Minnesota Golden Gophers hang on for Quick Lane Bowl victory over Central Michigan
DETROIT --Leaving the news conference after Monday's Quick Lane Bowl, Gophers quarterback Mitch Leidner needed to do some more heavy lifting.As he was leaving, the silver trophy sat on the table in a room under the stands of Ford Field, and Minne...
DETROIT -Leaving the news conference after Monday’s Quick Lane Bowl, Gophers quarterback Mitch Leidner needed to do some more heavy lifting.
As he was leaving, the silver trophy sat on the table in a room under the stands of Ford Field, and Minnesota coach Tracy Claeys joked, “It’s too heavy for me.”
Leidner seized the bulky hardware - just like he grabbed the reins in the fourth quarter and led the Gophers to a 21-14 win over Central Michigan.
Trailing 14-13, Leidner was 6 for 7 passing for 40 yards and rushed twice on the read option for 20 yards, including the go-ahead touchdown.
“He could run, pass, big guy - 6-4, 250. He was a pretty good quarterback,” said Chippewas defensive back Kavon Frazier. “I think he showed it out there with his ability to pull it and run for a first down a couple times, too.”
On the ensuing two-point conversion, the play was broken but Leidner found wide receiver KJ Maye in the back of the end zone to make to make it a seven-point lead with 4:26 remaining.
“That’s leadership,” Claeys said. “You get in ballgames like that, it gets tight at the end, you’ve got to play to win, and your leaders do that. Mitch has stepped up and done that several times this year.”
In a beleaguered season that included a coaching switch from Jerry Kill to Claeys, a 5-7 record and criticism for getting into a bowl game, Leidner stood tall amid the sea change.
Leidner, who led comebacks against Colorado State and Ohio in September, did it again in December.
The win put a positive cap on the Gophers’ lackluster season, and the victory kept them from an inglorious mark.
Minnesota, making its fourth straight bowl appearance, had lost seven consecutive bowls since beating Alabama 20-16 in 2004. A loss Monday would have made it eight, moving the Gophers past Ball State for the longest active losing streak in FBS.
“It just so happened to be the first bowl since 2004 - more important to me - it’s the first group of seniors we’ve had to get a bowl victory,” Claeys said. “And what they’ve done for the entire football program is truly amazing.”
A dismal finish to the season looked like a real possibility in the fourth quarter against their Mid-American Conference foe. The Gophers offense turned the ball over on downs after tight end Brandon Lingen was stuffed for no gain on fourth-and-2 at the Chippewas’ 44-yard line.
Central Michigan then reeled off big gains of 21 and 16 yards before running back Romello Ross carried Minnesota defenders into the end zone on a 13-yard touchdown run. The four-play, 56-yard drive gave the Chippewas a 14-13 lead at 11:08.
Chippewas junior quarterback Cooper Rush came into the bowl ranked 12th in the nation with 3,703 passing yards (308.5 per game).
Rush, who completed 67.2 percent of his passes this season, was limited to 35 percent (5 of 14) in the first half. He finished 15 of 29 for 145 yards.
At the half, the Gophers led 10-7, but missed opportunities kept it from being a bigger lead.
On the game’s first play, Gophers running back Rodney Smith busted a 37-yard run. But seven plays later, Minnesota’s drive fizzled and the Gophers had to settle for a 22-yard field goal from Ryan Santoso at 10:11
On the first play of the next drive, Leidner threw a perfect deep pass in stride to wide receiver Drew Wolitarsky, but he dropped what could have been an 80-yard touchdown.
The Gophers fell behind 7-3 after Central Michigan went 82 yards in 15 plays and 6 minutes, 29 seconds.
The Chippewas had success with screen passes, and Rush capped the drive with a QB sneak on third and goal from the half-yard line.
The Gophers retook the lead when Leidner threaded a touchdown pass to Maye, who held on to the football as he was hit in the end zone.
Shannon Brooks had a 19-yard reception and 30-yard run on the quick-hitting drive, which took 2:12.
Leidner had a pass tipped and intercepted by Josh Cox at Minnesota’s 46 yard line, but the Gophers’ defense stiffened, forcing the Chippewas to punt after three plays.
The interception was just a bit of adversity Leidner and the Gophers would overcome in the end.