk finished the regular season third in the country in passing yards per game (350.3) and total passing yards (4,204), and tied for fourth with 37 passing touchdowns. The two-time All-Pac-12 honoree will enter the Cougars bowl game with the second-most touchdown passes in both WSU single-season history (37) and WSU career history (88). Gabe Marks was selected to the All-Pac-12 First Team for the second straight year, becoming the first Cougar to do so since offensive lineman Derrick Roche in 2001-02. Marks finished the regular season second in the conference with 85 receptions and 13 receiving touchdowns, tied for second with four 100-yard games and third in receiving yards (867) while also becoming the Pac-12's all-time leader in receptions. He enters the postseason with 312 career catches and second in conference history with 37 career touchdown receptions. James Williams and Jamal Morrow each average nearly 50 rushing yards per contest , while Morrow was recognized as All-Conference after leading the Cougars in all-purpose yards (1,184), second in rushing yards (569), third in total touchdowns (10) and fifth on the team with 44 receptions for 468 yards.

Minnesota’s defense ranks fourth against the rush (124.4), sixth in total yards allowed (352.6), seventh in scoring (22.9), and 13th in defending the pass (228.2). No question that the Gophers will need to tighten up coverage in the secondary to contest Mike Leach’s second-best passing attack in the country. Applying the pressure from the start will be junior defensive tackle Steven Richardson, who started 10 games on the year and paced the team with 11 tackles for loss and seven sacks, despite often drawing multiple blockers. At linebacker, Jonathan Celestin leads the Gophers with 79 tackles and 52 solo stops. He also has 7.0 tackles for loss and 2.4 sacks, and has broken up four passes and also forced one fumble this year as well. Senior safety Damarius Travis is second on the team with 76 tackles, 52 of which have been solo. He has 5.0 tackles for loss, has broken up three passes, made two interceptions, and also recovered one fumble. Minnesota will be without starting safety Antoine Winfield Jr., and three other key cornerbacks in the secondary.

Minnesota boasts one of the best kickers in the nation in Emmit Carpenter. The sophomore was named Big Ten Kicker of the Year and has made 21-of-23 field goals. He has scored 104 points this season, which ranks second all-time for Minnesota kicker behind Dan Nystrom who tallied 109 points in 2000. His 104 points also rank third all-time for any Gopher behind Gary Russell (114 points in 2005) and Nystrom. Carpenter made his first nine field goals to start the year and has connected on his last 11 attempts (fourth longest streak in school history) heading into the National Funding Holiday Bowl. He is a perfect 9-of-9 on field goals from 40 yards or greater and is the only kicker in the nation - minimum of six kicks - to accomplish this feat. Punter Ryan Santoso averages 40.6 yards per punt, and Jalen Myrick (22.1) and Rodney Smith (34.3) both posted impressive kickoff return averages this season, while eclipsing 200 return yards each. Washington State ranks second in the Pac-12 and ninth nationally in punt returns (14.68). Kaleb Fossum is 17th nationally with 10.1 yards per punt return, and Robert Taylor averages 22.6 yards per kick return, which includes two touchdowns. Kicker Eric Powell has struggled with field goals, making just 7-of-13 for the Pac-12’s lowest field-goal percentage (.538).