– The Gophers got the ball at their own 25-yard line with 1 minute, 4 seconds left until halftime and all three timeouts still available.

That’s an eternity in college football with that many timeouts, even with a quarterback not known for his passing accuracy. The Gophers trailed 10-7, so even a field goal would have given them positive feelings entering halftime.

The Gophers hadn’t been on this stage — a New Year’s Day bowl game — in five decades, so why not let ’er fly and take some risks?

Nope.

Jerry Kill went conservative. Ultraconservative. Painfully conservative.

Knowing his team would receive the second-half kickoff, Kill was content to run out the clock. Rather than try to get points, Kill chose to milk the clock out of concern that his quarterback, Mitch Leidner, might throw an interception and possibly create a deeper hole for his team.

That decision sort of crystallized a collective performance by the Gophers that left a sour taste after a week of fun, sun and historical significance.

They didn’t give themselves a chance to win.

The Gophers drop-kicked a golden opportunity to put a nice bow on this memorable season by self-destructing in a 33-17 loss to Missouri at the Citrus Bowl.

The Gophers fumbled five times, losing three of them. They muffed a punt. They allowed Missouri to convert a faked punt and an onside kick. They dropped a deep pass. They had a few costly penalties, including a senseless roughing-the-passer penalty that aided Missouri’s go-ahead touchdown.

The whole performance felt like a buzzkill because of all the hype and optimism surrounding their return to New Year’s Day and the fact that they weren’t exactly overmatched by their SEC counterpart. They just made too many mistakes.

Kill’s conservative approach before halftime didn’t cost his team a chance to win the game, but we would’ve preferred to see a go-for-broke mentality. Why not give stud tight end Maxx Williams a chance to make a play, or maybe leap over two defenders as he did on his ridiculous touchdown in the second half?

Instead, doing nothing as players stood around while seconds ticked off the clock set a bad tone.

“I think you’ve got to understand something … we get the ball back in the second half,” Kill said. “We’re not in great position, and if you turn the ball over in that deal, then you go down 17-7. We feel like we made the right call and not going to change after that.

“That’s the decision we made,” he continued. “If people don’t agree with it, I’m not a very good coach, I guess. But I’ve been doing it a long time, and you play the percentages.”

His counterpart, Gary Pinkel, took a different tack. He played sandlot ball. He called a fake punt from his own 17-yard line, which resulted in a 19-yard gain by 290-pound nose tackle Harold Brantley.

Mindful that the Gophers ran out the clock because they were focused on getting the ball to start the second half, Pinkel countered with a perfectly executed onside kick. That led to a field goal.

“Those were momentum changers,” Pinkel said. “Maybe I should do it more. And I do know this, that if it works, it’s a good call. And if it doesn’t, it’s not a very good call.”

Pinkel later rolled the dice on a fake field goal that the Gophers sniffed out. But Missouri’s gambles forced the Gophers defense to stay on the field, and that unit looked gassed by the fourth quarter.

The Gophers also added a few new wrinkles in their 15 bowl practices. They gained 9 yards on a throwback pass from David Cobb to Leidner that could’ve done more damage if blocked better.

“Their tricks, they executed and we didn’t,” Kill said.

Ultimately, the game came down to turnovers and mistakes. The Gophers kept tripping over themselves.

Once their disappointment subsides, the Gophers can reflect on this season and realize they made strides as a program. Now expectations will be considerably higher when they return for fall camp.

Playing on New Year’s Day was a nice reward and a tangible sign of progress. Their fans traveled in large numbers to celebrate the occasion. Five decades was a long wait.

The Gophers understood the historical significance, but their performance fell flat on the field, and on the sideline.

 

Chip Scoggins chip.scoggins@startribune.com