Sid Hartman: Gophers freshmen will benefit from experience of bowl game

  • Article by: SID HARTMAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 28, 2013 - 11:15 PM

Players such as Mitch Leidner, Maxx Williams and Drew Wolitarsky will be better for playing in the Texas Bowl.

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Drew Wolitarsky beat the Syracuse secondary for a 55-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter Friday, but the Gophers couldn’t hang on to the lead in the Texas Bowl. Still Wolitarsky was one of many Gophers players who played well.

Photo: MARLIN LEVISON • mlevison@startribune.com,

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Last year when the Gophers football team blew a seven-point lead with 70 seconds to play against Texas Tech in its bowl game in Houston, coach Jerry Kill was very positive despite the loss when talking about the performance of his team.

Kill predicted the Gophers would be much improved in 2013 because of the chance to get the 15 extra days of practice before the bowl game and the opportunity to play in the postseason.

Well, Kill was right, as this year’s Gophers went 8-4 in the regular season and got a chance to play in another bowl game.

I believe the opportunity to play in back-to-back bowl games will have another positive effect on how the Gophers do next season. The 2014 team could even improve on this one, which went 4-4 in the Big Ten after going 2-6 a year ago.

However, one thing has to change for the Gophers to make the next step: They are going to have to find a way to score more touchdowns. They went 13 quarters without an offensive touchdown before scoring two in the fourth quarter Friday to take the lead against Syracuse.

Unfortunately for them, for the second year in a row they couldn’t hang on to a late lead, this time giving up the go-ahead touchdown with 74 seconds remaining in a 21-17 loss to the Orange.

Another positive for the future is Kill’s health. He felt good enough Friday to come down on the field for the second half after spending the first half coaching from the press box. His presence on the sideline certainly had a positive effect on his players after halftime.

“I felt I would do anything to help,” Kill said. “I’m not sure it helped or not. Evidently it didn’t help because we didn’t win the game.”

Freshman receiver Drew Wolitarsky was confident Kill’s presence on the sidelines did help.

“I think the whole team got pumped up when he made the announcement [at halftime],” said Wolitarsky, who was wide open for a go-ahead 55-yard touchdown pass from Mitch Leidner in the fourth quarter. “Coming into halftime, I felt that everybody was a little flat and he gave us that spark, which is another reason why we came out and started executing better.”

Freshmen make difference

The several freshmen who got the advantage of the extra practice time and the chance to play in the Texas Bowl will be much better players next year because of it.

It was heartbreaking to lose the game to Syracuse after losing another lead like that, but players such as Wolitarsky, quarterback Mitch Leidner and tight end Maxx Williams will certainly be better players because of the experience they gained playing in the bowl game.

Leidner had 13 carries for 24 yards, although those totals include the four times he was sacked for 33 yards in losses. Take away those and he ran nine times for 58 yards. He also completed 11 of 22 passes for 205 yards.

Williams caught five passes for 76 yards and one touchdown. And Wolitarsky caught four passes for 94 yards and the one long touchdown, and he nearly came up with a winning Hail Mary in the final seconds.

And the Santa Clarita, Calif., native also had a first-half touchdown called back because of a very questionable offensive interference call. The Gophers ended up settling for a field goal before the half instead because of the penalty.

Yes, the officiating didn’t help. Another big penalty that came back to bite was the personal foul on right tackle Josh Campion after a 15-yard gain by David Cobb with a little more than three minutes to go. The penalty wiped out the yards and also stopped the clock, giving Syracuse a chance for the 70-yard punt return that set up the winning touchdown.

Frazier’s future

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