Record: 9-4 (5-4 B1G)
Nine wins is nothing to scoff at, especially for Minnesota, which had its best season since a 10-win year in 2003. But the Gophers didn’t have many interesting outcomes throughout the year. They won the games they were expected to win and lost the games they were expected to lose.
At least they were a pretty tough out at home, finishing the year 6-1 at TCF Bank Stadium, with the only loss coming to Iowa.
High point of the season: Shutting down Northwestern’s offense
Minnesota didn’t have many over-the-top performances in 2016, but the defenses effort against Northwestern was certainly spectacular.
The Gophers notched 12 tackles for loss and sacked Clayton Thorson seven times in the 29-12 victory. The defense held Northwestern to just 4.35 yards per play, the Wildcats’ second-lowest average of the year.
Minnesota’s defense looked as polished as it had all season in its final home game of the year. It was a huge boost of confidence a week prior to a battle against Wisconsin in Madison for Paul Bunyan’s Axe.
Low point of the season: The boycott before the Holiday Bowl
The Gophers blew 10-point leads against Penn State and Wisconsin, scored just seven points in a home loss against Iowa and had let a second half advantage against Nebraska slip away. None of that compares to the impact that was felt when the team boycotted football activities before the Holiday Bowl.
Players’ decision to protest was met with mixed reaction from administration, alumni, fans and students. What the team felt was a movement for due process was interpreted as a disrespectful stance towards women and sexual violence.
Ultimately, it cost Tracy Claeys his job after just one season.
Most meaningful play: game-winning field goal to avoid disaster vs. Rutgers
Rutgers – yes, that Rutgers – came within seconds of winning its only B1G game of the season in Minneapolis.
With four minutes left, Minnesota was able to engineer a 59-yard drive that set up a game-winning 28-yard field goal attempt for Emmit Carpenter. It went right down the middle.
Claeys, the players, and the entire State of Minnesota let out a huge sigh of relief once the ball traveled through the uprights.
Team MVP: Rodney Smith, RB
Thanks to fellow B1G backs like Corey Clement, Saquon Barkley and Justin Jackson, Smith never received the attention he deserved.
Smith was Minnesota’s workhorse in 2016, rushing for 1,158 yards and 16 TDs on 240 carries. He also caught 23 passes for 188 yards.
Despite being overlooked, he proved to be one of the conference’s top ball-carriers. His quickness and elusiveness makes him such a tough assignment for defenses and helped him hit the 100-yard mark six times this year.
Smith should continue to find his name atop the list of the B1G’s best backs in the future, especially if he continues to make plays like this:
Overall grade: B
Minnesota did everything it was suppose to do, but lacked the “wow!” factor. The Gophers had opportunities to notch that marquee win but squandered leads against Penn State, Iowa, Nebraska and Wisconsin.
Winning some of those games could’ve completely changed Minnesota’s year, maybe even resulting in a B1G West crown.
Claeys said before the season started that this team could win eight-to-10 games. That’s exactly what happened.