Gophers football coach Jerry Kill blamed the 33-17 loss to Missouri in the Citrus Bowl in Orlando on Thursday on the failure for the team to execute and for his team’s five fumbles, including three lost.

“I say all along you run into games like this,” Kill told reporters after the game. “They had some tricks up their sleeves, and they executed them. And the bottom line is you can’t turn the ball over and you have to win the turnover battle.”

Mitch Leidner lost two fumbles, including one in the second half when the Gophers trailed only 19-17.

“I don’t think there’s much he could do about it, you know. And we had a little bit of a letdown in protection, but I thought he improved today, threw the ball,” Kill said of Leidner. “Our future is good, but it’s disappointing, and it will hurt, but we move on and we can’t take away from — we haven’t gone [to a Jan. 1 game] in a long, long time. And I thought our kids would be a little bit tight today, and they weren’t. They went out and played hard. so it’s another step then and we’ve just got to keep moving forward.”

Still, for all the criticism Leidner has received for his lack of passing ability, one big positive from this game was seeing Leidner complete 21 of 31 passes for a career-high 258 yards, including a 54-yard touchdown pass to Maxx Williams, who made a highlight-reel leap over a defender on his way to the end zone.

“He’s learning,” Kill said, adding, “That’s what an extra 14, 15 practices gets you. And I keep telling people, you’ve just got to be patient. Not everybody comes in as a freshman and wins the Heisman or something like that. Some people you’ve got to develop. I compared him to the young man at Michigan State [Connor Cook]. I think Mitch took a huge step today and gave us an opportunity to win. We’ve redshirted one, two, three, four wide receivers with a whole lot of length and speed. So our [passing] future is good, and it’s great to see Mitch take a step forward in the throwing game and I think everybody that covers us, that’s been a big question, so I’m pleased with it.”

Decision to leap

On his touchdown reception, Williams explained his decision to hurdle one defensive back and step over another because of the experience he had on his first catch.

“On my first catch, when I was running out, they kind of hit me low,” he said. “And I kind of had a feeling that the D-backs were going to try to kind of hit low, because [I am] a bigger-body tight end. I caught the ball, I saw a guy kind of running with me, I saw him coming in, kind of just closed my eyes and said, ‘Hey, might as well go for it, got to try it.’ And after I go over the first guy, I saw the second guy come in. The first thing that came through my mind was KJ [Maye] jumping the guy [against] Purdue.”

Williams was asked how far the program has come since he joined the team.

“You look at our first game of the year and the strides we’ve made throughout the whole year, beating Michigan, beating Iowa, just building each week. And I think that’s what we strive for at the beginning of the each year, get better every game, so that’s what we did.

“You finish your game. You go to the meetings the next day and you watch the film. You try to improve. And I think you look at your team, just the leaders that we have and the way our team came together throughout the whole year, we just built strides all the way up this year.”

Williams talked about the great leaders among the seniors on this team.

“The leaders that we have and the way our team came together throughout the whole year, we just built strides all the way up this year. … We are a younger team. We had great leaders. Mitch is a great leader, Cedrick Thompson, and just having that foundation really helped us make strides throughout the whole year.”

Lost to the best

Year in and year out, the Southeastern Conference is considered the best conference in college football. A Big Ten team hasn’t won a national title since Ohio State in 2002, but the SEC won seven titles in a row before Florida State broke the streak last year.

And the Gophers, while making tremendous progress under Kill, weren’t ready to beat a team from that great league.

Missouri is only in its third year in the SEC but has won the East Division the past two years. The Gophers don’t have to be embarrassed to lose to a team that has won 23 games the past two years while playing against some of the best football teams in the country, and one that was staying close to Alabama in the SEC Championship Game until the fourth quarter.

When taking the Gophers job, Kill said it would take seven years to move the program into a class with the top teams in the Big Ten. Well he found a way to beat Iowa, Michigan and Nebraska in the same year, but like he has said, the Gophers are still a long way from being able to beat the best.

The 8-5 records each of the past two seasons are certainly a sign of progress for a coach who took over a troubled program four years ago.

The Gophers only trailed 19-17 going into the fourth quarter. However, the three Gophers turnovers and a Tigers rushing attack that gained 337 yards enabled Missouri to put the game away after the Gophers failed to take control earlier.

The Tigers also were able to execute some trick plays to help their cause, including a fake punt deep in their own territory and an onside kick they recovered to start the second half.

Kill said he thought the Gophers defense got a little tired down the stretch because of the extra chances Missouri had.

“The game flipped because of a couple turnovers,” Kill said. “And they got extra possessions. And then, you know, our kids on defense were rotating in and out. A bunch of freshmen are trying to play hard, but I think we got a little bit tired in the fourth quarter.”

Stopped running game

While running the ball has been the Gophers’ strength all season, Missouri found a way to stop it after the first quarter.

The Gophers rushed 15 times for 76 yards and led 7-0 after one quarter, and then a team that won games all season on the strength of its ground game netted only 30 rushing yards the rest of the game.

David Cobb, who set all types of rushing records for the Gophers, ran 13 times for 52 yards in the first half but only eight times for 29 yards in the second. Without Cobb being a big-time contributor, the Gophers weren’t going to win.

Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said that his team won the battle on the line of scrimmage, especially in the fourth quarter on two long touchdown runs. Marcus Murphy ran for 159 yards and Russell Hansbrough added 114 and a touchdown.

Jottings

• Several Minnesotans are having strong seasons on the New York Islanders. Former Gophers winger Kyle Okposo is tied for the team lead in scoring with 32 points, recording eight goals and 24 assists in 37 game. Warroad native Brock Nelson is tied for third with 27 points (14 goals, 13 assists). Former Gopher Nick Leddy, who was traded from Chicago in October, is their top-scoring defenseman with six goals and 11 assists and is fourth on the team in time on ice, averaging 20:12 a game. Edina High School product Anders Lee has three goals and an assist in his past five games, giving him nine goals and four assists in 31 games. Former Wild winger Cal Clutterbuck has four goals and four assists in 35 games.

 

Sid Hartman can be heard weekdays on 830-AM at 6:40, 7:40 and 8:40 a.m. and on Sundays at 9:30 a.m. shartman@startribune.com