Holiday Bowl loss a byproduct of program culture

Braden Johnson | Evergreen sports editor

For as out of sync as Luke Falk looked last night, with the exception of the team’s first and last scoring drives, let’s be clear; WSU does not have a problem with its redshirt junior quarterback.

“I’m not focused on that at all,” Falk said when asked about his status for next season after the game. “All my effort has been toward the team. Next question.”

Good, because Falk sure did not look the part Tuesday night in the Cougars’ 17-12 Holiday Bowl loss to Minnesota, throwing for just 264 yards and one garbage time touchdown.

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Let’s also establish that the team’s three-game losing streak to end the season, culminated with a disinterested and post-Apple Cup hangover effort against a reeling Gophers program, is not indicative of Head Coach Mike Leach’s play calling abilities.

Not exactly sure why the team deviated from its offensive strategy on the opening drive, ripping off counters, screens and curls to the outside on a 17-play, 76-yard effort that resulted in a field goal. Minnesota blitzed off the edge all game, played receivers close to the line of scrimmage and stuffed the box up the middle, so it was certainly odd to see WSU calling dives and throwing the ball deep with a rickety quarterback.

“I don’t know how that happens,” redshirt senior Gabe Marks said after his final game for WSU. “I don’t know how you can go and win eight games in a row against top competition and then just, I don’t know.”

Wondering the same thing, Gabe. Could not have said it better myself.

But Falk and Leach’s evolving air raid offense has brought WSU football back to relevance among other program-wide improvements, so it’s tough to declare an off-night for the both of them as an indicator of why the Cougars accounted for only 303 yards of offense and lost a game everyone pegged them to win.

What we have here folks, is neither a talent pool problem nor an issue with offensive or defensive identity. WSU football is caught full bore in a struggle to define its culture, and it reared its ugly head again in the Holiday Bowl.

To review, a second-consecutive loss to an FCS school causes one to ponder why the program has failed to win a week one game under Leach, especially when this year’s squad looked no better a week later in a close loss at Boise State.

More importantly though, riding an eight-game winning streak following a deflating start to the season, what variables were at play internally that potentially explain how the team deviated from what worked in preparation and play calling on its collapse to end the season?

Did senior wide receiver River Cracraft’s season-ending ACL injury gut the soul of a unit? Was the winning streak misleading, as seven of those wins came against teams with a losing record, and did it infatuate the public with the idea that the Cougars could play with stronger opponents (see no. 4 Washington and No. 10 Colorado)

There’s no real answer here. At least not right now. The parallels remain the same, however.

WSU was pushed backwards in the trenches by Minnesota, sporadic on offense and failed to open up the creativity in the playbook and adjust mid-game. Sound like a familiar narrative?

“If that’s the case, somehow it’s a total dereliction on our part as coaches that we have to address,” Leach said when asked if the team was too overconfident heading into the game. “The most important thing you do as a coach is you create a sense in your player that they respect all opponents, no matter who they are. I’ll be honest, there is a part of me that wonders if we did successfully.”

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A petition was released Monday calling for Claeys’ firing. Minnesota was without 10 players under suspension stemming from an alleged sexual assault on Sept. 2, four of whom are defensive backs. WSU’s passing attack entered the game averaging 362.5 yards per game, third nationally and expected to outrace the Gophers 90th-ranked total offense (4,644 yards).

Yet it was Minnesota that played focused, modified its gameplan and gradually wore down the Cougars’ morale. WSU, for as good as it was between games three and 10, saw the same issues resurface offensively from its four losses.

“Play anybody and they underestimate us,” Minnesota redshirt senior safety Damarius Travis said. “Don’t matter if it’s Washington State or not, we’ve always been the underdogs.”

Sure, the Gophers disguised their blitzes and mixed up coverage nicely, but the WSU defense held Minnesota to just 280 yards of offense. Point being, the game came down to which offensive unit made plays in the second half and exited halftime with an adjusted approach.

Minnesota curled its receivers across the middle of the field, ran a flea flicker and mixed in play action passes on its 10-play, 84-yard scoring drive to open the second half and take the lead for good at 10-6 with 3:23 left in the third quarter. Before scoring with 19 seconds remaining in the game, WSU ran just 18 plays for 47 yards on its four previous drives in the second half.

There’s no individual solely to blame for this one. The Cougars were simply outworked, and that stems from practice, strategy and execution. 

Both teams had the same number of practices (10) and partook in a similar series of media events, but Minnesota had everything working against it while WSU entered with a host of advantages. 

