Mitch Leidner has put together some impressive performances on the field and, fortunately for the Golden Gophers, just as many in the classroom to help them earn the opportunity to play Central Michigan in the Quick Lane Bowl at Ford Field.
Since there were not enough bowl-eligible teams to fill the 80 slots, Minnesota was one of a few sub-.500 teams which still had the chance to play in a bowl game during the holiday season due to the players' strong academic showing.
Leidner, a 6-foot-4, 235-pound, dual-threat, junior quarterback, has thrown for 2,478 yards and 13 TDs, but is also an Academic All-Big Ten player, owning a cumulative grade-point average of 3.0 or higher.
A three-year starter, Leidner joined Rickey Foggie as the lone signal-callers in school history to pass and rush for 20 or more TDs in a career, showing his talent with a TD run and TD pass in a 30-14 win over the Wolverines in Ann Arbor for the Little Brown Jug last season.
"It's of huge importance to us," Leidner, a kinesiology major, said of the Gophers' academic success. "The coaches here are making sure we're going to class, going to tutoring, really focusing on being able to get good grades here and take advantage of our opportunity to get a degree at such a prestigious university."
Leidner is also proud of his younger brother, Matt, a walk-on offensive lineman who is also an Academic All-Big Ten performer.
"He's backup center and plays on special teams," Leidner said of Matt, who is majoring in mechanical engineering. "Coach Kill gave him the opportunity to walk on here after I was already here. He's a year younger than me. We've lived together ever since he's gotten here with a couple of other guys on the team.
"He's a true competitor in the classroom and on the field. He was just voted student-athlete of the month. He's a real talented kid and it's been fun to watch him grow."
The same could be said of Minnesota fans watching Leidner.
Sure, the Gophers were 5-7 (2-6 Big Ten West), but they were just a few plays from possibly being 8-4, losing the season opener 23-17 to TCU, losing 29-26 to Michigan when Leidner was stopped short of the goal line on the game's final play, and 40-35 at Iowa late in the season.
Leidner was proud of the team's effort against the Wolverines, especially playing the game at home just days after Jerry Kill announced his retirement due to epilepsy.
"It was an emotional week for sure and there was nothing more we wanted than to win that football game," Leidner said. "I just remember the amount of energy and everything that everybody on the team brought. It was so much fun. It was one of the most fun games I played in. Everything felt like it was going our way, to have an opportunity at the end to win it. It was an unbelievable feeling, but unfortunately it didn't come out the way we wanted."
Leidner's highlights? A 23-20 overtime win at Colorado State with Leidner finding KJ Maye for a 22-yard TD pass with less than a minute remaining for a 20-17 lead.
"To throw a touchdown pass to KJ like that was definitely a highlight since we pulled that game out and it's a pretty tough place to play, Fort Collins," Leidner said. "Another game that stands out is that win over Purdue (41-13), especially after having a tough loss against Northwestern the week before. It was great to see the group of guys rally back and come out and compete and run the ball all over Purdue, just very rewarding for all of us."
The Gophers ran for 326 yards in the 41-13 rout of Purdue to improve to 4-2. However, they dropped five of their final six games.
Still, Leidner had strong efforts during that tough stretch. He became the first Minnesota quarterback in 20 years to have consecutive 300-yard passing games, 301 in a 48-25 loss to Nebraska and 317 in the heartbreaker to Michigan.
"I take a lot of pride in that," Leidner said. "Being in Minneapolis, being in a pro sports town, you get a lot of hate really from the media around here a lot of different times, so to see me prove people wrong and come and have really four consecutive 250-yard games and two consecutive 300-yard passing games really proved to myself, and the offense to prove that we're a talented group of football players and we deserve to be out here playing with the best of them."
After the loss to Michigan, Leidner completed 27 of 44 for 281 yards in a 28-14 loss to Ohio State and 19 of 27 for 259 in the 40-35 loss to Iowa.
"Mitch is really improved a lot this year and I love the kid to death because he is the epitome of mental toughness, physical toughness and is a gamer," said Rob Reeves who was elevated to offensive coordinator for the bowl game. "He's a big-time leader both on and off the field. His toughness and the way he goes about his business has been second to none. In a tough media market where you're going to be critiqued and picked apart by everybody he's done nothing but just come to work every day to get better."
Mitch Leidner file
Hometown: Lakeville, Minn.
Year, Att., Comp., Pct., Yds., TD/INT
2013, 43, 78, 55.1, 619, 3/1
2014, 122, 237, 51.5, 1,798, 11/8
2015, 218, 377, 57.8, 2,478, 13/10