Holiday Bowl: Minnesota Golden Gophers vs. Washington State Cougars

National Funding Holiday Bowl: Minnesota Golden Gophers vs. Washington State Cougars

Date: Dec. 27, 7 p.m. ET on ESPN

Location: Qualcomm Stadium | San Diego


Best moment: With speculation continuing to swirl about whether Tracy Claeys had earned a more secure contract, quarterback Mitch Leidner effectively locked it up for Claeys with a fourth-quarter touchdown run to pull away from Northwestern for Minnesota’s eighth win. Minnesota's 8-4 record record offers some evidence that Claeys is capable of leading the Gophers into the future and building on Jerry Kill’s fine work.

Lowest moment: With a chance to finally snap its losing skid against Wisconsin and reclaim the Axe after building a 10-point lead at halftime, the Gophers watched it all vanish in front of their eyes in a scoreless, turnover-filled second half. The Badgers rallied to win for the 13th year in a row, sending the Gophers off to the postseason on a low note.

Key player: Largely overlooked among the league’s most prolific offensive stars, Rodney Smith just kept on piling up yardage and touchdowns for the Gophers. The sophomore running back finished fourth in the league with 1,084 yards -- but only one player found the end zone more often than Smith, who punched in 16 touchdowns to lead the way back to a bowl game.

Motivation level: High. The Gophers basically just held serve this season, beating the teams they should and failing to produce any real upsets on the way to eight wins. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but it does mean Minnesota could use a strong performance to cap the season and validate its work. -- Austin Ward

Washington State

Best moment: Oregon and Stanford have dominated the Pac-12 for years, and in a two-week period in early October, the Cougars blew out both of them. More than Washington State's own arrival as a factor in the Pac-12 race, it signified a changing of the guard in the conference.

Lowest moment: The season was bookended by a pair of in-state losses Wazzu fans would like to erase from memory, but even losing to FCS Eastern Washington in the opener wasn’t as bad as getting blown out 45-17 by Washington in the Apple Cup with a trip to the Pac-12 championship game on the line.

Key player: Wide receiver Gabe Marks. Quarterback Luke Falk wouldn’t be a bad choice, either, but Marks will be the one to watch in what will be the final game of his college career. He already owns the Pac-12 career receptions record (312), and with 85 catches this season he is one monstrous game away from a second consecutive 100-catch season.

Motivation level: Low. The Cougars went into the final week of the season with the Rose Bowl still in play, so this is somewhat of a letdown. But that shouldn’t affect the team’s motivation heading into its most prestigious bowl game since 2003. -- Kyle Bonagura