The Holiday Bowl itself was in jeopardy less than a week and a half before Washington State was set to face off against Minnesota in San Diego on Tuesday, but just 36 hours after the Golden Gophers decided to boycott the game, they changed their minds.
Minnesota players decided to boycott "all football activities" in an attempt to get 10 of their teammates, suspended after a sexual assault investigation, reinstated for the bowl game. School administration did not budge, and soon the documents from both the police and university investigations were leaked. Those reports included the account of a young woman who says she was forced to have sex with the 10 players in question, among others, at a party following a September football game. With the stomach-turning details out in the public, support for the boycott quickly waned.
"As a team we understand that what has occurred these last few days, and playing football for the University of Minnesota, is larger than just us," Golden Gophers senior wide receiver Drew Wolitarsky said at a press conference.
In Pullman, WSU head coach Mike Leach is keeping his team focused on preparation for the game. After practice the day before the end to the boycott was announced, Leach told reporters that he would kick anyone who tried to boycott a game off of his team.
"I'm not going to worry about what's going on with those other guys," says Leach. "We don't have boycotts here, so we are just worried about ourselves."
The Cougars, who like the Golden Gophers have an 8-4 record, are coming off a 45-17 loss to No. 4 Washington in the Apple Cup. The team, which has been practicing for the past two weeks in between their final exams, didn't start analyzing film until they finished finals and the bowl preparation became their sole focus.
"Overall, I think we have had two pretty good weeks," says redshirt junior quarterback Luke Falk.
Minnesota's defense is stingy, ranked in or near the top 25 in several areas and allowing more than 300 passing yards in just two games this season. On the other side of the ball, the Cougars tout first team All-American guard Cody O'Connell, who anchors a strong offensive line.
"You call a play, do the right look and then they execute. So they have to go out there and execute, and they have done a tremendous job. They really played well together this year," Falk says of his line. "I think that was the biggest key to their success, and the team's success. Where they go, we go."
On offense, the Cougars' recent propensity for the run game could be slowed by the Golden Gophers' strong run defense. WSU's running back trio of redshirt juniors Jamal Morrow and Gerard Wicks and redshirt freshman James Williams combined for a collective 1,584 yards and 22 touchdowns as the Cougars amassed more rushing yards than any other Leach-coached WSU team.
Led by sophomore running back Rodney Smith, who ran for 1,084 yards and 15 touchdowns, Minnesota totaled 2,237 rushing yards on the season, averaging 186.4 per game.
Senior quarterback Mitch Leidner threw for 2,040 yards and seven touchdowns, five to Wolitarsky, who served as the team's spokesman during the boycott.
WSU defensive coordinator Alex Grinch, headed to his second bowl game in as many years with the Cougars, coached a unit that snagged 12 interceptions, forced 11 fumbles and allowed 1,595 rushing yards this season. Redshirt junior Peyton Pelluer leads the team in tackles with 89.
Falk says that Grinch elevated the play of the defense quickly after he came to WSU in spring 2015. The defense's rise correlated with the team's rise after going 3-9 in 2014. Grinch says the Cougars' recent success only serves as drive for future success.
"The bar just keeps getting higher and higher," he says.
Grinch says the long break — the Cougs haven't played since losing to the Huskies on Nov. 25 — will help the players refocus and prepare for the bowl game. He says the team, motivated by the Apple Cup loss, wants to bring the Holiday Bowl trophy back to Pullman.
"Every game you lose, those are unfortunately the ones you remember the most," Grinch says. "And when you win eight games, do those things and you earn a bowl game, a quality bowl game in the Holiday Bowl, you hate to dwell on those things."♦
Holiday Bowl • Tue, Dec. 27, at 4 pm • Qualcomm Stadium, San Diego • Televised on ESPN