MADISON, WIS. – His final regular-season game served as a microcosm of Mitch Leidner’s career as a college quarterback.
Good Mitch, Bad Mitch.
And far too much of the latter.
Leidner played his best football in a long time in the first half Saturday. He threw passes on the money, with confidence, and fooled Wisconsin’s ferocious defense with fakes that opened running lanes.
But then Bad Mitch reappeared after halftime.
One statistic encapsulates an excruciating meltdown that cost the Gophers a chance to swing Paul Bunyan’s Axe for the first time in 13 years.
In the second half, Leidner completed two passes to his teammates and four passes to Badgers defenders.
That’s right, two completions, four interceptions.
His four picks doomed any chance the Gophers had at an upset and sent them home empty-handed again after a 31-17 loss at Camp Randall Stadium.
To be fair, Leidner’s receivers deserve blame too after dropping a handful of catchable passes. But Leidner’s mistakes were killer, especially by a senior with his level of experience.
In Big Ten games this season, Leidner threw 11 interceptions and only three touchdown passes. He threw an interception in the end zone in the fourth quarter at Penn State. He threw an interception on the final drive at Nebraska.
He tossed four interceptions in the second half Saturday after his team played inspired in the first half to take a 17-7 lead.
Leidner’s first interception changed everything.
Leading 17-10 with six minutes left in the third quarter, the Gophers faced third-and-9 from the Wisconsin 14. They basically were assured a field goal to make it a two-score game.
The one thing Leidner couldn’t do in that situation is make a mistake that cost his team points. Not on the road against a top-five team.
That’s precisely what happened.
Leidner spotted Rashad Still in the end zone but he failed to see safety Leo Musso in the vicinity. Musso intercepted the pass, giving the Badgers new life.
“They disguised one coverage and I mess up and they get a lot of momentum from there,” Leidner said.
His second interception came early in the fourth quarter after a miscommunication with his receiver. Eric Carter ran upfield while Leidner threw to a spot well behind him. The Badgers turned that gift into a touchdown to tie the score.
His third interception resulted in another touchdown and a 31-17 lead. Game over at that point.
The Gophers have not held the Axe since 2003, and this loss defines their entire 2016 season.
The Gophers were good enough to defeat bad teams but not good enough against quality opponents.
Given their softest schedule in years, the Gophers basically achieved the bare minimum — 8-4 overall.
Their eight wins have come against teams that entered the weekend with a combined record of 31-57. Only one of those teams had a winning record — Colorado State at 6-5.
Their four losses have come against teams with winning records.
A 5-4 Big Ten record without a signature win shouldn’t be cause for celebration. Remember, Tracy Claeys reminded everyone before the season that this was the best team in Jerry Kill/Claeys era.
And they managed eight wins and a fourth-place finish in the Big Ten West.
Now athletic director Mark Coyle faces decision time.
Claeys’ job status has been a weekly discussion topic because of his contract situation. He has only two seasons left with a minuscule buyout and a new boss in Coyle.
Those factors fueled speculation about whether Claeys would be fired or given a contract extension after the season. Coyle hasn’t talked publicly about the matter so everything is pure guesswork.
Eight wins — even with a soft schedule — makes it unlikely that Coyle would change coaches. But doing nothing doesn’t seem like an option either. For perception’s sake, allowing Claeys to coach next season with only two years remaining would not be ideal.
A small extension that doesn’t inflate Claeys’ buyout significantly might be a safe option. Or Coyle could turn next season into another prove-it year for Claeys by standing pat.
“This [loss] hurts,” Claeys said. “But at the same time, eight [wins] is always a good year and we look forward to finding out where our bowl game will be.”
Sorry, but that hardly feels satisfying.