ORLANDO - The dark blue seats at the remodeled Citrus Bowl were covered with people wearing maroon and gold Thursday, as about 15,000 Gophers fans proudly assembled in 72-degree comfort for the team’s first New Year’s Day bowl game since 1962.
It felt like a new era, and maybe it was. But the end result was all too familiar, a seventh consecutive bowl game loss, another missed chance for a springboard victory.
The exhilaration Minnesotans felt when Maxx Williams hurdled two defenders for a 54-yard touchdown reception was quickly displaced by anger and frustration as the Gophers fell apart in the second half.
The Gophers made too many critical mistakes, and Missouri gambled successfully too many times, as the Tigers pulled away for a 33-17 victory before an announced crowd of 48,624.
“It will be a lot easier [to digest] a week from now,” coach Jerry Kill said. “Right now, it’s not that easy. I love the guys. They played hard. We haven’t done this in 53 years. Hopefully we get used to it, and we work our tail end off to get back.”
The Gophers fell to 8-5, just like last year. They went 5-3 in the Big Ten, compared to 4-4 last season, but they couldn’t stop a postseason losing streak that stretches to their 2004 Music City Bowl win over Alabama.
Kill is 0-5 in bowl games, including three games with the Gophers and two at Northern Illinois. He raved about his team’s preparation throughout December, and especially in the week of practices in Florida. But the Gophers played one of their sloppiest games of the year.
They fumbled five times, and Missouri recovered three of those — two by quarterback Mitch Leidner and one by backup punt returner Marcus Jones. After playing stingy defense for three quarters, the Gophers sprang a leak in the fourth.
“It’s hard to feel anything right now,” Williams said, with eye black smudged all over both cheeks. “Credit to Missouri. It’s tough. We work 15 practices for this one game. You feel like you’re so set. Come out of half down by three and not have some things go our way. It stinks.”
Williams’ touchdown gave the Gophers a 14-13, third-quarter lead and sent their fans into delirium. There was a sense they really could slay the SEC East champion. But No. 16 Missouri (11-3) has won three consecutive bowl games under 14th-year coach Gary Pinkel, and the Tigers’ experience shone through in the end.
Missouri looked lifeless in the first quarter, but Pinkel gambled with a fake punt from his own 17-yard line — and it worked. Harold Brantley, a 290-pound nose guard, took the snap and rumbled 19 yards for a first down.
Trailing 10-7, the Gophers went conservative to end the first half, thinking they would get the ball back to start the third quarter. But Pinkel foiled that with an onside kick. Missouri recovered and drove for a quick field goal.
“I think when you have those things work, those are huge for momentum,” Pinkel said.
The turning point came after Williams’ touchdown, when Missouri had to punt. With punt returner Craig James injured, the Gophers thrust Jones into duty. Jones has plenty of experience fielding punts but hadn’t done it since September.
Jones probably should have let the short punt go, but he chased after it, fumbling the ball off his feet. Moments later, quarterback Maty Mauk scrambled for an 18-yard touchdown run, putting Missouri back in the lead.
“Punts are tough; I’ve dealt with them,” Gophers cornerback Briean Boddy-Calhoun said. “I know he was extremely excited to be out there. I’m sure it was hard for the outcome to happen that way. He’s a mentally strong guy. I know he dealt with it pretty well.”
Ryan Santoso hit a 38-yard field goal, trimming the Tigers’ lead to 19-17 midway through the third quarter. But Leidner fumbled again on the Gophers’ next possession, and then Missouri went for the jugular.
Shackled all day, Russell Hansbrough ripped off a 78-yard touchdown run, and Marcus Murphy later added a 69-yard run to set up a 7-yard touchdown pass from Mauk to Bud Sasser.
Leidner completed 14 consecutive passes at one point and finished 21-for-31 for a career-high 258 yards. Williams made seven catches for 98 yards in what likely will be his final college game. The third-year sophomore is widely expected to declare for the NFL draft.
Missouri held Gophers senior David Cobb to 81 yards on 21 carries. Cobb’s next step will be the NFL, but before leaving the field, he turned around to soak in the college atmosphere one last time.
“It just means so much to me,” Cobb said. “I wanted to give it one good look and then move on.”