SAN DIEGO – The news conference was over and Tracy Claeys was headed back to the locker room to celebrate with his team.
I stopped him and asked about a rumor that his star tailback Rodney Smith was prepared to play defense Tuesday night in the Holiday Bowl, if needed, after suspensions from the sexual assault investigation left the Gophers extremely shorthanded in the secondary.
Tears filled Claeys’ eyes and his voice trembled as he revealed that Smith approached him before the first bowl practice and offered to play defensive back. Smith even briefly ran onto the field at one point in the first half thinking his defensive package had been called.
I asked Claeys why he was so emotional.
“Because we’ve got good kids,” he said. “They’re damn good kids.”
The events of the past two weeks have been devastating for Claeys, his program and the Gophers athletic department. We still don’t know the full extent of the fallout and whether it will cost Claeys his job or bring other significant changes.
But pent-up emotions came flooding out of the normally stoic head coach after watching his team upset Washington State 17-12 behind a defensive gem at Qualcomm Stadium.
“I get great joy in those guys sitting here smiling,” Claeys said.
The way his defense executed a creative game plan by coordinator Jay Sawvel should put a smile on his face.
The suspensions from the investigation left Sawvel without two defensive starters and four of his top six defensive backs — a tall order against any opponent. Washington State’s offense isn’t just any offense.
The Cougars ranked second nationally in passing this season at 371 yards per game, averaging 51 pass attempts. Their offense had the second-fewest running plays in all of FBS.
A severely undermanned secondary going against an offense that passes with assembly line efficiency and frequency — that’s like being asked to run a 100-yard dash while hopping on one leg.
The Gophers didn’t flinch, holding Washington State to its lowest point total of the season and 28 points below its average.
Claeys’ job status has been the subject of intense debate since scandal engulfed his program. Athletic director Mark Coyle hasn’t revealed his thoughts on Claeys’ future.
From a purely coaching perspective, Claeys’ acumen as a defensive strategist should not be ignored. The Claeys-Sawvel tandem has guided the defense to back-to-back top-25 finishes nationally. Those two men know how to build a winner on defense.
Sawvel outfoxed Leach by installing an unconventional plan that confused the Cougars. Sawvel gave a glimpse of his intentions on the game’s opening possession.
The Cougars lined up third-and-goal from the 9 and saw what had to be a strange look: a 1-4-6 alignment.
It worked brilliantly, along with a 2-4-5 alignment the Gophers also used regularly.
Washington State quarterback Luke Falk struggled to find open receivers as the Gophers dropped extra defenders into coverage while still being able to generate a pass rush.
Freshman cornerback Coney Durr made his first start and more than held his own until suffering a knee injury in the third quarter. He was replaced by freshman Zo Craighton, who had appeared mostly in mop-up duty. He held his own, too.
Sawvel’s plan maximized the strengths of his personnel, particularly at linebacker. That position has a deep group of young, fast playmakers led by Carter Coughlin, Kamal Martin and Blake Cashman.
Sawvel felt his defense became too predictable in its 4-3 scheme last season so, with Claeys’ blessing, he added more exotic wrinkles with his speedy linebackers.
Sawvel used his linebackers as stand-up defensive ends with fewer linemen in packages designed to create pass-rushing mismatches.
Those alignments bamboozled the Cougars and disrupted their timing. “We were frantic,” Washington State coach Mike Leach said. “We unraveled.”
Credit the Gophers for making them unravel and not the other way around, as many predicted given everything that happened leading up to the game.
What happens next remains unknown. But the Gophers proved resilient after a tumultuous few weeks. That made their coach smile, and then cry.