Maybe it won’t qualify as a signature victory for Tracy Claeys, but it will at least come with a trophy.
The Minnesota coach came tantalizingly close to marquee wins during his interim audition late in the season but couldn’t quite get over the hump. With an unexpected bonus opportunity for the Gophers to play again despite posting a losing record in the regular season, Claeys and his gritty squad made the most of it by knocking off Central Michigan 21-14 in the Quick Lane Bowl in Detroit on Monday night.
The Chippewas and Gophers traded the lead four times in a battle that was more entertaining than the relatively low score might suggest. Minnesota quarterback Mitch Leidner struck the last scoring blow with a 13-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter, and an interception by Briean Boddy-Calhoun sealed a streak-busting victory.
What the win means for Minnesota: The lengthy postseason skid is over, and Minnesota is finally heading home with some hardware. Losers of seven consecutive bowls dating back to the 2005 Music City Bowl, the Gophers capitalized on an unusual postseason appearance that came in large part due to their academic success after finishing with just five regular-season wins. Monday's victory capped a challenging year for the Gophers, who saw coach Jerry Kill retire in late October due to health reasons. Claeys took over and was named full-time coach on Nov. 11.
What the loss means for Central Michigan: The Chippewas are trending in the right direction after earning a bowl berth for the second consecutive year, but they just didn’t have enough offensive firepower to knock off the hard-nosed Gophers. Central Michigan has nothing to hang its head about after holding its own against a Big Ten program, and after dealing with plenty of adversity of its own this year, it can also still be proud of the seven-win campaign as a whole.
Player of the game: Minnesota’s secondary has no problem spreading around the credit, and once again those talented defensive backs will have to share top honors after perhaps their finest performance of the season. Against a pass-first offense led by one of the nation’s best under-the-radar prospects in Chippewas quarterback Cooper Rush, the Gophers completely bottled up his options, broke up throws down the field and ultimately held the Chippewas significantly under their season average by giving up just 145 yards through the air. Cornerbacks Eric Murray and Boddy-Calhoun are already familiar names for NFL scouts, and both helped boost their professional stock in the victory.
Unsung hero: There’s no question his junior season didn’t go exactly as he might have planned, but Leidner showed more poise, confidence and accuracy in the last game of the year. And there’s no question the Gophers wouldn’t have won without the quarterback answering the challenge down the stretch after a fourth-quarter lead slipped away. Leidner is almost never going to post huge numbers, but he completed 24 of 30 passes, kept the chains moving and made the correct reads as a rushing threat late in the game -- capping the game-winning drive by calling his own number for a clutch touchdown.