Bowl selection day hasn’t always been kind to the Gophers.
Oh sure, they’ve put on a good face, insisting they couldn’t wait to see Detroit. And heck no, they didn’t mind back-to-back Christmases in Houston. And three consecutive bowl games in Tempe, Ariz.? Never gets old.
With the exception of the Citrus Bowl trip to Orlando, Fla., two years ago, it hasn’t been easy.
But Sunday’s excitement was genuine. The surf must be up because the Gophers are heading to San Diego for the Holiday Bowl on Dec. 27 against Washington State.
“I think the guys will be pretty amped to go and be able to hit the beach and enjoy ourselves,” senior Drew Wolitarsky said. “The energy will be up, and there will be a lot more positivity for sure.”
The Gophers (8-4) benefited from having four other Big Ten teams land in New Year’s Six bowls, with Ohio State in the playoff, Penn State in the Rose, Michigan in the Orange and Wisconsin in the Cotton.
The Outback took 8-4 Iowa, the Music City took 9-3 Nebraska, and that helped the Gophers land their first California bowl trip since the 1962 Rose Bowl.
“I’m excited,” Wolitarsky said. “This is the bowl game I hoped we’d get. I know it was between here and Tennessee [for the Music City], and I really crossed my fingers for San Diego.”
Wolitarsky knows he’s biased as a Southern California native. He’s from the northern Los Angeles suburb of Santa Clarita, and once made a recruiting visit to San Diego State.
“I’ve never been to a Holiday Bowl, but this is a big bowl game,” the senior receiver said. “We tried to get it last year, but that didn’t work out obviously.”
The Gophers finished last year’s regular season 5-7. They didn’t expect to be bowl eligible, but there weren’t enough six-win teams, so the Gophers made it on the strength of their Academic Progress Rate.
They landed in the Quick Lane Bowl against Central Michigan. Some fans rolled their eyes, but the Gophers treated it as a business trip to Detroit, stopping their seven-game bowl losing streak with a 21-14 victory.
Mitch Leidner received MVP honors, completing 24 of 30 passes for 223 yards with two touchdowns — one passing, one rushing.
“It was a good game for us to have, but we didn’t look at it like that at first,” Wolitarsky said. “A lot of guys had checked out, having such a disappointing season, but our ability to come back and win that was big. I think that can lead us to have some momentum to win this one, too.”
Washington State is 8-4, including 7-2 in the Pac-12. The Cougars had statement wins over Oregon (51-33) and Stanford (42-16). They remained in the Rose Bowl hunt until two weeks ago, when they got crushed by Washington 45-17 in the Apple Cup.
Washington State is coached by Mike Leach, who steered Texas Tech to a stunning comeback victory over the Gophers in the 2006 Insight Bowl. Leach’s squad overcame a 31-point second-half deficit to win 44-41, which led Minnesota to fire Glen Mason.
Now, junior quarterback Luke Falk runs Leach’s Air Raid attack and ranks fourth in the nation with 350.3 passing yards per game. He has 37 touchdown passes, which is 30 more than Leidner.
“Mike’s been extremely successful with [the Air Raid], wherever he’s been,” Gophers coach Tracy Claeys said. “And this year, they’ve played really well on defense. I think that’s one of the biggest differences why they’re where they’re at.”
It’ll be a Tuesday prime-time game, at 6 p.m. on ESPN, giving the two teams a national stage. Happy holiday, indeed.
“I know it’s a bowl game I always remember because it’s had some really wild finishes to it,” Claeys said. “The reason you watch it a lot of times is because it is the only bowl game on, but it’s also been great entertainment.”
The Gophers can’t wait to be part of it.