The scenario that played out early Sunday afternoon couldn’t have produced better results for the Gophers’ bowl destination.
Rather than make the program’s fourth trip to Nashville since 2002 for the Music City Bowl, Minnesota was selected to play in the Holiday Bowl against Washington State on December 27 in San Diego.
The Gophers’ big break came when the Outback Bowl opted for Iowa over Nebraska for its Big Ten representative on January 2. The Cornhuskers were then tabbed for a trip to honky-tonk, rather than the Holiday Bowl where they played in 2014, as part of the conference’s agreement with its non-College Football Playoff bowl partners to feature different teams in different bowls during the six-year agreement.
The increased exposure accompanying the Holiday Bowl berth is an exciting prize for the Gophers. The opportunity to play in southern California, in a primetime television slot, against a coach — Mike Leach — who has some history against the program (2006 Insight Bowl, anyone?), is a great development in a year with eight victories that were mostly overshadowed by four frustrating losses.
“I mean all the kids want to go to the best bowl they can,” said Gophers coach Tracy Claeys on Sunday night. “For our season, what we’ve done, I think it’s a very attractive bowl for us.”
Attractive is right, especially for the exposure to California high school prospects. According to SB Nation, which analyzed prospect ratings from 2011-2015, California ranked No. 3 behind Texas and Florida for total number of three-star or above recruits. Only senior wide receiver Drew Wolitarsky, a three-star recruit out of Canyon County High School, signed with the Gophers during that span.
The other California native on the roster, Adam Mayer, walked-on to the program in 2015.
Claeys admitted the current staff hasn’t made recruiting California a priority since arriving in 2011, which he attributed to the lack of strong relationships with high school and junior college coaches. The Holiday Bowl is one of four bowl games played in California, though, and playing a game in the Golden State for the first time in five years should help the Gophers’ coaches get in front of more recruits in the next couple cycles.
“I think that would be cool, especially if we could get some [California] recruits out to the game,” Wolitarsky said on Sunday.
The 6 p.m. central time slot and the game’s tradition will also positively impact the program compared to the other bowl options. No, it’s not the Rose Bowl, but the Holiday Bowl is the sixth-oldest, non-College Football Playoff bowl game. It’s been played annually since 1978, and has been staged at night on ESPN during one of the five days sandwiched between Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve for the past three decades.
Playing in primetime with a national television audience will heighten the Gophers’ profile, especially considering half the games this season kicked off at 11 a.m., on either the Big Ten Network or an ESPN offspring.
“Anytime you can play in one that there’s not a lot of other games going on and you’ve got the national attention … the reason you watch it a lot of times is because it is the only bowl game on that day, but it’s also been great entertainment,” Claeys said.
Great entertainment is precisely what Leach and his Air Raid offense provides, making the matchup a unique challenge for Minnesota’s defense. Leach’s system is the same he used during his tenure at Texas Tech, when the Red Raiders stormed back from a 38-7 third-quarter deficit to stun the Gophers in overtime at the Insight Bowl a decade ago.
That loss was the catalyst for the firing of Glen Mason, which set the program back a few years because of the Tim Brewster catastrophe. Now the Gophers get another chance at Leach’s scheme, and would certainly turn some heads by upsetting the Cougars.
Washington State is averaging 370 passing yards per game and more than 40 points, led by junior quarterback Luke Falk. The Gophers are much better equipped defensively to deal with the pass-happy attack than the 2006 squad, but it’d be foolish to think the offense would equal the 38-point, two-and-a-half quarter outburst it had in Tempe either.
Win or lose, earning a trip to San Diego is on par with the pair of Sun Bowl appearances that Mason and his staff led the program to in 1999 and 2003. The achievement trails only the program’s Citrus Bowl appearance two years ago as the marquee moment during the past three decades of Gophers football. A win would put the Gophers total at nine, which would be just the second time that total was met or exceeded during that span.
“We’re excited to go out there,” Claeys said. “I have friends, and guys on the staff, who’ve been out there and they treat you extremely well. Great weather we’ll have out there, and so it’ll be a big challenge.”