SAN DIEGO – For a team that considered boycotting the Holiday Bowl, the Gophers played Tuesday night like they never intended to miss it.
And for a coach who has wondered aloud about his future, Tracy Claeys showed he still can get his team to block out distractions and play.
With a daring defensive plan grounding Washington State’s high-powered passing offense, the Gophers received two hard-to-believe bounces and held on to beat the Cougars 17-12 at Qualcomm Stadium.
Emmit Carpenter made a first-half field goal — even though it bounced off the right upright. And Mitch Leidner had a near interception get deflected — right into the waiting hands of Shannon Brooks for a touchdown.
“I usually end up on the wrong side of those,” Leidner said, smiling.
With about two minutes remaining, Rodney Smith added a 9-yard touchdown run, stretching the Gophers’ lead to 17-6. But that margin hardly felt safe against Washington State coach Mike Leach, who orchestrated Texas Tech’s 31-point, second-half comeback over the Gophers in the 2006 Insight Bowl.
Luke Falk threw a touchdown pass with 19 seconds remaining, but Washington State’s two-point conversion fell short, keeping it a five-point game. The Cougars tried an on-side kick, but Rashad Still recovered, sealing the win.
The Gophers finished the season 9-4, giving them nine wins for the first time since they went 10-3 under Glen Mason in 2003.
“We relish them all,” Claeys said, after players doused him with the water cooler. “It’s like that tipped pass. We ain’t apologizing for anything. We’ve had our fair share of close games we’ve lost. We’ve had our instant replays that have went against us. And so just take whatever you can.”
Entering the game, Washington State ranked second nationally in passing offense (370.8 yards per game) and 14th in scoring offense (40.3 points per game).
But the Gophers held them to 264 yards, and their lowing scoring output of the season.
“We did that to ourselves today, shot ourselves in the foot,” Falk said. “Nothing special they did. Obviously they got the win, credit to them, but we just didn’t execute.”
Washington State led 6-3 at halftime, but the Gophers had held the Cougars without a first-half touchdown, something that hadn’t happened to Leach’s team all season.
After forcing the Cougars to punt to start the second half, the Gophers went 84 yards for the go-ahead touchdown.
The drive ended with a gift. On third-and-8, Leidner threw toward the end zone, a ball that could have been intercepted. Washington State cornerback Marcellus Pippins jumped and tipped the ball — right to Brooks.
A Minnesota team that had seen its share of bad bowl bounces, suddenly got one of the best bounces imaginable. The Gophers led 10-6 with less than four minutes to play in the third quarter.
But the football gods never seem to smile on the Gophers for long. On the next drive, they lost cornerback Coney Durr and Steven Richardson to leg injuries. But Minnesota’s defense kept doing its thing.
With 3:19 remaining, Washington State went for it on fourth down near midfield. Falk held the ball for what seemed like an eternity, unable to find an open receiver, before flinging the ball down field.
Safety Adekunle Ayinde made the interception and took the ball all the way into Washington State’s end zone, but replays showed he stepped out of bounds at the 31-yard line.
The Gophers didn’t blink, with Brooks delivering some big runs before Smith finished off the drive with his clinching touchdown run.
After an emotional locker room celebration, Claeys was asked if he expects a contract extension.
“I don’t know.” he said. “We’ll deal with that. I don’t like doing that with the media. That’s not important. What’s important is you walk into that locker room, you see smiles on all these kids’ faces.”
There were indications this week that athletics director Mark Coyle intends to take a couple days after the bowl game to let the dust settle before meeting with Claeys. Uncertainty continues to swirl. By the fourth quarter of the Holiday Bowl, more than 1,900 people had signed a petition on moveon.org, calling for Claeys’ termination. A separate petition to keep Claeys had more than 100 signatures.
Meanwhile, he led Minnesota to its second consecutive bowl win, after the Gophers had lost their seven previous bowl games.
“We played a tough team. Every bowl win is big,” Claeys said. “It just shows we’re moving in the right direction in my opinion. … It’s simple simple saying, but it’s very true: Winning solves a lot of problems.”