SAN DIEGO — After a few days of turmoil and perhaps more to come, the Minnesota Golden Gophers played lights-out in shutting down Luke Falk and the Washington State Cougars to win the Holiday Bowl.
Shannon Brooks caught a tipped pass from Mitch Leidner for a 13-yard, go-ahead touchdown in the third quarter and Minnesota, mired in controversy after 10 players were suspended after a sexual assault investigation, won 17-12 on Tuesday night.
The Golden Gophers (9-4) were looking to regroup after backing down from a threat to skip this game if their teammates suspended after the investigation weren't reinstated. Their boycott lasted less than 36 hours, with university leadership never blinking. The players backed down amid pressure from many who read details of the allegations.
"I don't think it's a matter of anybody not wanting to be here. It's just a matter of wishing our brothers could be here with us as well," Leidner said. "I love this team, these coaches. You couldn't ask for a better way to go out. I'm just really proud of these guys."
Brooks' TD catch was one of the few exciting plays in an otherwise pedestrian edition of what traditionally has been one of the country's most exciting bowl games.
WSU cornerback Marcellus Pippins reached up with his right hand and deflected Leidner's pass in the end zone but it went right to Brooks for the TD and a 10-6 lead. That capped an 84-yard, 10-play drive on Minnesota's first possession of the second half.
The Gophers had to face Falk and WSU's normally high-powered Air Raid offense without starting defensive backs KiAnte Hardin and Antoine Winfield Jr., and key backup Antonio Shenault, who were among the suspended players.
Their replacements stepped up.
"You've got to go off practice, and those kids practiced awfully well," coach Tracy Claeys said. "They did a tremendous job. All of them played their tails off. When you get in those situations and you're missing people, it all goes back to that the next person's got to step up and you ask them to do things, they're going to do it. Nobody's going to be successful if you ask them to do things you're not very good at."
WSU (8-5) ended on a three-game losing streak and was held to its lowest point total of the season. The Cougars had scored more than 50 points four times this season, a school record.
The Golden Gophers frustrated Falk most of the game, holding him to 264 yards — 86 below his average — on 30-of-51 passing. Falk didn't crack 200 yards until the final minutes, when he led a drive capped by an 8-yard TD pass to Kyle Sweet. After three tries due to Minnesota penalties, the conversion attempt failed. Minnesota then recovered an onside kick.
Falk came in having completed 71 percent of his passes in throwing for 4,204 yards and 37 touchdowns. The Cougars were ranked second in the nation in passing.
Falk was intercepted by Adekunle Ayinde on fourth down with 3:05 left. That set up Rodney Smith's 9-yard TD run with 2:06 left for a 17-6 lead.
"I don't think we played well offensively at all," coach Mike Leach said. "We never got any rhythm. We were frantic. You can say we were rusty and had some time off, whatever it is. We tried to make things happen and then when it didn't happen, we got frantic. We unraveled. We were pouting on the sidelines."
WSU lead 6-3 after a lackluster first half that included just three field goals.
The Cougars crossed the 50 just twice, getting field goals of 26 and 41 yards by Erik Powell.
Powell's second field goal was set up when Nnamdi Oguayo hit Leidner and forced a fumble that Isaac Dotson recovered at the Golden Gophers' 38.
Minnesota got a 43-yard field goal by Emmit Carpenter in the second quarter.
Minnesota: The Golden Gophers had only 110 yards of total offense in the first half before finally coming alive in the second half. Smith gained 74 yards on 17 carries. He came in averaging 90 yards.
Washington State: The Air Raid offense was a no-show. After Powell kicked a field goal to cap WSU's first drive, the Cougars went three-and-out on their next four possessions. The Cougars had to settle for Powell's 41-yard field goal at the end of the first half after Falk's pass to Tavares Martin Jr. to the 1 was overturned after review.
Minnesota: Tensions remain between the school administration and the team after the threat to skip this game.
Washington State: Leach said Monday that Falk would return for his senior season rather than declaring for the NFL draft. However, asked about it after the game, Falk said: "I'm not focused on that at all. All my focus has been on the team, and that's irrelevant at this point." Asked if he was still contemplating his decision, Falk said: "Next question."