Joe Christensen covered Major League Baseball for 15 years, including three seasons at the Baltimore Sun and eight at the Star Tribune, before switching to the college football beat. He’s a Faribault, Minn., native who graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1996. He covered Jim Wacker’s Gophers for the Minnesota Daily and also wrote about USC, UCLA and the Rose Bowl for the Riverside Press-Enterprise before getting this chance to cover football again.
Email Joe to talk about the Gophers.
ORLANDO, FLA. -- The Gophers held their first Florida practice today in preparation for the Citrus Bowl, and Star Tribune photographer Liz Flores and I made it just in time to see it. The team allowed photo and video access for the first 20 minutes, so we'll wrap some of that into tonight's coverage.
Some quick jottings off practice:
* Gophers coach Jerry Kill confirmed that running back Jeff Jones finished the fall semester with a high enough GPA (Jones needed a 2.5 or above) to gain eligibility for spring practice. Sid Hartman had this news in his Sunday column. The Gophers were just waiting for the grades to become official, and now that's a done deal.
* Drew Wolitarsky, who missed the last four games with a sprained ankle, looked very good running drills. Kill said Wolitarsky is good to go for the bowl game.
* Kill said offensive tackle Ben Lauer, who has been out with mono, would have a limited role, at the most, in the bowl game. That limits the Gophers depth. They have Josh Campion and Jonah Pirsig starting at tackle, and those two will have their hands full against Missouri's defensive ends.
* It was overcast at Freedom High School but a very comfortable 72 degrees. Temperatures are expected to be in the low 80's the next three days.
The Gophers had sold 6,600 tickets for the Citrus Bowl as of Friday afternoon, according to Senior Associate AD Chris Werle. That's more than the Gophers sold to their past two bowl games combined (6,538).
The Gophers have been breaking down film, studying Missouri, getting ready for the Citrus Bowl. Meanwhile, Dave Matter, the Mizzou beat writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, reached out with some questions about the Gophers, and you can read that exchange here. I hit up Dave for the same thing. Follow him on Twitter @Dave_Matter and check out his outstanding Mizzou coverage here. Here's the Q&A:
1. Going back to the move from the Big 12 to the SEC, if somebody would have told you then that Missouri would reach two SEC title games in its first three years, what would you have said?
Actually, I figured Missouri would immediately make a smooth transition into the SEC and be competitive because of the program’s recent success under Gary Pinkel. I was a year off. The 2012 season unraveled early, and after getting hit with some injuries, the Tigers looked overmatched against most of their SEC opponents. The real surprise was how quickly Missouri bounced back in 2013. That was a special team, tremendous senior leadership, timely defense, explosive offense. This year looked to be more of a transition season but was in danger of spiraling after the loss to Indiana and then the 34-0 loss to Georgia. Even with a limited offense, Missouri proved this year it can compete against the bulk of SEC teams, but I think the last two SEC championship games tell us the program is still a step behind the elite SEC programs.
2. Gophers fans have been starved for a New Year's Day bowl bid. Missouri won the Cotton Bowl last year. How much excitement do Tigers fans have for this Citrus Bowl matchup?
Pinkel was thrilled and I sense that fans are pretty excited, too. Mizzou (and Pinkel, too) are sort of conditioned to expect a lesser bowl game each year after what happened in 2007. Quick version: Missouri beats rival Kansas to vault to No. 1 in national polls and clinch the Big 12 North. Tigers lose to Oklahoma in Big 12 title game but instead of picking 11-2 Missouri with its at-large BCS bid, the Orange Bowl picks 11-1 Kansas. Missouri settles for the Cotton Bowl, but is steamed by the process, especially because the Big 12 didn’t step in and support Mizzou’s cause. Two years later Mizzou expected a better bowl than the Texas Bowl, went to Houston and underestimated Navy—and got humbled by the Midshipmen. I’m sure some expected the Citrus Bowl to pick household names Auburn or Georgia over Mizzou, so fans (and Pinkel, too) were genuinely pleased to get the invitation to a New Year’s Day game in Florida.
3. How did Missouri turn things around after the Indiana and Georgia losses?
The defense made some improvements immediately after the Indiana game and didn’t play all that poorly against Georgia. UGA had its season-low in yardage against Missouri but feasted on five Mizzou turnovers. More than anything, MU cleaned up its tackling and stopped allowing big plays on defense. Around that time, MU’s defense seemed to realize that it was its duty to carry the team while the offense worked through its issues. Offensively, it took a few few weeks after the UGA game for Maty Mauk to settle down and improve in the passing game. His No. 2 and 3 receivers Jimmie Hunt and Darius White were nursing injuries midway through the season, and once they got healthy, the passing game perked up, too.
4. How has Maty Mauk's sophomore season compared to his freshman season?
He was 3-1 in SEC games as a starter last year, but his production was fairly erratic. His completion percentage wasn’t very good, but he made up for it with big plays downfield. He was a classic case of boom or bust and not very consistent. To start this season, he was mostly boom — then mostly bust for a three-game stretch against South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. Missouri could barely get a first down in the passing game as Mauk struggled terribly. Mauk was recklessly scrambling out of the pocket and giving up on plays before the pressure got to him. Linemen were frustrated with his play. Receivers were frustrated. Coaches were frustrated. Gradually, he began to trust his blocking better, stepped up in the pocket and started producing in the passing game. Mauk played really well against Tennessee, Texas A&M and Arkansas and had a better game against Alabama than most QBs this season.
The Gophers want students to come en masse to Orlando for the Citrus Bowl, so here comes the special offer. Beginning at noon, there will be student travel package for $299. It includes:
Round-trip transportation via charter bus; two nights' lodging; a ticket to the game; a ticket to the Alumni Association's pregame tailgate; transport to and from the bowl game; snacks and beverages on the bus; a T-shirt, and a 2015 student football season ticket.
The bus leaves Dec. 30 and returns Jan. 3. Space is limited. Details here.
Update: The package sold out soon after being made available. Studenbts interested in going can get thjeir names on a waiting list.
The Gophers on Thursday held their first practice since their Nov. 29 loss at Wisconsin, and defensive coordinator/associate head coach Tracy Claeys said it was clear the players were well-rested with fresher legs.
Teams can hold up to 15 practices before a bowl game, and the Gophers are getting ready for the Citrus Bowl against Missouri on Jan. 1. Claeys said Friday will be another light practice, and that the team will step up the intensity on Sunday.
Claeys said the Gophers had their full defense back on the field Thursday, including safeties Antonio Johnson and Damarius Travis, who had been banged up.
Claeys said wide receiver Drew Wolitarsky did not practice but the Gophers expect to have him back for the Citrus Bowl on Jan. 1 against Missouri. Wolitarsky has missed the past four games with a high-ankle sprain.
"You’d like to have everybody healthy just like your first ballgame of the year, especially going against a team from the Southeast Conference," Claeys said.
Claeys was in charge Thursday with head coach Jerry Kill in Orlando with Missouri coach Gary Pinkel for a Citrus Bowl press conference.
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