The Gophers will be making their 10th appearance in a bowl game in the last 14 years when they take on the Syracuse Orange in the Texas Bowl this Friday. Not bad for a program that’s seen as a Big Ten punching bag by most of the country. The fact is, despite the lack of high profile bowl appearances, the Gophers are fairly regular bowl participants. Now, the Texas Bowl in Houston isn’t going to get the masses excited and rightfully so, especially when the Gophers are making their second consecutive appearance in this game. Add the fact that the Gophers are playing the less than impressive Syracuse Orange and most college football fans outside of Minnesota and upstate New York will be apathetic towards this game.
Despite the lack of appeal on paper the Gophers have an opportunity to win nine football games for the first time since 2003 and just the second time since 1905. This game can help the Gophers build momentum for 2014 and a win may make them a preseason top 25 team. Plenty on the line if you’re a Gophers football fan.
Minnesota Offense: Quarterback Philip Nelson got hot when he took over the primary quarterback role in the first half against Northwestern. The Gophers reeled off four straight wins over Northwestern, Nebraska, Indiana, and Penn State when Nelson replaced a struggling Mitch Leidner in the Northwestern game. Nelson threw for seven touchdowns and zero interceptions in that stretch. However, since then, he’s struggled completing 13-of-41 passes with zero touchdowns and two interceptions in the last two games of the year against Wisconsin and Michigan State. Look for Nelson to rebound against a poor Syracuse pass defense.
Syracuse Offense: Quarterback Terrel Hunt has completed 60.7 percent of his passes for 1450 yards, 10 touchdowns and eight interceptions. Despite his sub-par statistics the sophomore quarterback is talented and improved as the season progressed. He’s an outstanding athlete at 6-foot-3 and 219 pounds and not to mention a dual threat quarterback that can make a play when the pocket breaks down. Behind him, junior running back Jerome Smith rushed for 840 yards and 11 touchdowns, proving to be a capable tailback for the Orange.
Offensive Edge: Minnesota
Minnesota Defense: The Gophers defense got better as the season progressed. Minnesota held Wisconsin to their lowest point total of the season and Michigan State to their lowest point total of the Big Ten season. The linebacker corps, which was a question mark heading into the season, ended up being a strength. The secondary and defensive line were equally impressive for the Gophers. Syracuse was inconsistent on offense this year so if the Gophers can play in the bowl game like they were playing late in the year, they should be able to contain the Orange attack.
Syracuse Defense: The Orange gave up 230.3 yards per game through the air, which is why I think this game is a tremendous opportunity for Philip Nelson and his young receivers to get on track and build some momentum for the 2014 season. I’m not saying Syracuse’s defense is as vulnerable as Indiana’s, but it may be close. Syracuse gave up 48 points to a Northwestern team that went 1-7 in the Big Ten.
Defensive Edge: Minnesota
Minnesota Special Teams: The Gophers were outstanding on special teams this year. Peter Mortell was one of the best punters in the Big Ten, Chris Hawthorne was consistent in the kicking game, and Marcus Jones provided fireworks as a return man. The coverage units were also exemplary.
Syracuse Special Teams: Ryan Norton booted 10-of-14 field goal attempts through the uprights. Riley Dixon averaged 42.1 yards per punt including 15 that went 50-plus yards. Not much on the return side of things as the Orange failed to return a kick or a punt for a touchdown this season.
Special Teams Edge: Minnesota
Minnesota Coaching: Jerry Kill has gone from three wins to six wins, to eight and counting in his three years at Minnesota. He’s built programs at Saginaw Valley State, Southern Illinois, and Northern Illinois before taking over the Gophers and has one of the most loyal staffs in all of college football. Offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover has been with Kill for 14 years and defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys has been with him for 18 years.
Syracuse Coaching: Head coach Scott Shafer has been with the Orange since 2009, serving as defensive coordinator before taking over head coaching duties when former head coach Doug Marrone left to take over as head coach of the Buffalo Bills. He’s some Big Ten experience, serving as Rich Rodriguez’s defensive coordinator at Michigan in 2008. Shafer did a solid job in his first year guiding Syracuse to bowl eligibility. Most people thought this was going to be a rebuilding year for the Orange.
Coaching Edge: Minnesota
Minnesota 34, Syracuse 20: Philip Nelson gets his mojo back through the air and the Gophers employ a bend, but don’t break defense to notch nine wins for the first time in a decade.