The University of Minnesota has accepted an invitation to play Washington State in the 2016 National Funding Holiday Bowl on Dec. 27, in San Diego, Calif. The 6 p.m. CT game will be played at Qualcomm Stadium and will be broadcast on ESPN.
This 2016 National Funding Holiday Bowl will mark the 39th staging of the game, but it will be the first time that Minnesota will play in the historic bowl. The contest will also mark Minnesota’s first bowl game in California since it beat UCLA 21-3 in the 1962 Rose Bowl.
Tickets go on sale on Dec. 5 at 9 a.m. and complete ticket information can be found at MyGopherSports.com or by calling 1-800-U-GOPHER.
Washington State finished the season 8-4 and was 7-2 in the Pac-12. Minnesota was 1-0 this season against the Pac-12, as it opened the season with a 30-23 home win against Oregon State. The victory against Oregon State was Minnesota’s first win against a team from the Pac-12 since Dec. 31, 2003, when the Gophers beat Oregon 31-30 in the Sun Bowl.
The Gophers have played Washington State five times and are 2-3 all-time against the Pac-12 member. All five games were contested in Minneapolis, but the teams has not met since 1988. Minnesota beat Washington State in 1976 and 1982 and fell to the Cougars in 1965, 1971 and 1988.
Minnesota will play in its fifth straight bowl game and 19th overall when it faces the Cougars. The streak of five consecutive bowls is tied for the longest stretch in program history, as the Gophers also played in five straight bowl games from 2002-06. Minnesota snapped a seven-game bowl losing streak last year with a win in the Quick Lane Bowl.
Minnesota is 8-4 this year and also won eight games in 2013 and 2014. The last time Minnesota won eight games three times in a four-year span was 1903-05 (14, 13 and 10 wins). The Gophers have now won at least eight games in a season 20 times in school history and nine times since 1942 and six times since 1968. The last time the Gophers won nine games in a season was 2003 when they won 10 games. Before that it was 1905, when they also won 10 games.
The Gophers were the fourth-highest scoring team in the Big Ten this season, as they averaged 30.3 points per game. Leading Minnesota on offense is senior quarterback Mitch Leidner, who will be playing his final game in the Maroon and Gold. Leidner has played in three previous bowl games and has put up impressive numbers. He has completed 56-of-83 passes (67.4%) for 686 yards and four touchdowns in games against Syracuse (2013 Texas Bowl), Missouri (2015 Citrus Bowl) and Central Michigan (2015 Quick Lane Bowl). Leidner also completed 14 straight passes against both Missouri and Central Michigan, which is tied with Adam Weber (vs. Bowling Green in 2008) for the most in program history.
Running back Rodney Smith leads a potent Minnesota rushing attack. The sophomore was named All-Big Ten Third Team after gaining 1,084 yards on 223 carries. He became the 20th Gopher ever to rush for 1,000 yards in a single season and also rushed for 15 touchdowns. His 15 rushing touchdowns rank third most in school history for a single season and his 16 touchdowns (also scored on a kick return against Rutgers) also rank third most in school history in a single season. Smith has amassed 1,477 all-purpose yards, which is the 15th most in a single-season for a Gopher. In his career he has rushed 380 times for 1,754 yards in 24 games, which ranks tied for 24th all-time in school history. He has also rushed for 17 career scores.
Joining Smith in the backfield is Shannon Brooks, who was named honorable mention by the Big Ten. Brooks, who missed three games with an injury earlier this season, has rushed 125 times for 599 yards and five touchdowns. He also caught a touchdown at Maryland. The sophomore has rushed 244 times in his career for 1,308 yards in 21 games, which ranks 32nd all-time in program history. He has 12 career rushing touchdowns and averages 24.99 yards per touchdown.
Minnesota’s go-to receiver this year has been Drew Wolitarsky. The senior is one of two players from California (Adam Mayer) and has 61 catches for 787 yards and five touchdowns this year. Wolitarsky has 125 career catches, which places him ninth in program history and his 1,676 yards ranks him tenth. He has caught a pass in 25 straight games (9/3/15 – 11/26/16), which is tied for the sixth longest streak is school history. Wolitarsky sat down with MNN Sports Director Mike Grimm to discuss the bowl invitation:
On defense, the Gophers are led by defensive tackle Steven Richardson, linebacker Jonathan Celestin and safety Damarius Travis.
At 6-0 and 300 pounds, Richardson has caused havoc for offenses all season. The junior has started 10 of the 12 games he has played in and has 30 tackles this season. He leads the team with 11 tackles for loss and seven sacks, despite often drawing multiple blockers.
Celestin, who was a high school teammate of Smith, has emerged this season as one of Minnesota’s best players. The hard-hitting backer leads the Gophers with 79 tackles and 52 solo stops. He also has 7.0 tackles for loss and 2.4 sacks. Celestin has broken up four passes and also forced one fumble this year.
Travis is a fifth-year player for the Gophers who will play in his 53rd career game in the National Funding Holiday Bowl. The Florida native is second on the team with 76 tackles, 52 of which have been solo. He has 5.0 tackles for loss, has broken up three passes, made two interceptions and also recovered one fumble.
Minnesota boasts one of the best kickers in the nation in Emmit Carpenter. The sophomore was named Big Ten Kicker of the Year and has made 21-of-23 field goals. He has scored 104 points this season, which ranks second all-time for Minnesota kicker behind Dan Nystrom who tallied 109 points in 2000. His 104 points also ranks third all-time for any Gopher behind Gary Russell (114 points in 2005) and Nystrom. Carpenter made his first nine field goals to start the year and has made his last 11 field goal attempts (fourth longest streak in school history) heading into the National Funding Holiday Bowl. He is a perfect 9-of-9 on field goals from 40 yards or greater and is the only kicker in the nation – minimum of six kicks – to accomplish this feat.
Minnesota is coached by Tracy Claeys, who is in his second year guiding the Gophers. Claeys was named head coach on Nov. 11, 2015, and has a 10-8 overall record leading the Maroon and Gold.
(info courtesy of Gopher Sports)