The College Bowl Season is upon us, and Pylon University is bringing the breakdowns on offense, defense, and special teams, along with the sport’s traditions and great moments. In this edition, the Citrus Bowl preview.
WHAT: Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl
WHEN: Thursday, January 1 – 1:00 p.m. EST (ABC)
WHERE: Orlando Citrus Bowl Stadium – Orlando, FL
Today’s undercard to the College Football Playoff semifinals features two Big Ten/SEC battles, both pitting four-loss teams against 10-win conference runners-up: Auburn squaring off against Wisconsin in the Outback Bowl and Minnesota facing Missouri in the Citrus Bowl. These conference supremacy bowls will serve as braggadocio fodder until August, so fill up while the getting is good.
The Golden Gophers and the Tigers present a compelling matchup where defense and ball control will be paramount. Minnesota racked up three “quality losses,” falling to TCU, Ohio State, and Wisconsin. The Gophers might be seen as a much better team had they not fumbled away a victory in the 4th quarter to lowly Illinois ‒ a game they statistically dominated. Fourth-year head coach Jerry Kill has the Gophers on the upswing, leading them to a third consecutive bowl game and their first New Year’s Day appearance since the 1962 Rose Bowl. Still, Kill stands 0-2 thus far in the postseason, with the school winless in its last six bowls.
Missouri’s Week 4 loss to Indiana and their Week 6 thrashing at the hands of Georgia took them off everyone’s radar. The Tigers, however, took care of business in the soft SEC East and crept into the SEC Championship game because the Bulldogs could not close out Florida. Head coach Gary Pinkel has a 6-4 record in bowl games during his 14-year career in Columbia while posting double-digit wins in three of the past five seasons.
When Missouri Has the Ball
The running back tandem of Russell Hansbrough and Marcus Murphy paced the Missouri offense this season. Hansbrough rushed 190 times for 970 yards (a 5.1-yard average) and 9 touchdowns, while Murphy added 165 attempts for 767 yards (a 4.6-yard average) and 4 scores. The Tigers gained 165.6 yards on the ground per contest (60th in FBS) but did so judiciously, using the running game adeptly to manage the clock and keep their defense fresh.
When the Tigers go to the air on the arm of Maty Mauk, they look for Bud Sasser. The 6’2” receiver has found the end zone 10 times, hauling in 70 passes for 935 yards, remarkable numbers given that Mauk has completed just 52.9% of his throws and connected for 23 touchdowns total. Mauk is capable of making the big play, but his inconsistency and inaccuracy has repeatedly cost Missouri. The Tigers rank 104th in FBS in yards per game and 77th in points per game. When throwing the ball, they ranked 97th in passing yards per game, gaining a paltry 196.2 per contest.
This play exemplifies the Tigers offense. Trailing by 13 against South Carolina, the offense needs a big play. Mauk throws a jump-ball to Sasser deep along the sideline, and the WR manages to pull down the throw:
Missouri scored two plays later to cut the deficit to six, and went on to win by one.
On a per-game basis, Minnesota’s defense ranked 62nd in FBS in rushing yards allowed (161.2), 33rd in passing yards allowed (201.5), and tied for 34th in points allowed. Led by linebacker Damien Wilson’s 111 tackles (57 solo), the Golden Gophers had eight players corral at least one interception on the season. Safety Cedric Thompson tallied 77 tackles (49 solo) and two picks while cornerback Briean Boddy-Calhoun earned All-Big Ten Team recognition for his 4 interceptions and 8 pass breakups. But the cornerback’s biggest play of the year might have been this crucial strip against Nebraska:
Boddy-Calhoun tears the football away from the receiver steps shy of the goal-line, and preserves the Minnesota victory.
When Minnesota Has the Ball
The Golden Gophers rely on senior bowling ball/running back David Cobb and his 5’11”, 229-pound frame to wear down opposing defenses. Cobb accrued 1,545 yards on 293 carries (a 5.3-yard average) and 13 touchdowns, while also snaring 12 passes for 129 yards. Cobb’s production declined as the year progressed, with his four best games coming in the first half of the season before nagging injuries hampered his output. After a month of rest and recovery, Cobb will aim to recover the form that led to four 180+ yard performances.
Minnesota needs yards from Cobb to counteract the ineffectiveness of quarterback Mitch Leidner, who completed an atrocious 49.0% of his throws for just 1,540 yards, 10 touchdowns, and 8 interceptions. Leidner managed 462 yards on 117 carries and 10 touchdowns on the ground. Minnesota failed to have a receiver crack 30 catches on the season, with Maxx Williams the only player with more than 15. Williams found a way to snag seven touchdowns and averaged 16.2 yards per catch, so if the Gophers plan to achieve anything through the air, it figures to be Maxx.
For Minnesota to pull out the victory, they will need sounder execution from their QB than Leidner delivers on this play against Illinois:
The QB takes the snap and locks eyes onto his TE immediately. Everyone in the stadium knew where he was going with the football, especially the Illinois linebacker.
The strength of Missouri’s team in 2014 was their pass rush, led by first team All-American defensive end Shane Ray’s 14 sacks and 21 tackles for losses. Linebacker Kentrell Brothers tallied 117 tackles (58 solo), while end/outside linebacker Markus Golden contributed 9 sacks and 68 tackles (38 solo). Safety Braylon Webb snagged four interceptions, while cornerback Aarion Penton chipped in three. But it is the All-American DE who keys this defense:
Ray uses a strong one-two punch move on the right guard, and blows right by him for the sack. That’s your Citrus Bowl Preview “whoa” moment, presented by whatever company not yet sponsoring a bowl game.
Unfortunately, Minnesota probably won’t throw very often, so Ray will not be able to show off his pass-rushing prowess. Perhaps more importantly for his draft stock, the likely top-10 pick will be given the chance to set the edge and make plays against the running game. With such a showcase, that could propel Ray into the top five selections.
In addition to Ray and Golden ‒ both whom might go in the first round ‒ the Tigers also boast several other prospects worth watching, according to CBS. Brothers, Murphy, Webb, tackle Mitch Morse, and center Evan Boehm also figure to be selected in the NFL Draft. Meanwhile, Cobb, Wilson, and Thompson headline the Gophers prospects.
If Cobb comes out looking like he did earlier this season, Minnesota should be able to control the clock and play their game – a ball control, defensive battle. Preventing Mauk from making big plays in the passing game would help that goal tremendously. However, if Ray and Golden are able to wreak havoc from the edges or force a turnover, the Tigers should be able to handle their business once more.
Missouri 24, Minnesota 13
All video and images courtesy ESPN.com
Follow David on Twitter @SoSH_davemc.