Minnesota has not won a bowl game since 2004, when they beat Alabama 20-16 in the Music City Bowl, but as the Gophers prepare for its first bowl appearance since 2009, coach Jerry Kill has his players ready in Houston to put up a fight, especially as the underdogs.
But even more importantly, a victory at the Meineke Car Care Bowl will allow the program to take the next step. Minnesota’s football program has had a lot of success in its history, but very little in recent memory.
Minnesota will need the assistance of a few key contributors in order to notch a victory on Friday, Dec. 28.
Here are five players that will determine the outcome of the Meineke Car Care Bowl:
The biggest matchup for Friday’s bowl game will be the Texas Tech offense against the secondary of the Gophers. While the Red Raiders are heralded for its passing attack, Minnesota has been stout all season in defending the pass.
No player has been more vital in the passing defense than senior Michael Carter. The cornerback has had a breakout season for the Gophers. He surpassed fifth-year senior Troy Stoudermire as Carter takes on the top receiver on each opponent. It will be no different on Friday as Texas Tech has two wide receivers with over 900 yards.
This season, the senior corner has nabbed two interceptions and 14 pass breakups. His monster game came against Purdue in which Carter took an interception return for a touchdown to ice the victory.
Carter will need to stymie the passing barrage for Minnesota to stay close.
A clean bill of health. That’s what MarQueis Gray asked and received for the holidays. The quarterback/wide receiver is the most dynamic playmaker that the Gophers have on its roster, but his health has forced him on the sidelines for parts of the season.
Whatever position he plays, the senior will have a significant impact in the game. Gray leads the team with 10 total touchdowns on the season. He has practiced at both quarterback and wide receiver since the regular season ended. Even in the final week of practice, the coaching staff seemed indecisive in what to do with the playmaker in his final game.
Expect Gray to pass, run, and catch on Friday. Philip Nelson is the future of Gopher football, but the present is still Gray. The best solution could be to give the keys back to Gray for one last time.
Minnesota needs to put pressure on senior quarterback Nate Doege. With almost four thousand yards passing on the season, the quarterback leads the top-tier offense.
If the Gophers are going to have any success in sacking the quarterback and rushing Doege’s throws, it will begin with senior DL Wilhite. Wilhite has tallied 8.5 sacks on the season and has been consistent in all parts of the season. In his final game, Wilhite will attempt to help his draft stock.
Perhaps a late round pick, the senior out of Kentucky has a decent chance to rack up a few more sacks on the season. The offensive line for the Red Raiders is fairly mediocre. In his four seasons for Minnesota, Wilhite has played in all of them, including starting eight games in his sophomore year.
A successful bowl game would be a great cap for the running back turned defensive end.
At the beginning of the season, the player that Gopher fans were raving about the most was Derrick Wells. The true sophomore safety instantly excelled in his second year in maroon and gold.
In non-conference play, Wells was the ultimate playmaker in the secondary. While some were surprised that the sophomore originally got the starting nod over Brock Vereen, the doubters dissolved quickly. Wells has a knack for tackling because of his athleticism and speed.
The hawk of a safety started to wear down over the regular season with multiple injuries, but has returned healthy for the first time in months for Minnesota.
Wells will see plenty of playing time in the Meineke Car Care Bowl, as the defense is likely to play in the nickel.
It does not matter if the quarterback is Gray, Nelson, or Bronco Nagurski for the Gophers on Friday. Whoever the signal caller is for Minnesota, he will need a deep threat in order to shrink the field for the offense.
Although the local sophomore has not had the season that many people hoped for, Devin Crawford-Tufts still has the ability to stretch the field for the team. The wide receiver has only 15 receptions on the season and has not looked healthy all season. The former Edina standout has yet to notch a touchdown in his sophomore campaign.
Without AJ Barker, Andre McDonald, and Marcus Jones, the Minnesota offense will need to inject some life in the arsenal of receivers the team has. This is the opportunity for one of the receivers to step up and secure a starting nod for next season. Perhaps it will be DCT. The former track star has the speed and the ability to get the long receptions. If the quarterback for Minnesota is able to heave the ball deep successfully, the Gophers may bring home its first bowl trophy since 2004.