 

At the end of the day, however, the Gophers played as though this was their most prestigious bowl game appearance in 13 years and WSU looked like it failed to evolve throughout the season.

 

That’s a problem with the culture created internally, and both players and coaches create it.

Photos taken by Luke Hollister and Ryan Pugh

WSU outclassed in Holiday Bowl loss

Braden Johnson | Evergreen sports editor

As six-and-a-half point betting favorites with a crowd twice the size of Minnesota’s and a passing attack ranked second nationally in yards per game, WSU entered the Holiday Bowl with a hefty set of expectations.

As redshirt senior wide receiver Gabe Marks could not meet the camera’s eye after the game and redshirt junior quarterback Luke Falk sulked in his chair and reflected on a host of missed passes, it all came crashing down in the team’s 17-12 loss to the Golden Gophers.

“The worst thing I saw is that we had a certain number of people pouting on the sideline,” WSU Head Coach Mike Leach said. “All of the sudden, it didn’t go our way and we started pouting. And Minnesota gets a lot of credit for how they played. They should be very proud of their team.”

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Amidst distractions of the team’s two-day boycott of all football activities from Dec. 15-17 and the release of a petition calling for the firing of Head Coach Tracy Claeys on Monday, the Gophers pressured Falk all game from the outside and gradually drove the WSU defense into submission with a flurry of read option runs and play action passes.

Falk finished the game 30-51 for just 264 yards and did not register a touchdown pass until there was 19 seconds remaining in the game and Minnesota had sealed the victory.

WSU stalled on its first offensive possession inside the 10 yard line and had to settle for a field goal from 26 yards. After forcing the Gophers into a three-and-out on their opening drive and rattling off a 17-play scoring drive to go up 3-0, Minnesota played the Cougars’ wide receivers tight at the line of scrimmage and took away Falk’s first and second reads.

“We really did that to ourselves today,” Falk said. “We really shot ourselves in the foot. We just didn’t execute- starts with me getting the guys going. We just really left a lot out on the table and (have) to do better at the quarterback position. You have a good day at the quarterback position and things like this don’t happen.”

WSU entered the game averaging 497 yards of offense per game and 40.3 points per game but were held to 303 yards Tuesday night, a number inflated by it’s 76-yard scoring drive on its first possession and 79 yards gained on Falk’s touchdown pass to sophomore wide receiver Kyle Sweet at the end of the fourth quarter.

Falk’s performance also came against a team missing two starters and two second-string reserves in its secondary, as freshman Antoine Winfield Jr., redshirt freshman Ray Buford Jr and sophomores  sophomore KiAnte Hardin and Antonio Shenault were among the 10 players suspended for the game as a result of an investigation into an alleged sexual assault committed on Sept. 2.

The Gophers evened the score at three after redshirt sophomore kicker Emmit Carpenter’s 43-yard field goal attempt clanged off the right goalpost and dropped through the uprights with 7:26 left in the second quarter.

The Cougars retook the lead 6-3 off a fumble from Minnesota redshirt senior quarterback Mitch Leidner at the 38 yard line with a 41-yard field goal with 33 seconds remaining before halftime.

Minnesota opened up the passing game on its first possession in the third quarter, threading receivers underneath the WSU secondary on a 10-play, 84-yard drive to go up 10-6 off a tipped pass by redshirt junior cornerback Marcellus Pippins into the hands of sophomore running back Shannon Brooks from the 13 yard line in the left corner of the end zone.

“I kept telling guys on the sideline not to feel bad,” Claeys said. “We’ve been in a lot of games this year that we’ve lost and had a number of breaks that didn’t go our way before.”

Falk’s interception on fourth-and-six from the WSU 45-yard line gave the Gophers the ball at the 30 yard line with just over three minutes to play in the game and from there, Brooks and offensive MVP redshrt sophomore running back Rodney Smith bulldozed their way into the end zone against a tired WSU defense. Smith’s nine-yard touchdown run punctuated his 17-carry, 77-yard performance.

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“Our offense was horrible today,” Marks said. “It’s our fault. We lost the first two games because we weren’t ready to play, and we lost the last three games because we weren’t ready to play. We left a lot on the table.”

Minnesota netted just 280 yards of offense in the game. Leidner finished the game 11-20 with 129 yards passing. Tuesday’s contest marked the third-lowest scoring gamee in Holiday Bowl history.

