The junior passed for 223 yards with a touchdown and added the go-ahead rushing score in the fourth quarter, as the Gophers defeated Central Michigan 21-14 on Monday night to end their seven-game bowl losing streak.
Leidner has been playing through left foot injuries all season and is expected to be limited in spring practice while recovering from the surgery. But he is expected to be back at full strength for summer workouts heading into his senior year.
Coach Tracy Claeys had planned to use freshman backup Demry Croft to spell Leidner for parts of Monday’s game. But the game remained close throughout, with the Gophers falling behind 14-13 early in the fourth quarter, and Croft never played.
“I apologized to [Croft]; I really did,” Claeys said. “It just so happened there before halftime, we got pinned every time inside the 20-yard line, and I was waiting for us to get outside the 30-, 35-yard line to give Demry a chance. And then in the fourth quarter, we were going to play to win.”
That meant Claeys was going to trust Leidner, who has impressed the former defensive coordinator ever since Leidner was running the scout team offense when he redshirted in 2012.
The Gophers (6-7) were on the ropes after getting stopped on fourth down near midfield early in the fourth quarter.
Central Michigan freshman Romello Ross pushed a pile of Gophers defenders into the end zone for a 13-yard touchdown, giving the Chippewas a 14-13 lead.
But the Gophers went back ahead with a 13-play, 76-yard touchdown drive. On third-and-3 from the 13-yard line, Leidner kept the ball on the read option, sprinted up the middle and then turned into the end zone. Leidner gave a celebratory salute, ramming his right arm into his helmet.
“He was clutch,” Gophers senior receiver KJ Maye said. “He made some great throws, some great decisions out there. He really deserves that MVP trophy. He had a great game.”
With a five-point lead, the Gophers went for two. It was a broken play, as Leidner circled, trying to hand off the ball to running back Shannon Brooks. Leidner looked as if he might get sacked, but he dodged a defender, and fired to the back of the end zone for Maye.
“I was able feel some pressure to be able to get off of that guy and see KJ in the back of the end zone,” Leidner said. “And he was able to make a great catch.”
Central Michigan (7-6) drove to the Gophers 42-yard line on the ensuing drive, but Cooper Rush threw a pass as he was about to be sacked on third down. Senior cornerback Briean Boddy-Calhoun reeled it in for a one-handed interception.
Boddy-Calhoun, who once dreamed of playing college basketball, said, “I had to bring it down like a rebound.”
The Gophers held on for their first bowl victory since they defeated Alabama in the 2004 Music City Bowl. They had been 0-3 in bowl games under former coach Jerry Kill, who served as an honorary captain for this game.
Rush came in averaging 308.6 passing yards per game with a 67.2 completion rate, but against the Gophers, he completed only 15 of 29 passes for 145 yards.
“I think it was pretty well- documented, the have a very good secondary and that’s the strength of their defense,” Chippewas coach John Bonamego said. “They probably played us a lot more press coverage than they had shown going into the game. That’s probably the one thing they gave us that we weren’t expecting.”
In his final game for the Gophers, Maye had eight catches for 67 yards and a touchdown.
Maye and freshman linebacker Jaylen Waters dumped a water jug over Claeys after time expired, and the Gophers celebrated with the 1,400 Minnesota fans who bought tickets for the game.
The announced attendance was 34,217, but the crowd looked smaller with the upper deck closed. Central Michigan had more fans, but some of them might have been deterred by the ice storm that hit Detroit.
The Gophers were one of three teams to reach bowl games with 5-7 records, joining San Jose State and Nebraska, and all three posted victories to improve to 6-7.
“We played by the rules, that’s all I’ve got to say about it,” Claeys said. “If they don’t want 5-7 teams in a bowl, then change the rules.”
Asked about the plays Leidner made to help win it, Claeys said: “That’s leadership. You get in ballgames like that, it gets tight at the end, you’ve got to play to win, and your leaders do that. Mitch has stepped up and done that several times this year.”