On the surface, Wednesday’s Quick Lane Bowl might not move the needle on the excitement meter for the general public. After all, it’s a matchup of a 6-6 team against a 7-5 squad, when the Gophers face Georgia Tech one day after Christmas in Detroit.
In college basketball terms, mid-level bowls are much like NIT matchups. However, to those playing and coaching, a bowl game — any bowl game — carries importance.
“It’s another opportunity,” Gophers linebacker Thomas Barber said. “We’re always excited to get an extra game at the end of the season. … Merry Christmas to us.”
Or, as coach P.J. Fleck put it, “Every bowl is an elite bowl, and you gotta get to ’em.”
The Gophers got to this bowl game by finishing strong, going 2-1 with a 31-point rout of Purdue and a 22-point win at Wisconsin in the final three Big Ten games.
It could be argued that the victory over the Badgers — Minnesota’s first since 2003 and first in Madison since 1994 — actually was the Gophers’ bowl game, the signature triumph in Fleck’s two years on campus.
The Quick Lane Bowl allows the Gophers a chance to add to that late-season momentum and set a tone for 2019. Minnesota will start up to eight freshmen on offense, and a solid performance would be another step forward. The coaching staff used the extra practices for the bowl game to first address internal improvement, then prepare for the Yellow Jackets.
“The first five or six practices were invaluable, especially for me with the quarterbacks,” offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca said. “We were able to not worry about getting ready for an opponent, were able to put them in a lot of different situations and really challenge their knowledge, their ability to think deductively and react to what was happening.”
Such adjustment on the fly will be especially important for the Gophers defense, which will face an unfamiliar look in Georgia Tech’s triple-option offense. As Army demonstrated in its 70-14 thrashing of Houston in the Armed Forces Bowl on Saturday, triple-option attacks can make defenses look silly if players are only semi-interested in being there.
Gophers defensive coordinator Joe Rossi doesn’t see that being the case with his team.
“It’s a challenge but a fun challenge because you’re doing something and putting in something that’s maybe a little bit different than you’ve done,’’ he said. “It gives the players a chance to come together, the coaches to work with some guys they hadn’t worked with before and for all to pull together and go win one.”
For comparison’s sake
Can a coach’s first bowl appearance push a program forward? The Gophers’ results are mixed.
In 1999, Glen Mason coached the Gophers to the Sun Bowl for their first bowl appearance in 13 years, starting a run of seven bowl trips in eight years.
In 2008 and ’09, Tim Brewster’s Gophers made back-to-back Insight Bowl trips, but he was fired the next year following a 1-6 start.
Jerry Kill had the Gophers back in a bowl (Meineke Car Care) his second season, starting his run of three straight bowls, capped by a Citrus Bowl berth in 2014.
After Kill stepped down because of health reasons, Tracy Claeys took a 5-7 Gophers squad to the Quick Lane Bowl, where it beat Central Michigan 21-14 to end a seven-game bowl losing streak for Minnesota. The next year, Claeys’ Gophers upset Washington State 17-12 in the Holiday Bowl.
Fleck’s track record
A look at Fleck’s time at Western Michigan provides an example of how he’d like to see his Gophers program progress.
A 1-11 debut season in 2013 in Kalamazoo had his critics howling, but improvement came the next year, when the Broncos assembled a six-game winning streak in Mid-American Conference play and capped an 8-5 season with a 38-24 loss to Air Force in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl.
That bowl appearance didn’t translate to immediate success in 2015, as the Broncos started 1-3 against an ambitious nonconference schedule that included losses to Michigan State and Ohio State. But with junior quarterback Zach Terrell leading an offense that was hitting its stride, Western Michigan went 7-2 the rest of the way, including a 45-31 win over Middle Tennessee in the Bahamas Bowl.
The bowl win was a sign of things to come in 2016, when the Broncos went 13-0 with a MAC title game win before falling 24-16 to Wisconsin in the Cotton Bowl.
Terrell saw that success building in Fleck’s second year at Western Michigan.
“That second year, you start to get some buy-in,’’ he said. “You have guys who understand what the standard is and what is asked of them. The second year, you see a jump and a belief in the system and the culture.’’
Whether that results in further success for the Gophers in the Big Ten is yet to be seen, but Fleck sees a path. The fact athletic director Mark Coyle extended his contract by one year for the second consecutive season suggests the emphasis is on continuity after the program has had six different coaches since 2006.
“You’ve got to earn that consistency,” Fleck said, before his team left for Detroit. “And we look forward every day to earning that.”