Minnesota stymies Central Michigan for first bowl victory since 2004
Final: Minnesota 21, Central Michigan 14
Key play: Mitch Leidner gets go-ahead touchdown on keeper
Three different times on Minnesota’s go-ahead drive, Leidner kept the ball on an option keeper and fooled the Central Michigan defense. On the last time, it resulted in a go-ahead touchdown. Even more impressive was that he followed his touchdown run with a scramble and a dart to KJ Maye for the all-important two-point conversion. For a guy that was supposed to be having foot surgery after Monday’s game, Leidner was mobile and effective in a big way. Regardless of the scrutiny Leidner received in his career, you couldn’t help but be impressed with him in what was arguably the best game of his career.
Telling stat: Cooper Rush held to 15-of-29 for 145 yards, 0 touchdowns
And one interception. Minnesota’s 14th-ranked pass defense harassed one of the nation’s top quarterbacks all night. The Gophers got pressure up front, but it was the secondary that starred. Rush avoided Eric Murray altogether and when the Gophers needed a big defensive stop late, Briean Boddy-Calhoun picked off Rush’s feeble attempt to make something happen. The CMU quarterback was a 67-percent passer who struggled to complete passes for most of the night. The Gophers haven’t allowed anybody to throw for 300-plus yards in two years while Rush reached that mark in six of his last seven games coming into Monday. Fortunately for the Gophers, the former held true.
-KJ Maye looked like an NFL receiver
Few guys in the B1G got steadily better than the Minnesota senior. Against CMU, Maye made plays all over the field. He hung tough on throws in the middle of the field, he got behind the defense and he was Leidner’s safety valve. Everything thrown his way was caught. If there was any doubt that the senior could play on the next level, it should’ve been squashed on Monday. At 5-11, Maye might not jump out at any combine. But somebody is going to have to take a chance on Maye. He does too many things well to be ignored at the next level.
–Peter Mortell was a stud
Mortell made more headlines this year for his holding than his punting. But two different times in a one-possession game, the senior dropped perfect punts inside the CMU 5-yard line, including one in the final 20 seconds. In a game of field position, Mortell was huge. The Gopher defense was playing at a top-flight level and the last thing it wanted to see was a poor punt to wake up the Chippewas’ offense. In the final game of his memorable career, Mortell was one of Minnesota’s most valuable players. Again.
What it means: Minnesota ends seven-game bowl skid
For the first time since 2004, the Gophers ended their season with a postseason win. That’s huge for Tracy Claeys’ program. A lot of people said that Minnesota didn’t deserve to be in a bowl at 5-7, but it actually became the third 5-win team to earn a bowl victory. And go figure, two of them were from the B1G. But Monday was more about Claeys laying the foundation for his future. He got a month of extra practices and he got to face another quality team. We got to see the combination of Shannon Brooks and Rodney Smith have some success, which is something Claeys will surely rely on in the future. But perhaps more important than anything was the fact that Minnesota finally didn’t end the season on a sour note. Bowl victories do build program momentum. After Monday’s effort, the Gophers have that.