CHULA VISTA, CALIF. – By Southern California standards, Saturday’s weather was cold and windy.
But judging from the shorts and shirtsleeves being worn by the Gophers football players, the weather seemed downright balmy.
The Gophers held a two-hour practice Saturday at Southwestern College, south of San Diego in suburban Chula Vista. It was the first workout for the team since arriving on Friday for Tuesday’s Holiday Bowl game.
“When we left Minnesota, we had a little mix of rain and snow,” coach Tracy Claeys said. “And when we arrived here we had all this rain. It’s nice to see a little sun today.”
Although the temperature in San Diego is not hovering around freezing as it has been in the Twin Cities, it has been wet. A series of rainstorms over the past 10 days has drenched the area and soaked the Poinsettia Bowl, which was played at Qualcomm Stadium on Wednesday.
The Gophers’ practice on Saturday was briefly pelted by a hailstorm, giving the team perhaps the closest brush with snow it will have during its stay in San Diego.
“I don’t remember it being this cold and windy here,” said senior wide receiver Drew Wolitarsky, who knows a little something of SoCal weather, having grown up and played his high school football in Santa Clarita, 35 miles north of Los Angeles. “It was a sigh of relief when we flew in, came out of the clouds and saw the sun.”
Wolitarsky admitted that he and his teammates were happy to be practicing for a bowl game after the cloud of a player boycott hovered over the team last week and threatened to detour the Gophers’ first bowl trip to California since the 1962 Rose Bowl. Wolitarsky, who was named to the all-Big Ten third team following the regular season, became a de facto face of the Gophers when he represented the players during their brief boycott, which stemmed from the suspension of 10 players.
“We are glad to be here, trust me,” said Wolitarsky, who is expected to be the main target for quarterback Mitch Leidner against Washington State. “We definitely wanted to be here. We just had to find a way to stay focused, and I believe we have done that.”
Wolitarsky, who has caught a pass in 25 consecutive games dating to the start of the 2015 season, said ending his collegiate career in Southern California will provide a little extra incentive.
“I have made a couple of trips back, but this is the first time being here with the team,” he said. “It’s been a poetic journey. To start here, then go away to school and finish up here is pretty special.”
Minnesota will be appearing in the 19th bowl game in school history, and it is the Gophers’ first bowl matchup against a Pac-12 Conference team since a win over Oregon in the 2003 Sun Bowl. One of the big challenges for the Gophers is the need to stop a Washington State passing game that led the Pac-12 in aerial yardage with 370.8 yards per game. And among the 10 suspended players were two members of the starting secondary, Antoine Winfield Jr. and KiAnte Hardin.
“Coach Leach has been a guy who likes to score a lot of points,” said Claeys, referring to Cougars coach Mike Leach. “We have to make sure to tackle well and we have to communicate well. Sure, we have had some distractions, but we’ve had great practices since and we had another one today.
“Our kids love playing, and this will be the last time they’ll play together as a team.”
Following Saturday’s practice, the Gophers players, coaches and support staff were given a tour of the amphibious assault ship USS America, one of the U.S. Navy’s newest warships, moored at nearby Naval Base San Diego. Sunday’s activities include a visit to SeaWorld.
But this trip west is not about being tourists.
“We are going for our ninth win of the season, and that hasn’t been done since 2003,” said Wolitarsky, who said he signed up for 47 game tickets to leave for family and friends who plan to attend. “We expect a fast, hard-hitting battle.”
Added Claeys: “This is our chance to represent the Big Ten Conference. That is what’s exciting about bowl games.”