Complain about 5-7 teams playing in bowl games all you want, but for the first time in more than 10 years, the Gophers claimed a bowl victory.
A questionable coaching decision turned dangerous for Tracy Claeys, as he watched his team fall behind in the fourth quarter. But playing one of the best games of his career, quarterback Mitch Leidner led Minnesota on a terrific comeback drive, earning a 21-14 win over Central Michigan in the Quick Lane Bowl for the program's first postseason win since 2004, snapping a seven-game bowl losing streak.
Ahead, 13-7, in the early stages of the fourth quarter, Claeys opted not to punt from the CMU 44-yard line, instead failing to convert on fourth and two. The Chippewas followed with a blitz of a scoring drive, gaining 21, 16 and six yards on consecutive plays before Romello Ross streaked then powered into the end zone, pushed by teammates for a go-ahead score that put his team in front 14-13.
But Leidner answered, leading a long drive that lasted nearly seven minutes, converting twice on third down with brilliant option keepers, the second a 13-yard touchdown run. He followed by scrambling away from pressure and finding KJ Maye in the end zone to complete a successful two-point conversion, making the Minnesota lead seven at 21-14. The Gophers held on defense, with Briean Boddy-Calhoun intercepting Cooper Rush as the Chippewas moved into Minnesota territory, and the win was locked up from there.
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The Gophers' defense dominated much of the game, allowing just 249 yards on the day and holding Rush — who entered as with the 12th-best yards-per-game mark in the country — to just 15 completions for 149 yards and no touchdowns.
Minnesota drove all the way to the five-yard line on the game's opening drive but had to settle for a field goal. Central Michigan grabbed a lead on the first play of the second quarter when Rush capped a 15-play, 82-yard drive with a dive from one-yard out for a touchdown.
The Gophers answered that touchdown drive with one of their own, Shannon Brooks starring along the way with runs of 19 and 30 yards before Leidner hit Maye, who made a leaping grab in the end zone for the score to make it a 10-7 game.
In the third quarter, following a Leidner pass to Drew Wolitarsky for a gain of 40 yards and a Brooks pickup of 15, Ryan Santoso booted another field goal to make it 13-7 before the fourth-quarter touchdown trading.
Leidner was great Monday, completing 24 of his 30 passing attempts for 223 yards and a touchdown and rushing nine times for 19 yards and a touchdown.
For Minnesota, it was the first bowl win since a defeat of Alabama in the Music City Bowl in 2004. Since, the Gophers appeared in seven bowl games over 10 seasons but lost all seven, including in each of the last three seasons under former head coach Jerry Kill. Kill was on the sideline Monday after retiring in the middle of this season due to health problems.
Minnesota finished the campaign with a 6-7 record. For all the consternation over 5-7 teams making bowl games, all three of those teams were victorious this winter.