KU will face the Minnesota Golden Gophers in the 2008 Insight Bowl at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Ariz.
Tempe, Ariz. Just moments earlier, Kansas University had won its third bowl game in four years, 42-21, Wednesday night against Minnesota in the Insight Bowl at Sun Devil Stadium. Defensive coordinator Clint Bowen was sporting that signature grin, the one that lights up his whole face, the one that had been replaced by a clenched jaw in the early stages of the Big 12 season.
Bowen, his adrenaline still flowing at full speed, was recounting the crazy opening moments of the game. Minnesota, which all season had run a spread offense with its quarterback working out of the shotgun formation, revealed a power running game. It was no less shocking than if heavy-metal fans showed up for a Metallica concert and were shocked with three hours of bluegrass.
All year, the Golden Gophers tried to be a Big 12-style offense, and suddenly they had converted to Big Ten bruisers.
And for a while, it looked like a success.
“Stuff we’d never seen on film,” Bowen said. “They hadn’t run I-backs one time all year. And they come out with two tight ends. Unbalanced line, tackle over. They did it all. Hey, that was the most panicked I’ve ever been right there.”
Minnesota led, 14-7, with 6:03 left in the first quarter.
“That first nine minutes of that game was as hectic as I’ve ever had,” Bowen said. “Once we got it all figured out, we got settled in.”
Did they ever. For the remaining 53:57 of the game, Kansas allowed seven points, those coming in the fourth quarter.
“Our coaches got the defense together, got them settled down after the first quarter and made the adjustments that were needed at the time,” said KU head coach Mark Mangino, who improved to 3-1 in bowl games and won his 20th game in two seasons. “... Our defense really played really outstanding, had a very courageous performance on defense.”
All three senior linebackers had memorable finales. James Holt had three sacks. Mike Rivera (14 tackles) and Joe Mortensen (13) matched career highs for tackles.
The defense never was better than during a goal-line stand on which Minnesota could not score on second-and-goal from the two. One, two, three running plays were snuffed.
“I kept thinking about that’s what we live for is that big fourth-down stop,” Rivera said. “We just exploded into it. It was a great stop.”
The linebackers and classmates won all three bowl games they played in at Kansas, an accomplishment no other class can boast.
“The KU legacy we hope we leave is for our new linebackers coming up and everybody that will be replacing the seniors, no matter how tough it gets, you will just grit your teeth and keep going,” Holt said. “I think that’s what our seniors were all about since we got here.”
Holt embodies what the KU football program is all about. He arrived undersized for his position, embraced special-teams duties, poured everything he had into weight-room workouts and turned himself into a first-team All-Big 12 performer.
Playing in Mangino’s program isn’t easy, but as the seniors who hoisted three bowl trophies can attest, it’s rewarding. Mangino sets expectations high and drives players out of their comfort zone, pushing them to heights few outsiders would have guessed they could reach.
Similarly, coaching for Mangino can’t possibly be easy. Again, he expects so much and isn’t afraid to show his displeasure when expectations aren’t met. Bowen’s baptism as a solo defensive coordinator surely had its rough days and nights beyond game days and nights. Compounding matters, Bowen had such big shoes to fill, those vacated by widely respected defensive mind Bill Young.
Like the players who work for Mangino, Bowen will continue to improve. His first season went as his last game of the season did. Shaky beginning and an ending that left a huge smile on his face.