MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — At the end of this tumultuous 2015 season, Minnesota’s maroon and gold colors revealed a silver lining.
Finally, 11 years after their last postseason victory, the Gophers won a bowl game. Forget the fact that they were granted an NCAA exemption to participate with a 5-7 record. Never mind that they played not in a tropical place but in wintry Detroit. No need to dwell on the caliber of opponent from a non-power conference.
That streak of seven straight losses in bowl games, no matter how insignificant each event might have seemed in the whole scheme of the program, is finished.
“I don’t know about ‘monkey on the back,'” coach Tracy Claeys said after Minnesota beat Central Michigan 21-14 in the Quick Lane Bowl on Monday. “I never really felt that way. I’ll tell you it feels a hell of a lot better than ending the season on a loss.”
The Gophers will have some good feelings for once to take into those grueling winter conditioning sessions and eventually spring practices.
“A loss sticks in your gut a long time,” said Claeys, who took control of the team at midseason when Jerry Kill retired for health reasons. “Knowing you got a win now and you don’t play until next fall, you can keep a smile on your face for quite a while.”
Whether this victory over the Chippewas, a Mid-American Conference foe that finished the year 7-6, will actually brighten the mood of the players in August ahead of next season is beside the point. The Gophers gave themselves a bit of confidence by rallying from an alarming rash of injuries to key players, the devastating departure of the beloved Kill, who watched the game in Detroit on the sideline, and the loss at home to Wisconsin on Nov. 28 that appeared to end their season.
After all the angst this year brought for Minnesota, that 6-7 record could hardly feel better.
“We got all our crying out after Wisconsin,” cornerback Briean Boddy-Calhoun said. “We just wanted to come out here and win a game, and that’s what we did.”
Boddy-Calhoun and fellow senior cornerback Eric Murray, both NFL draft prospects, will leave large holes to fill next year. Safety Antonio Johnson, linebacker De’Vondre Campbell and defensive end Theiren Cockran, all productive starters, must also be replaced.
Wide receiver K.J. Maye was one of the team’s most valuable players, another departing senior. The offensive line, ravaged by injuries during the season, will now be depleted by graduation. The earlier-than-expected action for three freshmen, center Tyler Moore, running backs Shannon Brooks and Rodney Smith, will be one of the biggest benefits for the offense in 2016.
The best asset, though, will be quarterback Mitch Leidner.
After struggling badly enough in September that the coaches took the redshirt off freshman Demry Croft, Leidner found his groove in the second half of the season, topping the 300-yard mark against Nebraska and Michigan, producing one of the best games by a quarterback against Rose Bowl qualifier Iowa this year and earning the Quick Lane Bowl Most Valuable Player award for his performance on Monday that included the go-ahead touchdown run with 4:26 left.
“When you walk into the huddle and you see the looks on guys’ faces, you could tell everyone was ready to go down and score,” said Leidner, who will have foot surgery this offseason.
The best news for the Gophers for 2016 might actually be the schedule. Six of their losses this season came to teams currently ranked in the Associated Press Top 25, including four in the top 12. Next year, instead of playing Michigan and Ohio State, their games against the East Division will be Maryland, Penn State and Rutgers as the Big Ten moves to a nine-game schedule. Instead of TCU, their power-conference opponent in the season opener will be Oregon State, which finished 2-10.
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