After a quarter-century of unhappy holidays, Minnesota will dress for a postseason football game, arriving at the Hall of Fame Bowl on the coattails of a sophomore soccer-style kicker.
The 7-4 Gophers, who did mysterious things - shut out Michigan (16-0) but lost to Iowa (18-6) - have been up and down all year, with placekicker Paul Rogind (18 field goals) and a packed defense not quite making up for the inconsistency of the often impotent offense.
Minnesota coach Cal Stoll never did decide who would replace the departed Tony Dungy at quarterbck. He started three different people.
Stoll has no seniors in offensive skill positions, and alternated eight running backs until fullback Kent Kitzman emerged in the final two games as a fitting cornerstone for his young offense.
Rogind, a native of Farmington, Mich., turned down a Michigan scholarship because he also wanted to play corner, which he does off the bench for the Gophers, but was told he couldn't do for the Wolverines.
Kicked three field goals in the 16-0 win over Michigan.
Set a school record for field goals with 18, including a 47-yarder and 12 that were 30 yards or more.
Kicked the winning field goal in the 10-7 victory over Western Michigan from 18 yards with three seconds left.
Kicked four field goals, including a 32-yarder with five seconds left, to rally the Gophers from a 17-7 deficit to a 19-17 upset of Washington.
Kicked 14 extra points without a miss.
Scored 68 of Minnesota's 164 points and finished fourth in Big 10 Conference in scoring.
Stoll says he does not know who he will start at quarterback against Maryland Thursday night in Birmingham, Ala. But Wendell Avery, who opened the first four games and the last three, is the most likely candidate with Mark Carlson in relief.
Avery was in relatively good favor through the first our games: Minnesota beat Western Michigan, 10-7, predictably lost at Ohio State, 38-7; beat injury-depleted UCLA, 27-13, and upset Washington, 19-17.
Then the embarrasment of the season occurred before 57,460 pleased viewers in Iowa City: the Gophers were punchless against Iowa, 18-6.
After that," said Stoll, "we needed a change."
He brought on his veteran, junior Marc Trestman, who barely (13-7) urged his team past a Northwestern squad that hadn't won a game since anyone could remember.
That brought on Carlson, the man Minneapolis sports editor Dan Stoneking says "can't outrun a glacier." Carlson has had so much cartilage removed from his right knee that speed is no longer mentioned in connection with his name. He is considered "the passer," although he didn't do much of that in the victory over Michigan.
That triumph belonged to the defense, which held the powerful Wolverines to 80 yards rushing as the Gophers became the first team in 113 games to shut out Michigan.
Carlson got the call the next game, and once again the Gophers followed a great performance with a stinker, losing to Indiana, 34-22. THe Hoosiers were left to run rampant.
"Our defense centers around our linebackers," said Stoll. "We couldn't do much without them."
Linebackers Steve Stewart (107 tackles), Michael Hunt (75 tackles) and backup Ed Burns (37 tackles) returned against Michigan State, a team Stoll says was "just better than we are." MSU won, 29-10, as the Minnesota offense again struggled to break into double figures.
Avery got his starting job back in that game and hung onto it through a 21-0 verdict over Illinois, when fullback Kitzman bulled up the middle on 57 carries - an NCAA record - for 259 yards and scored all three touchdowns.
In the finale against Wisconsin, Stoll stayed with the Avery-handing-off-to-Kitzman plan. Kitzman carried 40 times for 154 yards and Rogind kicked two field goals to ice the 13-7 victory.
Stoll is concerned about his offense going against Maryland's often-tough defense.
"Sending Kitzman up the middle would not be a smart approach against Maryland," said Stoll. "No one has been able to run up the middle against them.
"Our problem has been on third and long, and the quarterback has to do that."
Minnesota's statistics do not balance favorably. The defense gave up 2,195 yards rushing and 1,103 yards passing but the offense came up with only 2,234 yards rushing and 648 passing.
Minnesota has given up 170 points, scored 164.
Its schedule contained some of the best and the worst. Mixed up, it turned out well enough to get the Gophers into a bowl for the first time since they beat UCLA on Jan. 1, 1952.
"This is the greatest thing I can imagine happening," said Stoll. "A lot of people poo-pooed the Liberty Bowl and the Sun Bowl when they first started. But I think this has all the earmarks of a classic."