Big Ten Bowl Preview: Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl


TEAMS:  Minnesota (8-4, 5-3 Big Ten) vs. Missouri (10-3, 7-1 SEC)

TIME:  January 1st, 1:00 PM

LOCATION:  Florida Citrus Bowl – Orlando, Florida


A battle of two surprise teams will duke it out in the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl.  The Minnesota Golden Gophers from the Big Ten will go head-to-head with the Missouri Tigers from the SEC.  Both teams surprised many with how well they fared in conference.  The Gophers narrowly missed played for the Big Ten title as they fell to Wisconsin in the Battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe while the Mizzou Tigers lost to Alabama in the SEC title game.  Both teams will want to end the year on a high note.

The Citrus Bowl has been a longtime bastion for some of the Big Ten’s best teams and this year Minnesota looks to continue the tradition.  The Gophers are looking to be the first Big Ten team since Penn State defeated LSU in 2010 to defeat an SEC foe.

Missouri was a team expected to finish near the middle of the pack.  The Tigers were projected to finish fourth in the SEC East behind teams like Georgia, Florida, and South Carolina.  The 2014 edition of the Mizzou Tigers had to replace 13 starters from last year’s team that won 12 games including a 41-31 triumph over Oklahoma State in the Cotton Bowl.  Now, with a win over Minnesota, the Tigers can have back-to-back 11 win seasons for the first time in school history.  Since Head Coach Gary Pinkel arrived in Columbia, Missouri in 2001, the Tigers have five seasons with 10 or more wins.  Despite the loss to the Alabama Crimson Tide in the SEC Championship game, the Tigers enter the Citrus Bowl having won six of their last seven games defeating teams like Florida, Arkansas, and Texas A&M.  Overall the Mizzou offense has many potent weapons while sporting one of the top defensive fronts in the SEC.

The fact the Gophers are playing in the Citrus Bowl is amazing feat in an of itself.  Most media members predicted Minnesota to finish fifth in the Big Ten West behind the likes of Wisconsin, Nebraska, Iowa, and Northwestern.  Minnesota stumbled to the finish losing 3 of its last five games, including their final game, a 34-24 defeat to arch rival the Wisconsin Badgers. However, head coach Jerry Kill has his young troops headed in the right direction.  Some of the Gophers biggest wins in 2014 include Iowa, Michigan, and Nebraska – the latter two on the road!  A win over Missouri though will give the Gophers nine wins for only the second time in the school’s 110 years of football (10-wins in 2003).

On offense, the Gophers are paced by their high octane rushing attack led by David Cobb.  The senior ranked fourth in the Big Ten with 1,548 yards rushing.  He scored 13 touchdowns and averaged over five yards per carry. In fact, Cobb scored at least 1 TD in each of his last six games.  There’s little doubt that the Gophers would like to see Cobb have about 25 carries against Missouri if they are to be successful.

The second leading rusher on the Gopher’s team is sophomore quarterback Mitch Leidner.  The Lakeville, Minnesota native rushed for 462 yards and scored 10 touchdowns for the Gophers.  Unfortunately for Minnesota fans, he was far more prolific this season at running the ball than passing it.  The Gophers ranked last in the Big Ten in passing offense averaging a scant 131.4 yards passing per game.  On the year Leidner passed for 1540 yards, throwing for 10 touchdowns against eight interceptions, but only once did he have a game where he passed for over 200 yards (Illinois).

When Leidner did throw the ball, his favorite target was sophomore tight end Maxx Williams.  The Waconia, Minnesota native led the team with 29 receptions for 472 yards and seven scores.  The Gophers will have one less receiving weapon for the Citrus Bowl because the team’s third leading receiver, X-receiver Donovahn Jones, was kicked off the team last week for violating team rules.

On defense, the Gophers were in the middle of the pack in the Big Ten.  Their scoring defense allowed 23.4 points per game.  They were seventh in the Big Ten in rush defense allowing 161.2 yards per game, and seventh in the conference in pass defense giving up 201.5 yards per game.  Of note, the Gophers have given up only one 3oo-yards passer (Eastern Illinois) and only four times did a team pass for 250 yards or more in a game against Minnesota.

