Gophers a rare favorite over Syracuse
DEC 11, 2013 11:17a ET
MINNEAPOLIS -- The Gophers football team admittedly didn't know much about its Texas Bowl opponent Sunday when it was announced Minnesota would face Syracuse. They played each other last season, but this is new year and a new team.
So just what kind of Orange team will Jerry Kill's squad be up against Dec. 27 in Houston? For starters, this Syracuse team is one that was barely bowl eligible. The Orange finished the regular season 6-6 and needed a win against Boston College in the regular-season finale to get that sixth win. In fact, it took a touchdown pass with six seconds remaining in regulation for Syracuse to eke out the win against the Eagles.
With that victory, the Orange secured a spot in the Texas Bowl, where it will face a Gophers squad that surprised many people by winning eight games in Kill's third season at the helm. Minnesota is the early 4.5-point favorite, according to Las Vegas oddsmakers, a position the Gophers weren't too familiar with this year.
"I don't know if there's been many games where we've actually been favored going in," said Minnesota senior defensive back Brock Vereen. "It'll be different, but at the same time it's not something we pay attention to. If anything, it'll just raise confidence a little bit."
These same two teams did face off last year at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, with the Gophers eking out a 17-10 win over the Orange. In that game, Minnesota intercepted Syracuse quarterback Ryan Nassib twice and scored a pair of rushing touchdowns thanks to Donnell Kirkwood.
Nassib is gone from Syracuse, and the Orange have a new coach as well -- one Kill is familiar with. Scott Shafer is in his first year in charge at Syracuse. He previously served as the team's defensive coordinator since 2009. Before that he bounced around between a few schools as an assistant, including Northern Illinois as the defensive coordinator from 1996-2003.
Just a few years after Shafer left, Kill took over as the head coach at Northern Illinois. While they never coached together, the two are still familiar with one another.
"I was at Northern Illinois when he was at Southern Illinois, so I got to know him bumping into him and his coaches throughout the years," Shafer said in a conference call. "And then he ended up taking the Northern Illinois job, and I was so proud of the job he did there because so many of those kids were kids that we recruited with coach (Joe) Novak, and you always hope for the best for the program. Couldn't be happier to be playing a first class outfit like coach Kill's at Minnesota."
Added Kill: "It seems like we're always crossing paths with somebody we know."
If there's one thing Syracuse does well, it's run the football. The Orange averaged 193.8 rushing yards per game this year, which ranked 39th in all of college football. The Gophers were just a hair ahead of Syracuse in that department, rushing for 200.9 yards per game (34th in the nation).
The Orange put up impressive rushing numbers without producing a 1,000-yard back. Four different players rushed for over 300 yards for Syracuse, led by 6-foot, 217-pound junior Jerome Smith, who had 840 yards and 11 touchdowns on 184 carries. Prince-Tyson Gulley chipped in 440 yards on 79 carries (5.6 yards per carry), while quarterback Terrel Hunt used his legs en route to 426 rushing yards and five touchdowns. Minnesota gave up 154.0 rushing yards per game but was susceptible at times against strong rushing teams -- especially late in the season, when the Gophers surrendered 180 or more rushing yards in the final five games.
Minnesota and Syracuse had two common opponents during the 2013 season, as each team played Penn State and Northwestern. The Gophers beat both of those Big Ten teams, while the Orange lost to the Nittany Lions and Wildcats to open the season 0-2. Syracuse faced a pair of top-three teams this season as well, losing 49-14 to No. 3 Clemson and later getting blown out by then-No. 2 Florida State, 59-3, in Tallahassee. The Orange's two biggest margins of victory came against Wagner (54-0) and Tulane (52-17) in nonconference play.
Defensively, Syracuse defensive tackle Jay Bromley could give Minnesota's offensive line a handful. He finished the year with nine sacks, 12 tackles for loss and three forced fumbles. Safety Durell Eskridge had a team-high four interceptions while also leading the Orange with 78 tackles. Linebacker Marquis Spruill can also get into the backfield, as was evident by his 4.5 sacks and his team-high 13.5 tackles for loss.
As good as Syracuse's running game was, its passing game was mediocre at best. The Orange passed for 181.5 yards per game, which is 40 yards per game more than Minnesota averaged but still just 102nd in the nation. Hunt passed for 1,440 yards and 10 touchdowns, but just three of those scores came in the final eight games after a combined seven touchdowns against Wagner and Tulane.
"The offensive style that they run, unless that's changed, is very prolific," Vereen said. "They can strike from anywhere. I know when we did play them, a lot of their skill players were fairly young so I'm expecting to see a lot of the same guys out there and they'll be even better."
Syracuse might not be the marquee matchup that fans were hoping to see the Gophers play later this month, but to Minnesota's players and coaches, the opponent -- or the bowl game -- don't necessarily matter. What does matter is winning the bowl game and getting to nine wins.
Is Las Vegas is right, odds are the Gophers should have a good shot at doing just that.
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