Minnesota finishes its season 9-4 while the Cougars drop to 8-5.

Photo credits to Luke Hollister and Ryan Pugh

 

 

 

Cougars in a dogfight with Minnesota

Braden Johnson | Evergreen sports editor 

WSU redshirt junior kicker Erik Powell nailed a 41-yard field goal with 33 seconds remaining in the first half to put the Cougars up 6-3 going into the break.

The Cougars took advantage of a fumble from Minnesota redshirt senior quarterback Mitch Leidner at the 38 yard line with 2:29 left in the second quarter.

Both teams struggled to find any sort of consistency on offense in the first half. WSU was forced into three-consecutive three-and-outs on offense midway through and the Gophers committed four false start penalties in the period.

Powell put the Cougars on the board first with a 26-yard field goal nearly nine minutes into the game to cap off a 17-play, 76-yard drive on the team’s first possession. WSU ate up more than six-and-a-half minutes of play clock on the drive.

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Leidner completed just two passes in the half, but the Gophers utilized a read option rushing attack to control time of possession and keep the WSU offense off the field. Redshirt sophomore kicker Emmit Carpenter clanged a 43-yard field goal attempt off the right goalpost and through the uprights halfway through the second quarter to tie the game at three.

The Gophers steadily ramped up the pressure on WSU redshirt junior quarterback Luke Falk throughout the half and took away running room on screens and slant patterns. Falk finished the half 16-25 with 117 yards.

Minnesota combined for 84 yards on the ground in the half, using a mix of counters, dives and scrambles off broken pass plays from Leidner to work its way down the field but went one for seven on third down conversions. WSU was two for nine on third down in comparison.

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Both teams were held under 150 yards of offense in the half, with WSU out-gaining the Gophers 134-110.

WSU will receive the ball to start the second half.

Support for Claeys from fans has been mixed

Braden Johnson | Evergreen sports editor

Members of the Minnesota football team officially ended their boycott of all football activities on Dec. 17, but its ramifications for Head Coach Tracy Claeys appear far from over.

A petition was released Monday calling for the firing of Claeys in response to his support of the players’ boycott. The ‘MoveON.com” petition has more than 400 signatures and was sent to university president Eric Kaler and athletic director Mark Coyle. Organizers also plan to send the petition to the university’s board of trustees.

The petition writes that Claeys “failed to mention or acknowledge the importance of respecting women. Further, it did not condemn violence, sexual assault or disrespect of women. We feel this is not at all acceptable.”

The petition is largely a response to a tweet Claeys sent out on Dec. 15 offering his support for the players’ stance on the issue.

Claeys said, “Have never been more proud of our kids. I respect their rights & support their effort to make a better world!”

One anonymous fan said at the Holiday Bowl Marching Showcase that he believes a WSU win will prompt the athletic department to remove Claeys from his position.

Another pair of fans who traveled from Minnesota, Mike and Suzanne Lane, said they support Claeys even though “he’s no coach (Jerry) Kill.”

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Kill resigned as head coach in November last year over health issues. Coyle was not the university’s athletic director at the time of Claeys promotion from assistant coach.

“I thought it was good that he stood behind his players, the team had a good season, but I do think there’s going to need to be improvement next year,” Mike Lane said.

Claeys has a buyout of $700,000 dollars and is under contract through 2019. Claeys reiterated his support for players at Monday’s press conference when asked about how the team has responded to the upholding of the suspensions.

“All I know since we have been here they’ve done awfully good,” Claeys said. “They got on a plane, came out here, great area, the weather- it’s been really nice for us and then when we left the Twin Cities. Like I say, they have done a great job in the meetings and in practice. They’ve really enjoyed the different experiences that have been provided to us.”

Claeys told WCCO radio on Dec. 18 that he plans to donate $50,000 dollars to support victims of sexual assault. The St. Paul Pioneer Press reported in November that the university was exploring a contract extension for Claeys.

Marching Band Showcase lights up historic Gaslamp Quarter

Braden Johnson | Evergreen sports editor

Juxtaposed with Balboa Theatre and Horton Plaza with the NBC Building looking over the backdrop, downtown San Diego again got its nightlife on courtesy of the WSU and Minnesota marching bands Monday night.

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Both sides’ full ensembles and spirit squads treated thousands of fans to a 45-minute performance in the National Funding Holiday Bowl Marching Band Showcase along the city’s historic Gaslamp Quarter.

