Gophers fumble away chance of win, rare bowl victory

Minnesota quarterback Mitch Leidner fumbles the ball as he is tackled behind the line of scrimmage during the first half. Missouri recovered the fumble.

John Raoux/John Raoux/Associated Press

ORLANDO, Fla. — This was Minnesota’s chance.

The Gophers have slowly rebuilt their football program under head coach Jerry Kill over the past four seasons, but a bowl victory would have cemented the progress Kill and his staff have made. Minnesota knew that wouldn’t come easy against SEC East champion Missouri in Thursday’s Citrus Bowl, but the Gophers were a confident group.

As Minnesota came out firing in the early stages, it appeared as if an upset of the Tigers might be within the Gophers’ reach. That’s when Kill’s team started playing uncharacteristically.

Fumbles — three of them — turned the tide against Minnesota. An early lead disappeared for the Gophers, who have now lost bowl games in three straight seasons and seven in a row overall after Thursday’s 33-17 loss to Missouri.

"The bottom line is, you can’t turn over the ball and you’ve got to win the turnover battle," Kill said after the game. "We lost that. Really, there’s not much more to say."

It was the Gophers defense that forced early Tigers turnovers. Minnesota safety Derrick Wells intercepted a deep pass by Mizzou quarterback Maty Mauk on the Tigers’ first possession of the game. Just two plays into the game, it appeared as if the Gophers were setting the tone with their defense.

It didn’t take long for that feeling to change, though, as Minnesota committed the first of its three turnovers just four plays later. Gophers quarterback Mitch Leidner was sandwiched by Missouri defensive ends Shane Ray and Citrus Bowl MVP Markus Golden, who combined to force a fumble. The Tigers recovered, erasing any good vibes Minnesota had early in the game.

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"I thought Mitch, the turnover he had, he got stroked," Kill said. "I don’t think there was much he could do about it. We had a little bit of a letdown in protection."

Though that turnover didn’t cost Minnesota — cornerback Briean Boddy-Calhoun intercepted Mauk on Missouri’s next drive — the Gophers’ second fumble of the half was indeed costly. Leidner and wide receiver KJ Maye fumbled a handoff exchange on third-and-3 from Minnesota’s 43-yard line. That forced the Gophers to punt, and the Tigers found the end zone five plays later.

"Both sides turned the ball over. Obviously, those two fumbles killed us," Leidner said. "They made mistakes, too, but they were just able to get away with theirs. Obviously those are two plays I wish I could have had back. We’ll just keep moving forward."

Minnesota was able to respond after its second fumble when Leidner and Maxx Williams connected for a highlight-reel 54-yard touchdown pass early in the third quarter. But its third fumble of the day was a back breaker.

The Gophers’ defense forced Missouri’s offense into a three-and-out and were set to get the ball back with a 14-13 lead midway through the third quarter. But Marcus Jones — filling in for the injured Craig James on the punt return team — fumbled the ball and the Tigers recovered once again. Working with a short field, Mauk needed just four plays before his 18-yard scramble put Missouri back on top, this time for good.

All three fumbles were hard to stomach for Minnesota, but the final one was especially difficult.

"Punts are tough. I’ve dealt with them," Boddy-Calhoun said. "I know (Jones) was extremely excited to be out there I’m sure. I’m sure it was hard for the outcome to happen that way. He’s a mentally strong guy. I know he dealt with it pretty well. After that play, I think it was out of his mind and he was ready to go."

Leidner’s second fumble of the game came late in the third quarter. On a second-and-10, Leidner again lost the handle on the ball. The Tigers’ defense recovered its third fumble of the game as it hung onto a 19-17 lead just before the fourth quarter.

There were other mistakes on the Gophers’ side Thursday, too, aside from the three fumbles. Minnesota allowed Missouri to successfully run a fake punt early in the second quarter for a big gain and a first down, and Kill’s team was also caught off guard by an onside kick to start the second half. After Minnesota played conservatively to end the first half, the Gophers were expecting to get the ball back with a chance to take the lead.

Instead, the Tigers got the ball back and turned the onside kick into three points.

Tigers 33, Gophers 17

Kill was asked about his decision before halftime to let the clock run out instead of take a shot downfield, a moment that drew some ire from the thousands of Gophers fans who made the trip to Orlando.

"We feel like we made the right call and (we’re) not going to change after that," Kill said. "If we hit a big play and got down to the 30-yard line, it’s different. That’s the decision we made. If people don’t agree with it, I’m not a very good coach, I guess. But I’ve been doing it a long time. You play the percentages."

In many ways, it felt like an opportunity was missed by the Gophers to finally win their first bowl game since 2004. Minnesota had done a good job for most of the year with regards to winning the turnover battle. But when it mattered most on the big stage of a New Year’s Day bowl game, the Gophers couldn’t take care of the football — and the game slipped away as a result.

There were mixed emotions among Minnesota’s players after the loss. Their season ended in disappointment, sure, but the program took a step forward by playing in a Jan. 1 bowl game for the first time since 1962. At the same time, those same players believed they were physically and mentally prepared for Thursday’s game. That’s what made the loss — and the turnovers — extra frustrating.

"It’s hard to feel anything right now," said Williams, who had a team-high seven catches. "Credit to Missouri. It’s tough. We work 15 practices for this one game. You feel like you’re so set. Come out of half down by three and not have some things go our way, fake and muffed punt. It sucks."

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