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College Football: Gophers’ goal: Win on New Year's

The standards have changed considerably since Jerry Kill took over the Gophers' program four years ago. Minnesota is going to a bowl game for the third straight season. The Gophers play Missouri in the Citrus Bowl, their first New Year's Day appe...

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(USA TODAY Sports) Minnesota Gophers head coach Jerry Kill, left, talks with running back David Cobb during warmups prior to a game against the Wisconsin Badgers Nov. 29 at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, Wis.

The standards have changed considerably since Jerry Kill took over the Gophers’ program four years ago.

Minnesota is going to a bowl game for the third straight season. The Gophers play Missouri in the Citrus Bowl, their first New Year’s Day appearance since 1962, when they beat UCLA in the Rose Bowl.

“This is a great opportunity for us to do a great job playing and it’s a great opportunity for our fans,” Kill said in the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

“We’ve got a lot of people down in Florida. We need to show the country we’re Minnesota and we’ve got great support.”

“As you kind of put the things together and realize, ‘Wow, we’re going to be in a New Year’s Day Bowl,’ it’s absolutely exciting,” defensive tackle Cameron Botticelli told the Pioneer Press. “I can’t really put it into words. I think it’s huge in terms of exposure. If 16-, 17-, 18-year-olds across the country are sitting in their living rooms watching Minnesota play meaningful football, it’s good for our program and our team.”

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Playing on Jan. 1 is a major accomplishment considering what a mess the program was when Kill was hired after the 2010 season, but times have changed in Minneapolis. Just going to a bowl is no longer good enough. Minnesota has lost its bowl game the last two seasons and the players know that needs to change.

“We’re definitely going to keep that intensity,” safety Cedric Thompson told the Pioneer Press. “We’ve been to bowl games two years in a row, and we haven’t won. And that’s our main motivation and focus right now.”

After going 3-9 in 2011, the Gophers went to the Meineke Car Care Bowl the following year and lost to Texas Tech 34-31, finishing 7-6. Minnesota was 8-5 last season after losing 24-21 to Syracuse in the Texas Bowl.

The Gophers are coming off a 34-24 loss to Wisconsin, a game that decided the Big Ten West title. Minnesota led 17-3 in the second quarter but fell short of winning the division and finished 5-3 in the conference and 8-4 overall.

Quarterback Mitch Leidner doesn’t think the Gophers will have any problems bouncing back from the Wisconsin game.

“We are going to use these practices to our advantage,” he told the Pioneer Press. “And our coaching staff will do a great job of watching the film with us and helping us get better from that. And just move forward from that and keep getting better.”

Kill, who was named the Big Ten Coach of the Year, sets the goals high for his program.

“Our mission was to win the Big Ten championship,” he said. “That’s what we said. We stayed in that room. We worked hard and stayed in the bubble. I don’t think anybody else believed we’d have the opportunity to do that. But the kids did and stayed persistent.”

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Kill will make sure to remind his players how important it is to finish the season with a victory.

“We’ve got a lot of room to improve,” he said. “Our season isn’t over. We didn’t finish it last year with a bowl win. We need to get that done.”

Missouri (10-3) won the SEC East but was hammered 42-13 by Alabama in the conference championship game.

BOWL BREAKDOWN

SCOUTING THE RUNNING GAME: There’s no secret about the Gophers’ strategy. They will run the ball and keep running it until they get stopped. Minnesota averages 224.6 yards a game on the ground. David Cobb, who has run for a school-record 1,548 yards and 13 touchdowns, leads the way. Berkley Edwards, Rodrick Williams and Donnell Kirkwood provide depth. Williams and Kirkwood filled in against Nebraska after Cobb left with a hamstring injury. Quarterback Mitch Leidner isn’t afraid to run with the ball, gaining 462 yards on 117 carries.

SCOUTING THE PASSING GAME: Sophomore QB Mitch Leidner is still struggling with consistency. He has completed 49 percent of his passes (101 of 206) and has thrown for 10 touchdowns and eight interceptions. Leidner completed 60 percent in the Gophers’ five conference victories but only 38 percent in the three losses. He had a rough day against Wisconsin, completing 5 of 18 for 95 yards. Minnesota is last in the Big Ten in yards passing per game. Tight end Maxx Williams leads the team with 29 catches and seven touchdowns.

SCOUTING THE RUN DEFENSE: While the overall numbers aren’t awful (Minnesota allowed 161.2 yards a game), the Gophers have had some rocky moments. Wisconsin gained 233 yards in the Big Ten West title game. Minnesota has allowed at least 190 yards in three other games (298 to Purdue, 289 to Ohio State and 190 to Middle Tennessee). The Gophers managed to go 2-2 in those games, which is fortunate considering the inflated totals. Missouri averages 165.6 yards on the ground.

SCOUTING THE PASS DEFENSE: Minnesota has been efficient most of the season, allowing 201.5 yards a game. The Gophers have held six opponents to 200 yards or fewer. Eastern Illinois passed for 310 yards in the opener, a season high allowed by Minnesota. The Gophers have intercepted 17 passes, led by four by safety Brien Boddy-Calhoun. Cornerback Eric Murray broke up seven passes and was credited with eight passes defended. Minnesota recorded 24 sacks, led by linebacker Damien Wilson, who had four.

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SCOUTING THE SPECIAL TEAMS: Punter Peter Mortell has been a weapon all season. He’s averaging 45.5 yards on 62 kicks, with 24 punts inside the 20-yard line and 21 kicks of 50 yards or more. Mortell’s longest punt is 64 yards. Ryan Santoso is 11-of-17 on field goals. He’s 8-of-9 from inside 40 yards, but has made 2-of-6 from 40 to 49 yards. Jalen Myrick is averaging 26.5 yards on kickoff returns, including a 100-yarder against Northwestern.

INTANGIBLES: While the Gophers are still dealing with the disappointment of losing out on their chance to win the Big Ten West, they must put that behind them for the bowl game. Coach Jerry Kill and his staff will underscore that point, but the players must get it and be ready to play. Playing for a division title in the final week and winning a bowl game, particularly one on New Year’s Day, will be a huge boost for the program.

BOWL HISTORY

Minnesota is 4-12 in bowl games and has lost six in a row. The Gophers are appearing in a bowl game for a third straight season for the second time in school history and the first since 2002-06, when they had five straight bowl appearances. Minnesota hasn’t won a bowl game since beating Alabama 20-16 in the 2004 Music City Bowl.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

RB David Cobb showed his toughness when he gained 118 yards on 25 carries against Wisconsin despite playing with a hamstring injury. He also ran for a 40-yard touchdown. Cobb has run for a school-record 1,548 yards and 13 touchdowns and is averaging 5.3 yards on 294 carries. He also has two 200-yard games this season. The extended time between games should give the hamstring time to heal up.

LB Damien Wilson has done just about everything a defensive player can do this season. He leads the team with 111 tackles, including 57 solo stops. Wilson has 10 tackles for loss, including four sacks. He also has intercepted a pass, recovered two fumbles and forced a fumble. Wilson has the opportunity to end his career with a strong game on a big stage.

S Cedric Thompson, who has been the Gophers’ best player in the secondary, is second on the team with 77 tackles and will be playing the final game of his career. He also has picked off two passes and forced two fumbles. Thompson can cover a lot of ground with three tackles for a loss, one pass breakup and three passes defended.

LB De’Vondre Campbell has made big plays all season. He’s third on the team with 71 tackles and is second with 6.5 tackles for loss. Campbell returned his one interception for a touchdown, recovered three fumbles and blocked a field goal. The junior is playing his best ball of the season when his team has needed him the most.

 

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