The scene was an interlude to tomorrow’s festivities and initiated friendly competition between the two schools, with Butch and Goldy Gopher getting the party started with a faceoff as the bands opened up with each school’s fight song.

Minnesota, whose band doubles the size of WSU’s, played first, and opened up pregame sights and sounds early for tomorrow’s game.

“Battle of the Bands,” Rick Flores, a sophomore member of the WSU marching band, said, “this is our event. We brought out our spirit and outplayed a band that is twice our size, literally.”

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Flores, a San Diego native who plays the trumpet, said the event was an extension of the home crowd WSU is expected to enjoy tomorrow. Quite a few friends and family members of the marching band and spirit squad attended the event.

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The cheer team and Crimson Girls accompanied the marching band as it covered all genres of music and belted out classical tailgating and college football Saturday tunes. From the fight song to Kenny Loggins’ “Danger Zone” and The Kingsmen’s “Louie Louie,” WSU had a full set list prepared.

“My favorite songs that we played were probably the Star Trek themes,” Flores said. “We played sounds from songs in both the first and second movies and it worked great in the middle of the performance.”

The schools’ marching bands will next take their tunes to the Port of San Diego Holiday Bowl Parade on the waterfront at 10 a.m. on Tuesday.

Editor’s note: Rick Flores is a reporter for The Daily Evergreen

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Meet Linda Woodall

Braden Johnson | Evergreen sports editor

College-affiliated Christmas sweaters are increasingly becoming a nationwide phenomenon, so it was no surprise to see bundles of WSU and Minnesota fans decked out in crimson and maroon holiday attire at the Marching Band Showcase Monday night.

One caught my eye, however.

Patterned in crimson and white with the outlines of football seams along the sleeves and a pair of snowmen around the torso, it was distinctly Cougar-themed but authentic in its originality of the design. A plain “WSU” laced the front and back, and it appeared to come from an era when there did not exist an expectation to own an ‘ugly Christmas sweater.’

 

Before the marching bands and spirit squads roused the thousands of fans who flocked to Horton Plaza adjacent to the Balboa Theatre, I went up an introduced myself to the sweater’s owner as she waited in line for coffee.

“I got this one at Macy’s about 10 years ago,” Linda Woodall, a 1978 WSU graduate and season ticket holder since 1975, said. “The other one was grey, but I lost that one. (The sweater) needs to be at the Bookie next year.”

A simple question of where Woodall found the sweater and what brought her to the event sparked a full-throttled dialogue about all things Cougar football. And Woodall, a former member of the WSU marching band, certainly knows her stuff.

I asked Woodall, a Seattle native, of what her favorite WSU football memories are, and it was a toss-up between the ‘Snow Bowl’- WSU’s 42-23 Apple Cup victory in 1992 over No. 5 Washington- and former quarterback Drew Bledsoe being drafted by the New England Patriots with the No. 1 overall pick in the 1993 NFL Draft.

“The thing about bowl games then,” Woodall said, “is that they weren’t like they are today. It was Rose Bowl or nothing.”

Woodall also talked at length about this year’s team, saying that the team has “grabbed victory from the jaws of defeat several times.”

Woodall attended both the team’s 31-28 loss at Boise State on Sept. 10 and went south on I-5 to catch the team’s 35-31 win over Oregon State on Oct. 29. Contrary to the increasingly popular viewpoint that bowl games are losing their novelty and importance, Woodall said that WSU has a lot at stake in tomorrow’s game.

For a program trying to establish a consistent winning culture, Woodall said that WSU needs the win over Minnesota as a recruiting tool and to help put the program in a good mindset heading into next year.

“I appreciate the resiliency of our team,” Woodall said. “I appreciate that they always believe they can win, and I appreciate that they never quit.”

This is not Woodall’s first Holiday Bowl either. Woodall traveled to San Diego in 2003 to watch WSU knock off No. 5 Texas 28-20.

“Texas though we were not worthy to play in the bowl game,” Woodall said. “It was a very pro-Texas crowd and you would not even have known that we were there or were winning the game if you listened to the play-by-play. Even (Texas Head Coach) Mack Brown was surprised at how well we played after the game.”

For Woodall, the turning point in Head Coach Mike Leach’s tenure came last fall when redshirt junior quarterback Luke Falk led the team on a scoring drive with one second remaining in the fourth quarter to force overtime against Oregon on Oct. 10 at Autzen Stadium. WSU went on to win 45-38 in double overtime and Woodall said Falk’s drive planted the seed for this season’s success.

