-I am stunned. The Minnesota Golden Gophers had no business beating the Washington State Cougars after suspending 10 players and threatening to boycott the Holiday Bowl in a controversial move that drew harsh criticism both locally and nationally. Yet, here we are in the morning after, and the Gophers are champions of the Holiday Bowl following a 17-12 victory over the Mike Leach-coached Cougars. Let’s close out the 2016 season with one final look at the good, the bad, and the ugly.
The Gopher defense. Are you kidding me? Let’s put this in perspective.
Prior to the Holiday Bowl, the Washington State Cougars boasted the second-ranked passing offense in all of college football, averaging 370 passing yards per game. Junior quarterback Luke Falk, an NFL prospect who announced before the bowl game that he would return for his senior season, threw for 4,204 yards and 37 touchdowns in the regular season, with a 71% completion percentage.
Due to suspensions, the Minnesota Golden Gophers were without starting cornerback KiAnte Hardin, starting safety Antoine Winfield, Jr., and back-up cornerbacks Antonio Shenault and Ray Buford. Throw in reserve safety Dior Johnson among the suspensions and the Gophers were left with three scholarship cornerbacks and six scholarship safeties. Freshman Coney Durr, who hadn’t played a down at cornerback all season, was inserted at starting cornerback opposite senior Jalen Myrick. Safety Kunle Ayinde, maligned for much of the season, was suddenly a key contributor again.
Blood was in the water and Washington State was set to feast.
Then the game started.
Up until the final two minutes of the game, that Gopher defense held that Cougar offense to 190 passing yards, two field goals, and no touchdowns. Minnesota delivered a defensive performance for the ages that no one saw coming. Credit defensive coordinator Jay Sawvel for crafting an effective game plan and credit the players for executing it to perfection with a depleted secondary.
Rodney Smith. The Big Ten’s rushing touchdown leader capped a strong sophomore campaign with 74 rushing yards and the game-winning touchdown against Washington State. Smith finished the season with 1,158 rushing yards and 17 total touchdowns.
In the postgame presser, head coach Tracy Claeys revealed that Smith offered to play defensive back and had even practiced at cornerback leading up the bowl game. That’s the definition of a team player. After an impressive sophomore season, Smith heads into next season as a team captain, and I can’t think of a better player to lead this program into an uncertain future. His character speaks for itself.
Blake Cashman. The sophomore linebacker claimed Defensive MVP and capped a breakout season with a team-leading 12 tackles and two tackles-for-loss, including his seventh sack of the season. With how deep the Gophers are at the linebacker position, I don’t know if Cashman will be a starter next season, but he has certainly made it clear he’ll be a key contributor on defense moving forward.
Kunle Ayinde. More than a few Gopher fans, myself included, have been critical of Kunle this season, particularly when he struggled against Penn State. So count me among those more than happy to eat crow with a smile as Kunle set up the Gophers’ final touchdown drive with an interception of Luke Falk on fourth down late in the fourth quarter. I wish his pick six hadn’t been negated by replay
, because that would’ve been a heck of a way to end his career as a Gopher. (EDIT: I had been informed that Kunle, a redshirt junior, had walked with the sniors on Senior Day, but Kunle himself has disputed the report that he will not be back next year)
Gopher special teams. Big Ten Kicker of the Year Emmit Carpenter caught a break when his 43-yard field goal bounced off the upright and dropped behind the post, but that was also his twelfth consecutive field goal made this season. It’s been a spectacular season for the first-year starter at kicker. The former starting kicker, Ryan Santoso, had a strong game at punter after an up-and-down season, averaging 43.9 yards per punt and pinning four of seven punts inside the 20.
Tracy Claeys. The coming weeks will reveal whether Claeys’ brief tenure as head coach of the Golden Gophers is coming to an end or just getting started, but for now he deserves a great deal of credit for a solid first full season at the helm. In addition to being the first head football coach in school history to win his first two career bowl games, Claeys also led the Gophers to their first nine-win season since 2003. There is also something to be said for Claeys keeping the team focused on the bowl game in spite of the turmoil off the field. Regardless of how you feel about how Claeys handled the players’ boycott, he certainly took care of business on the field.
The Gopher offense. Minnesota scored enough points to win the ball game, but if not for an unbelievable defensive performance, fans might be less forgiving. The Gophers averaged 3.7 yards per carry on the ground, rushing for a total of 150 rushing yards. The passing game, as per usual, was anemic for most of the game, amassing 129 yards through four quarters. The offensive line was a glaring problem, but the quarterback and wide receiver positions will be big question marks moving forward, as well. To be honest, I haven’t been that impressed with offensive coordinator Jay Johnson, but I also realize that there are personnel issues outside of his control.
Duke McGhee. It’s bad enough that the Gophers lead the nation with eight targeting penalties on the year, but to have one player responsible for three of them? That is unacceptable. The coaches need to sit down with Duke and evaluate his fundamental approach to tackling, because this can’t continue. Three times is a pattern of behavior, and Duke doesn’t belong on the field if he can’t adjust his approach.
False start penalties. The Gophers were without starting center Tyler Moore and key reserve Jared Weyler, forcing walk-on Matt Leidner into the first start of his career at center. But that is no excuse for six false start penalties. It’s been a problem all season long, and offensive line coach Bart Miller needs to address it. The Washington State defensive line embarrassed the Gopher offensive line early in the game. I realize Miller didn’t have much to work with this season, but discipline is coachable and he has failed miserably in that category, in my opinion. Time to earn that paycheck.
The senior quarterback is in a category all his own. In his final game as a Golden Gopher, Leidner was everything we’ve come to love and hate about the Minnesota native and three-year starter. In the first half, Leidner was for 2-for-9 with 26 passing yards. The offensive line and wide receivers were a factor, but Leidner did himself no favors with poor throws and questionable decisions. In the second half, Leidner was 9-for-11 with 103 passing yards, including a miraculous 13-yard touchdown pass to Shannon Brooks that should’ve been batted to the ground or worse. Altogether, Leidner was neither good, bad, nor ugly. He was simply Mitch.