Dienhart: Here's a look back at Minnesota's 2015 season

Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Dienhart: Here's a look back at Minnesota's 2015 season

Coming off back-to-back 8-5 seasons—including the program’s first New Year’s Day bowl since the 1961 season in 2014—Minnesota fell … hard. The Golden Gophers were thought to be a legit contender in the Big Ten West. Instead, the team sunk to near the bottom of the standings with a losing record and made a bowl only because of a good APR and the fact there weren’t enough 6-6 teams to fill a bloated postseason system that needs 80 teams.

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Injuries and an inconsistent offense pulled down the squad. But a losing record wasn’t the worst news of 2015. Nope, the worst was Jerry Kill stepping down to tend to his health. He was the driving force behind this program’s rise since he took over in 2011.

Now, Kill is gone. In his place is former defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys, who first was interim head coach before getting the full-time gig on Nov. 11. Can the long-time Kill assistant keep the ball rolling? No one knows. A nice talent base returns, but Claeys needs to amp up an offense that hasn’t taken flight since Claeys arrived with Kill. To that end, Claeys fired offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover and quarterbacks coach Jim Zebrowski. Claeys can’t miss on hiring their replacements. His future in Dinkytown depends on success right now.

Record: 5-7 overall; 2-6 Big Ten/T5th West

Bowl: Quick Lane vs. Central Michigan

High point: It took a last-minute game-winning TD drive, but Minnesota subdued MAC foe Ohio, 27-24, to win a third game in a row. The streak began with an overtime 23-20 victory at Colorado State that also required late-game heroics. Yes, the Golden Gophers hadn’t looked impressive in the opening month, but they stood 3-1 with the lone defeat being in the opener, 23-17, on the road at No. 2 TCU. The Big Ten opener at Northwestern loomed. Would this be the start of a push for the West crown?

Low point: Jerry Kill’s retirement on Oct. 28 was a surprise. He had been a guiding force who had the program on the ascent, as he looked to turn the corner. Now, he was gone after dealing with health issues in the past. The Gophers were 4-3 when Kill stepped down. And they proceeded to lose three in a row and four of five to end the season. No loss was more painful than the first without Kill. Trailing Michigan, 29-26, on Halloween, then interim coach Tracy Claeys elected to go for the win at home over a potential tying field goal with the ball inside the 1-yard line and with only two seconds left. But Minnesota QB Mitch Leidner was stuffed, allowing Michigan to take back the Little Brown Jug after losing it in Ann Arbor last year.

Offensive MVP: WR KJ Maye. He was No. 3 in the Big Ten in receptions with 65 for 706 yards and four TDs. The senior provided a much-needed boost to an offense that finished No. 13 in the Big Ten in scoring (22.6 ppg) and No. 12 overall (357.1 ypg). He was honorable mention All-Big Ten by the coaches and media.

Defensive MVP: CB Eric Murray. A third-team All-Big Ten choice by the media and coaches, the senior made 64 tackles (45 solo) with four TFLs and broke up a team-high six passes. He will play in the Senior Bowl.

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Tom Dienhart, BTN.com Senior Writer

About Tom Dienhart: BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men's basketball for BTN.com and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, and send him questions to his weekly mailbag.

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