The defense was paced by senior linebacker Damien Wilson.  He led the team with not only four sacks, but also 111 tackles, averaging 9.25 tackles per game which placed him third in the Big Ten in tackles per game.  On the defensive line, Minnesota had a solid one-two punch of defensive end Theiren Cockran and defensive tackle Cameron Botticelli.  The two combined for six sacks and 11 tackles for loss.  In the secondary, Minnesota was paced by defensive backs Briean Boddy-Calhoun and his team-high four interceptions and Cedric Thompson with 77 tackles.  Both players will be counted on to slow down the vaunted Tigers offense.

The Missouri Tigers come into the Citrus Bowl having won six of their past seven games.  They represented the SEC Eastern division in the SEC Championship game, a 42-13 defeat at the hands on the Alabama Crimson Tide.  The offensive statistics for the Tigers are not gaudy, but they have been enough to lead them to 10 wins in was many believe is the most challenging football conferences in the country.

The Tigers get their directions from sophomore quarterback Maty Mauk.  The Kenton, Ohio native ranked seventh in the SEC with 2551 passing yards (196.2 yards per game).  He threw for 23 touchdowns against 11 interceptions.  In three of his last four games, Mauk has thrown for at least 250 yards and one touchdown.

On the ground the Tigers were led by senior Marcus Murphy and junior Russell Hansbrough.  Both players amassed 1737 yards rushing and scored 13 touchdowns.  In 2014, the Missouri offense relied on the versatility of not only the running attack  led by Murphy and Hansbrough, but also the outstanding pass catching abilities of Bud Sasser, Jimmie Hunt, and Darius White.

The three senior wide outs were one of the most difficult trios to contain in the entire SEC.  Sasser was the leading pass catcher of the group with 70 receptions for nearly 1000 yards and 10 scores.  Hunt had 40 receptions nearly 700 yards receiving and seven scores, and White added 29 receptions 374 yards and four scores.  Combined, the trio made 139 receptions for 2007 yards and 21 touchdowns.  That accounts for 78.7% of Mauk’s passing yards and the 21 combined touchdowns is 91.3% of his 23 total passing scores.  These three receivers represents the heart and soul of the Missouri passing attack.  The Gopher secondary will have their hands full trying to contain these three versatile weapons.

Just like Minnesota, Missouri has a defense that ranks as a middle-of-the-road defense within their conference.  Overall, the Tigers ranked seventh on the SEC allowing 343.8 total yards per game.  Where the Tigers excelled was on rush defense.  They ranked sixth in the SEC giving up 135.3 yards per game on the ground.  In the pass-heavy SEC, the Tigers ranked sixth giving up only 208.5 yards per game through the air.  For Missouri, they will need to fins a way to limit the Gophers potent rushing attack and make them beat them through the air.

The Mizzou defense is led by a dynamic line backing corps.  Donavin Newsom,  Michael Scherer, and Kentrell Brothers form one of the most prolific line backing trios not only in the SEC, but also in the nation.  Kentrell Brothers, the Guthrie, Oklahoma native, was second in the SEC with 117 tackles.  Michael Scherer also made over 100 tackles (107). I expect them to be heavily involved on Thursday with Minnesota being a run-first offense.

Up front Missouri’s Shane Rey led the conference with 12.5 sacks.  His speed from edge will be difficult for the Gopher tackles to contain.  Watch his ability to use his strength and speed to wreak havoc in the Minnesota backfield.

To me the outcome of the game lies in two areas, the ability of Minnesota to run the ball on the stingy Missouri rush defense and the ability of Missouri to gain chunks of yards through the air.  Even though the Tigers were handily beaten by the Crimson Tide, they were able to make big plays through the air, and I think they will be able to do the same to the Gophers secondary.

I do expect Minnesota to find success with Cobb and even Leidner on the ground.  They need to control the clock with sustained drives.  If they can find success there, the Gophers may have the chance to get that elusive ninth victory.

In the end, I think Missouri has too many weapons both offensively and defensively for the Gophers to hold them back for four quarters.  I think this game will be relatively close for a half, but in the end Missouri will pull away forcing Minnesota to throw the ball which is not something they do with great success.  Look for the SEC to make it five years running over the Big Ten in the Citrus Bowl

Prediction: Missouri 33  Minnesota 24