<
>

National Funding Holiday Bowl early look: Minnesota vs. Washington State

The extended audition is finally over for Tracy Claeys.

The Minnesota coach may have technically already had the full-time job leading the program, but there was still lingering skepticism about his long-term future even as he racked up wins and comfortably guided the team to a bowl game. And after winning eight times, this postseason appearance can be focused on continuing to develop the Gophers in his image and generate momentum for the future.

Just about the only thing lacking for now on his early list of accomplishments since taking over for Jerry Kill is a true signature victory. Even with the impressive record this season, the Gophers generally held serve by beating the opponents they should have without ever getting upset or springing a major surprise as an underdog. And while the National Funding Holiday Bowl against Washington State might not look like the most attractive matchup on the schedule or perhaps carry all that much cache down the line, a postseason victory and a nine-win campaign would certainly reinforce yet again that Claeys has the ship heading in the right direction.

So how might the Gophers get it? Here's a closer look at key areas ahead of the Dec. 27 date with the Cougars.

Most intriguing matchup: The Gophers aren't going to want to trade touchdowns with Mike Leach's explosive attack, which will put the pressure squarely on their defense to try to contain Washington State quarterback Luke Falk. The junior threw for more than 4,200 yards and tossed 37 touchdowns for the Cougars this season, and he's certainly going to provide one of the toughest tests the Minnesota secondary has seen all year. The Gophers have had struggles against the pass this season, with only one Big Ten team giving up more yards per game through the air than their 228 while intercepting just eight attempts. But Minnesota may have one answer up front if the pass-rush can find success and get to Falk quickly, continuing the fine work it did during the regular season when it averaged nearly three sacks per game.

Minnesota player who could have a big game: The Gophers are at their best when the old-school, power rushing attack is moving the chains, keeping the clock moving and finishing drives in the red zone. And despite not seeing much of the spotlight in the Big Ten this season with so much offensive talent around the league, Rodney Smith has quietly been one of the most productive rushers and scorers in the league. The sophomore doesn't carry the load by himself for the Gophers, but that just makes his 1,000-yard, 15-touchdown campaign even more impressive this season. And Washington State is going to have its hands full trying to keep him from adding to those totals in San Diego.

Key to victory: The matchup couldn't provide much more of a contrast of styles, and the winner figures to be the program that can control the tempo and turn it into a game that best suits its approach. For Minnesota, that's going to rely on a ball-control offense, a defense that limits its mistakes and missed tackles and the ability to win physical matchups on both sides of the ball. Claeys has shown a willingness to adapt and evolve with the Gophers, and they are trying to expand the passing attack and update the offense overall to keep up with the times. It doesn't quite yet have the skill players it needs to take a big step forward, but Minnesota is more than capable of winning games the throwback way -- and that figures to be the best way forward against the Cougars.