After ten suspensions and a boycott that was started and finished — the Gophers still had a bowl game to play in.
Minnesota’s secondary was depleted and had to face Washington State quarterback Luke Falk and the second-ranked passing offense in the nation.
With off-the-field issues in tow, Minnesota still managed to defeat double-digit favorite Washington State 17-12 Tuesday in the Holiday Bowl in San Diego, Calif. at Qualcomm Stadium.
“It’s a simple saying, but it’s very true, winning solves a lot of problems,” said Gophers head coach Tracy Claeys.
The win was Minnesota’s ninth of the season, just the second time since 1905, the team had garnered over eight wins in one year.
Minnesota (9-4) was faced with a near impossible task of trying to compete in a bowl game with more off-the-field issues in the program’s history than in recent memory.
The team staged a boycott of all football activities over the suspension of ten players connected to an alleged sexual assault — and threatened to not play in the bowl game — but lifted the boycott after two days.
The Gophers had to play Washington State (8-5) — a team with a prolific passing offense — down four key contributors in the secondary.
The defense was able to hold Falk to 264 passing yards — his second lowest in a game this season — as Washington State was limited to one touchdown.
“We made them throw the short ball and didn't let them get the deep ball,” said Minnesota safety Damarius Travis. “[Falk] didn't have the look that he wanted.”
The Gophers were down 6-3 at halftime, but had a stroke of luck to take the lead in the third quarter.
Redshirt senior quarterback Mitch Leidner threw the ball into the end zone after heavy pressure was coming to him.
There was nobody near the goal line but Washington State defensive backs, and Marcellus Pippins swatted the ball down.
Gophers running back Shannon Brooks scooped the ball before it hit the ground, and had the touchdown for a 10-6 lead.
“I usually end up on the wrong side of those,” Leidner said. “[Pippins] played a good play and tipped it into Shannon’s hands for me.”
The adversity for the Gophers continued right before the game.
Center Tyler Moore — the team’s starter for every game this season and most of last year — was ruled out with a back injury. Matt Leidner, Mitch Leidner’s younger brother, was called on to make his first career start.
In the third quarter, freshman Coney Durr, the cornerback who was making his first career start in light of the suspensions, left the game with a knee injury.
Minnesota’s star defensive lineman Steven Richardson left the game with an injury almost immediately after.
Running back Rodney Smith, the Gophers’ eventual offensive most valuable player for the game, offered to play in the secondary for the first time in his career, Claeys said.
With one more injury, Smith may have been needed. But his offensive production was enough.
He rushed for 74 yards and scored the dagger touchdown, a 9-yard run with 2:06 left in the game to put Minnesota up 17-6.
Smith’s touchdown was set up on an interception by safety Adekunle Ayinde as the Cougars were driving down the field. It was his first interception of his career.
Washington State scored on an 8-yard pass from Falk to wide receiver Kyle Sweet with 19 seconds left, but it was too little, too late.
Washington State, a team that averaged over 40 points a game this season, was held to 12 points, 7 of 19 on third down conversions, and punted the ball eight times, a season high by two.
“If you're going to stop them … you’ve got to tackle well in space,” Claeys said. “That credit goes to the kids. We got them to dump the ball off in space and our guys ran and tackled extremely well.”
Leidner finished with 129 yards on 20 attempts with one touchdown. Wide receiver Drew Wolitarsky had 73 of those yards.
Linebacker Blake Cashman — a walk-on who didn’t see significant time at the position until later this season — led the team with nine tackles, two of them for a loss, and won the defensive most valuable player.
The announced audience of 48,704 was mostly Washington State fans, but by the end, the Cougars were on the receiving end of jeers from the crowd.
The Gophers ended their boycott on Dec. 17. Ten days later, the players were rushing over to Washington State’s sideline to grab the Holiday Bowl trophy.
Smith held onto the trophy well after the game. For the first time in a while, the Gophers spoke publicly with smiles on their faces.
Here's Rodney Smith, Holiday Bowl offensive MVP, holding up the trophy that'll go back to Minneapolis pic.twitter.com/5SvgK9p6AD— Mike Hendrickson (@MHendrickson18) December 28, 2016
Claeys said shortly after the boycott that his job status could be in jeopardy. The suspensions still remain intact and players are expected to transfer.
Uncertainty for the program lies ahead, but Claeys wasn’t thinking about that Tuesday night.
“What's important is [when] you walk in the locker room and you see the smiles on the kids' faces, that's what's important,” Claeys said. “I get great joy to sit here and [see] those guys sitting here smiling. I will sleep awfully good through the new year.”