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Holiday Bowl: Get to know Washington State

The Golden Gophers are familiar with Mike Leach, but haven’t faced the Cougars since 1988

NCAA Football: California at Washington State James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

Washington State Cougars
Head Coach: Mike Leach (5th year, 29-33 record)
Overall Record: 8-4
Conference Record: 7-2 (2nd, Pac-12 North)
Overall S&P+ Ranking: 33rd
Offensive S&P+ Ranking: 15th
Defensive S&P+ Ranking: 63rd

History: This will be the sixth meeting between Minnesota and Washington State, with the Cougars holding a 3-2 advantage in the series. The two programs last met in 1988, when Washington State dropped Minnesota 41-9 in Minneapolis. This will be the Gophers’ first ever trip to the Holiday Bowl, and the third trip for the Cougars.

Season: For the second consecutive year, the Cougars opened the season with a loss to an FCS program, losing 45-42 at home to Eastern Washington. The following week, Washington State suffered a 31-28 setback on the road against Boise State, dropping the Cougars in an 0-2 hole to start the season. But the Cougars responded with eight consecutive wins, including back-to-back victories over Oregon and Stanford. Three of their eight wins — UCLA, Arizona State, and Oregon State — were by six points or less. With an undefeated conference record and a division title at stake, Washington State dropped their last two games of the season — a 38-24 road loss at Pac-12 South champion Colorado and a 45-17 drubbing in the Apple Cup against rival Washington.

Offense: Wherever Mike Leach goes, a prolific passing offense is sure to follow. Washington State is no exception. Junior quarterback Luke Falk, a former walk-on, is the fourth leading passer in college football this season, with 582 pass attempts, 413 completions, 4,204 passing yards, 37 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions. He has passed for 300 yards or more in nine games this season, and passed for 400 yards or more in three of them. The Cougars have 11 receivers with at least 100 receiving yards, but their top target is senior wide receiver Gabe Marks with 85 receptions, 867 receiving yards, and 13 touchdowns. Sophomore Tavares Martin, Jr. (61 receptions, 708 receiving yards, 7 touchdowns) and senior River Cracraft (53 receptions, 701 receiving yards, 5 touchdowns) have also been key cogs in the passing game, although Cracraft tore his ACL against California and missed the last two games of the regular season.

Washington State doesn’t lean much on their rushing offense — averaging 126.8 yards per game on the ground — but have three running backs who share the load. Freshman running back James Williams is the team’s leading rusher with 98 rush attempts, 573 rushing yards, and 5 touchdowns. Junior running backs Jamal Morrow (85 rush attempts, 562 rushing yards, 5 touchdowns) and Gerard Wicks (83 rush attempts, 449 rushing yards, 11 touchdowns) round out the backfield for the Cougars.

The offensive line has allowed 26 sacks this season, which isn’t that bad when you consider how much the Cougars throw the ball. Washington State is 37th in the country in Adjusted Sack Rate according to S&P+. Interestingly enough, the Cougars rank 1st in the country in Stuff Rate, which is the percentage of running back carries that are stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage.

Defense: This will be an interesting matchup for Minnesota. It will be one of the worst passing attacks in college football against one of the worst passing defenses in college football. The Cougars rank 121st in the country in passing defense, allowing 283.6 passing yards per game, while the Gophers rank 108th in the country in passing offense, averaging 177.3 passing yards per game. I imagine some of the Cougars’ struggles in defending the pass can be attributed to their pass rush, which is averaging less than two sacks per game, with just 17 total sacks on the season.

Washington State has been strong against the run, allowing 132 rushing yards per game on defense. Junior linebacker Peyton Pelluer is the team’s leading tackler, with 89 total tackles on the season and 7.5 tackles for loss, including one sack. Sophomore cornerback Darrien Molton, a two-year starter on defense, is the leading tackler in the secondary, with 68 total tackles and six pass break-ups.

On the defensive line, Hercules Mata'afa is the one to watch out for. The sophomore defensive end leads the team with four sacks and 12.5 tackles for loss, and no other defense lineman even ranks among the team’s top ten tacklers.

This is also an opportunistic defensive unit that has forced 22 turnovers, including 10 fumble recoveries and 12 interceptions. Senior safety Shalom Luani would appear to be the ball hawk of the secondary, leading the defense with four interceptions on the season. Luani is also second on the team in tackles for loss with 8.5, and ranks as the defense’s third leading tackler with 58 total tackles on the year.

Special Teams: Junior kicker Erik Powell is the team’s leading scorer, but he is 7-of-13 on field goals and 63-of-65 on extra points. His longest field goal of the season was a 37-yarder against Washington. From beyond the 30-yard line, Powell is 4-for-7. From beyond the 40-yard line, Powell is 0-for-1. Washington State has used both punter Zach Charme and wide receiver Kyle Sweet when punting the ball this year, but Charme has had one punt in their last seven games. Sweet, a rugby-style punter, has booted the ball 31 times this season for an average of 38.7 yards per punt. Seven of his 31 punts have been downed inside the 20-yard line this season.

Sophomore wide receiver and walk-on Kaleb Fossum is the team’s primary punt returner. Fossum averages 10.1 yards per return, but returned one 75 yards for a touchdown against California. Junior safety Robert Taylor is the Cougars’ best weapon on kickoff returns, averaging 22.6 yards per return. Taylor returned a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown against Arizona earlier this season.

Coaching: Gopher fans should be more than familiar with Washington State head coach Mike Leach. Minnesota last faced Leach in the 2006 Insight Bowl, when he was head coach at Texas Tech. Under then head coach Glen Mason, the Gophers opened up a 38-7 lead over the Red Raiders with 7:47 left in the third quarter. Led by prolific quarterback Graham Harrell, Texas Tech led a furious comeback and scored 31 unanswered points, including a 52-yard field goal to tie the score and send the game into overtime. The Red Raiders would win in overtime, 44-41, to complete the largest comeback in bowl history. Mason was fired two days later.