“We beat Stanford and Oregon in October,” Woodall said, “but the turning point was Falk’s drive in that game. It snowballed into this year.”

Having attended games for 46 years, Woodall has seen the good, bad and the ugly of WSU football. In an era where college football is adopting a bottom-line philosophy of the win-loss record and athletic department revenue generated equates to a program’s success, Woodall represents that some traditions and stories are meant to define the outlook of a football team.

Look no further than the sweater. It was here before everyone else copped a similar style.

Expect motivation levels, off-field distractions to be non-issues

Braden Johnson | Evergreen sports editor

I don’t expect the motivation levels of either WSU or Minnesota to play that big of a factor in the course of the Holiday Bowl.

There’s far more at stake internally for both teams that what first meets the eye, and I think that players for each team realize that the Holiday Bowl carries with it a greater set of expectations.

The ease with which members of the Minnesota football team announced last week that they were boycotting all football activities in response to the suspension of 10 players over an alleged sexual assault initially made me wonder how interested the Gophers are in playing Tuesday’s game.

More than honoring their representation of University of Minnesota athletics or receiving assurances from university officials that the suspended players will get fair hearings next month, I think the boycott ended less than 48 hours after it started because of a reverence to Head Coach Tracy Claeys.

Claeys said on Sunday that he met with players Thursday night before they announced their boycott and told them that he was going to support their decision.

“I was a sounding board for them, and it was their decision,” Claeys said. “I made sure to make sure that they knew what the possible fallouts could be, and we went through all those things. I was there to make sure that they were doing it for the right reasons and they knew what the consequences could be.”

One of those consequences was the potential for Claeys to lose his job by supporting a skipping of the Holiday Bowl. Claeys said that “the due process part was the part I did agree with on the players.”

Claeys has since spoken with Athletic Director Mark Coyle and said he is not concerned about his job security at the moment, but for a Gophers team lacking a signature win on its season, a victory over WSU validates his first-year handiwork since replacing Jerry Kill in 2015, who resigned over health concerns.

If motivation was ever a question for Minnesota, I think last week’s boycott only gives the team more fodder to play. The Gophers were projected to finish near the bottom of the Big 10 in the preseason, but Claeys pulled off an eight-win campaign that nearly ended with an upset of rival No. 6 Wisconsin.

Minnesota finished fourth in the Big 10 West Division and fell 24-17 to the Badgers, but the winning season came as a surprise to those involved with the program.

However, a Holiday Bowl win punctuates Claeys’ efforts and demonstrates the players’ ability to take a higher ground set aside off-field distractions. With 44 Californians on its roster and about 8,000 tickets sold through the athletic department, WSU will enjoy a favorable crowd, providing the Gophers with an underdog mentality.

The same can be said for WSU. A lot is at stake for the Cougars in their return to the Holiday Bowl after 13 years.

For a season bookended with deflating losses to in-state opponents, a 45-42 defeat at the hands of Eastern Washington in week one and a 45-17 beatdown from No. 4 Washington 12 weeks later, the Holiday Bowl represents a chance to showcase redemption in front of a national audience.

The Holiday Bowl has the 10th-largest payout of the 42 bowl games at $2,825,000 dollars per school and features top teams from both the Pac-12 and Big 10. WSU upset No. 5 Texas 28-20 in its last Holiday Bowl appearance in 2003 and has all the incentive to set a precedent of annually playing in high-level bowl games going forward.

Being one win away in the final game of the season from playing for a Pac-12 Championship took the wind out of everyone’s sails and left players and coaches searching for answers, but the Cougars are heavy favorites over Minnesota and are expected use the air raid offense to outscore a more methodical, ground-and-pound offensive approach from the Gophers. A loss gives the public further reason to believe that WSU plays down to the level of its competition.

Sometimes the best way to evaluate how a bowl game will go is to measure the intangibles the eyeball test cannot cover. Who wants to be there more often heavily influences the outcome of a postseason contest.

In this case, I don’t think that form of intuition applies. Both head coaches have the full attention of their players and need a ninth win to conclude the season to take a step toward consistently competing for conference championships and branding a consistent winning culture.

Minnesota needs to prove that the temporary boycott was not too much of a distraction to overcome and that Claeys is the man to lead the program to a Big 10 West Division title. WSU is playing second fiddle to the Huskies and got a taste of what it needs to do better to play for a New Year’s Six bowl bid.

A Holiday Bowl win is a springboard for both teams.