Gophers report card: Disappointing end to positive season

Missouri defensive lineman Harold Brantley (center) runs with the ball for a first down past Minnesota defensive back Jalen Myrick (bottom) on a fake punt play during the first half of the Citrus Bowl in Orlando, Fla.

John Raoux/John Raoux/Associated Press

ORLANDO, Fla. — Minnesota’s season ended in disappointment Thursday in the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl, as an early Gophers lead disappeared in their 33-17 loss to the Missouri Tigers. The offense sputtered late, while the defense gave up a few big plays in the second half en route to the loss. With the defeat, head coach Jerry Kill’s team finishes the 2014 season with an 8-5 record. Here are the Gophers’ grades from Thursday’s Citrus Bowl loss.

The running game has been the bread and butter of Minnesota’s offense all year, but the Gophers didn’t find much running room against a speedy Missouri defense. The 106 total rushing yards Thursday was Minnesota’s second-lowest output of the year, with only the 99-yard effort against TCU falling shorter. In his final game in a Gophers uniform, senior running back David Cobb had a relatively quiet day. After setting the school record for most rushing yards in a season in Minnesota’s season finale, Cobb had just 81 rushing yards on 21 carries, an average of 3.9 yards per carry. Quarterback Mitch Leidner was a non-factor in the running game, too, after showing his ability to run throughout the season. The bright spot in Minnesota’s running game came on Rodrick Williams’ only carry of the day. Williams broke free for a 20-yard touchdown run as he sprinted up the middle of the field for the score.

Statistically speaking, Leidner had one of the best games of his career. The redshirt sophomore was 21-for-31 for a career-high 258 yards and a touchdown in the loss. Accuracy has been an issue for Leidner this year, but he was on target with most of his throws against Mizzou. That included a stretch of 14 consecutive completions, which tied Adam Weber for the most in school history. The biggest play of the day by the passing game came on a 54-yard touchdown to Maxx Williams in which the Gophers tight end hurdled a Tigers defender at the 15-yard line and proceeded to hurdle another near the end zone. Williams had a big game for Minnesota, finishing with a team-high seven catches for 98 yards. KJ Maye added 75 receiving yards on just three catches, including a 35-yarder, as Leidner’s top wide receiver. The Gophers have had their issues with the passing offense all season, but it certainly wasn’t worthy of much blame in the Citrus Bowl.

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Minnesota knew Missouri had success with a two-headed attack at running back, but the Gophers simply didn’t have an answer for Marcus Murphy and Russell Hansbrough. Murphy wound up with a game-high 159 rushing yards on 12 carries — an average of 13.1 yards per carry. That included a 69-yard gallop late in the game that helped the Tigers put an exclamation mark on their victory. Hansbrough, meanwhile, racked up 121 yards on 15 carries and found the end zone on a 78-yard rushing touchdown that gave Mizzou a 26-17 lead with 9:22 remaining. That run seemed to take the wind out of the sails of the Gophers, who never recovered from Hansbrough’s long scamper. Minnesota did limit the scrambling ability of Mizzou quarterback Maty Mauk, who only ran for 38 total yards on 11 carries. But the holes in the defense late in the game on those long runs was certainly a concern for the Gophers. The 337 rushing yards allowed by Minnesota were the most the Gophers’ defense surrendered all year. The previous high was 298 against Purdue.

The Gophers’ secondary was a huge bright spot early, as Minnesota intercepted Tigers quarterback Maty Mauk twice in the first quarter. The first came just two plays into the game after safety Derrick Wells picked off a deep pass from Mauk. After Minnesota fumbled on the ensuing possession, the Gophers used another interception to get the ball back. This time it was Briean Boddy-Calhoun as Minnesota picked off yet another long pass by Mauk. The Gophers cashed in on that interception by putting together an 11-play scoring drive. Missouri’s passing game was rather ineffective for most of Thursday’s game. Mauk finished with just 97 yards on 12-of-19 passing, but he did find wide receiver Bud Sasser for a pair of touchdowns. Other than Sasser’s seven catches, no Tiger had more than two receptions. It was the second time this season that Minnesota’s defense held an opponent to under 100 passing yards.

Tigers 33, Gophers 17

Trick plays caught the Gophers off guard Thursday. The first was a fake punt that Missouri ran to perfection early in the second quarter from its own 17-yard line. On fourth-and-3, Harold Brantley took the direct snap and rumbled 19 yards to the 36 as the Gophers’ coverage team never seemed to anticipate the fake. Missouri also surprised Minnesota to start the second half when the Tigers successfully used an onside kick to get the ball back. The Gophers played conservatively at the end of the first half with the expectation that they were starting the third quarter with the ball, but Missouri’s aggressive play calling changed that. Gophers punter Peter Mortell — the Big Ten’s Punter of the Year — had an off day Thursday. His five punts averaged 40.8 yards per punt, well below his season average. He did have one punt downed inside the 20-yard line, but several of his punts lacked hang time. Minnesota kicker Ryan Santoso connected on his only field-goal try, a 38-yarder that cut Missouri’s lead to 19-17 in the third quarter. Jalen Myrick provided a special teams spark leading up to Santoso’s field goal when he returned a kickoff all the way to the Missouri 43-yard line.

It was a disappointing end to what was otherwise a positive season for the Gophers, who finished with eight wins for the second consecutive year. Leading up to the Citrus Bowl, Minnesota talked plenty about the importance of beating Missouri after losing their bowl games in each of the last two seasons. Ultimately, though, the Gophers’ bowl game drought has now reached seven games, as Minnesota hasn’t won a postseason game since the Music City Bowl in 2004. Turnovers — three fumbles — were costly for the Gophers, who knew they likely had to win the turnover battle to beat a tough Missouri squad. After the game, Minnesota’s seniors talked about the state of the program now compared to four years ago when they arrived. Jerry Kill has continued to move the team forward in four seasons, and playing on New Year’s Day was a sign of progress. Winning the bowl game would have been another big step forward, but it wasn’t meant to be for Minnesota.

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