The Minnesota Gophers football team culminated their season with a disappointing loss to the Syracuse Orange in the Texas Bowl in Houston by a final score of 21-17.
After finding his team down 7-3 at halftime, coach Jerry Kill returned to the sidelines for the first time since the Big Ten opener against Iowa, hoping to spark his team to a comeback victory. The Orange struck first taking what seemed at the time like an insurmountable, 14-3 lead. However, the Gophers found their mojo in the fourth quarter and struck for not one, but two touchdowns as Mitch Leidner found Maxx Williams and Drew Wolitarsky in the end zone to give the Gophers a brief 17-14 lead over the Orange.
That lead was short lived as the Gophers gave up a long punt return in the closing minutes and allowed Syracuse quarterback Terrel Hunt to scramble untouched up the middle on a blitz to give the Orange the lead for good with under a minute remaining in regulation.
I feel the need to come clean and let everyone know that my ego was damaged from losing to a mediocre ACC team. The loss not only stings the ego of the Gophers and their fans, but of the Big Ten as a whole.
Who’ll be the starting quarterback in 2014?
The quarterback position was the most inconsistent of any position on the team this year. When the Gophers went on their four game Big Ten winning streak, they got strong play from Philip Nelson. The Gophers need to find such quarterback play if they’re going to make another step forward in 2014. Kill is going to give both Leidner, Nelson, and redshirt freshman Chris Streveler a chance to start next year. It should be a wide open competition starting this spring.
Drew Wolitarsky is going to be a beast
The freshman receiver from Santa Clarita, Calif. hauled in a 55-yard touchdown from Mitch Leidner to give the Gophers their only lead of the game at 17-14. Wolitarsky finished with four catches for 94 yards and the aforementioned touchdown grab. He’s California’s all-time record holder in career catches with 281 and career yardage with 5,148. Look for him and fellow freshman Donovahn Jones to form quite the duo at wide receiver for the Gophers the next few years.
Strong play at running back
With David Cobb, redshirt freshman Berkley Edwards, Donnell Kirkwood, Rodrick Williams Jr., and possibly true freshman Jeff Jones entering the equation next year, the Gophers will have one of the best running back corps in the Big Ten.
Jerry Kill back on the sideline
All football coaches are control freaks and Kill is certainly no different. If his health is good and he gets the go-ahead from his doctor, look for him to return to the sideline in 2014 on a permanent basis. Yes, Kill is a superstitious dude, but the Gophers lost their last two regular season games with him in the booth and were losing the bowl game at halftime with him upstairs. The Gophers did show a lot more punch with Kill on the sideline in the second half after a lethargic first half effort with him in the press box.
Ra’Shede Hageman will be missed
Hageman is a large man and the Gophers will not only miss his production at defensive end, but just his presence alone, which was enough to intimidate teams looking at him from across the line of scrimmage. The Gophers will also lose run stuffer Roland Johnson to graduation so some holes will need to be filled along the interior of the defensive line.
Who will handle kicking duties in 2014?
After a rocky start, senior Chris Hawthorne turned into a very consistent kicker. His ability to reach the end zone on kickoffs on a consistent basis should not be taken for granted. He was also very good kicking field goals this year connecting on 14-of-18 attempts. Now the Gophers must turn to one of two redshirt freshmen — Ryan Santoso or Andrew Harte. Look for a battle between the two of them starting this spring.
Could Maxx Williams become an All-American?
I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Williams is a match-up nightmare at 6-foot-4 and 254 pounds. He runs well and has the athletic ability to make people miss and the strength to run them over. Williams played quarterback while at Waconia High School so he’s plenty agile to do things with the ball in space. If the Gophers get improved play from the quarterback position, Williams could post huge numbers in 2014.
Need for overall speed on defense
The defense made large improvements from last year, however if I have to nitpick, the team speed still seems like a bit of a liability at times. In the Syracuse game, I found too many occasions where the Syracuse receivers were wide open. Also, on Hunt’s scramble up the middle for the game winning score, it would’ve been nice to see a safety or linebacker track him down.
Tackling needs to improve
We made the Syracuse running back look like former Syracuse greats Jim Brown and Ernie Davis on some runs — that had to do with poor tackling. The improvement we’re seeing in tackling since Kill and defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys took over the program is improving for the better, but it isn’t a finished product quite yet.
The future is bright
The Gophers have a stable coaching staff, a facilities plan thanks to Athletic Director Norwood Teague, an identity as a tough, physical football team, and a goal to build the program brick by brick. You have to look big picture after a disappointing loss and that’s what I’m doing.