If college football had a villain this season, it may well have been the Minnesota Golden Gophers. Its players on Dec. 15 attempted a boycott of the Holiday Bowl, in support of 10 players suspended for a campus sexual assault. It appeared to the world as if they were defending the indefensible, yet had the backing of coach Tracey Claeys.
The school didn’t back down, the boycott lasted 36 hours before dissolving, and the Gophers, minus 10 players and all dignity, showed up in San Diego’s Qualcomm Stadium Tuesday night 10-point underdogs to Washington State.
They won the Holiday Bowl, 17-12 (box). The Cougars handed a file to the prisoners, who sawed their way out.
Outplayed throughout, the Pac-12 Conference’s second-highest scoring offense (40.3 ppg) managed two field goals until the final minute against a secondary that had three of its starters suspended. Star QB Luke Falk was 30-for-51 and 264 yards, nearly 90 yards below his average, and threw a wild pick in the fourth quarter that set up the Gophers’ final TD.
It was the most desultory bowl performance of coach Mike Leach’s five-year tenure. And for a bowl tradition that has featured wild scoring, the two 8-4 teams set back offense to the days of the single-wing and leather helmets.
“We allowed ourselves to get frustrated,” Leach told ESPN 710 radio. “If you do that (the outcome) is what you get to show for it.
“We had a great week of practice. We just kind of mentally were playing in a phone booth. We’d do certain kind of things we feel really good about: Run the perfect play, throw the perfect pass, when we needed to let it rip.”
The Cougars ended their season with a three-game losing streak after winning eight in a row, the longest streak since 1930. Meanwhile, they may have tossed a career-preserver to Claeys, who is facing a petition drive back home demanding his resignation after hailing his support of the boycott with this tweet: “Have never been more proud of our kids. I respect their rights & support their effort to make a better world!”
He has since apologized for failing to consider the plight of the assault victim, a problem he shared with his players.
The Cougars earlier had their own player-behavior issues, only not as serious as the Minnesota episode. DT Robert Barber was suspended, expelled and then reinstated for his role in a Pullman fight over the summer. A judge took issue with WSU’s due process, and an administration review of the mess is underway.
As for the game, the Cougs had a 6-3 halftime lead but lost it on a fluke defensive mistake on the first possession of the third quarter. CB Marcellus Pippins reached up with his right hand and deflected a badly overthrown pass by QB Mitch Leidner in the end zone right to WR Shannon Brooks for the TD and a 10-6 lead. That finished an 84-yard, 10-play drive.
Leach said the offense was poor and special teams sub-par. He said the defense “had a pretty good game, but there’s that killer instinct. We got to develop that.”
During the week, Leach said he believed Falk would return for his senior season but Falk has not said anything publicly . . . Washington State has a 7-6 bowl record. The Cougs beat Miami in the Sun Bowl last season . . . Leach is the first coach in WSU history to have three bowl games in his first five years. He is a career 6-6 in bowl games at Pullman and Texas Tech . . . In the 2006 Insight Bowl win over Minnesota, Leach led Tech to the largest comeback win in NCAA bowl history, erasing a 38-7 deficit with 31 straight points before winning in overtime, 44-41 . . . WSU was estimated to have sold about 7,800 tickets, Minnesota about 2,600.