Gophers largely show promise despite loss
DEC 28, 2012 11:22p ET
1. This one won't sting as much as 2006, but it'll still hurt for Gophers fans.
Back in 2006, Minnesota lost to Texas Tech in overtime of the Insight Bowl, the only other meeting between the two schools prior to Friday. The Gophers led that game 35-7 at the half and let the Red Raiders come back in the second half to force overtime. At the time, it was the biggest comeback in Division I-A bowl history and ultimately led to the firing of coach Glen Mason.
Friday's game wasn't on the same level of heartbreak, obviously, as the Insight Bowl, but it still will sting for Minnesota fans. The Gophers didn't hold as big of a lead, and very few people gave them a chance to compete with Texas Tech — let alone win. That said, Minnesota seemed to be in control for most of the game, holding a high-powered Texas Tech offense in check. The Red Raiders didn't score in the second half until 1:10 remaining, which was the game-tying touchdown.
2. Penalties can kill momentum — or lead to a 3rd-and-49.
With the ball at midfield and the game tied at 17-all, Minnesota went backwards thanks to a handful of silly penalties. Center Zac Epping was called for an illegal block and an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on the same play, giving the Gophers the ball on their own 18-yard line and a 2nd-and-42. After Kirkwood gained three yards, Epping was flagged for a personal foul penalty that moved the ball back even further. Minnesota then had a 3rd-and-49 from its own 11-yard line. There aren't too many plays in the playbook for that situation.
From there, Texas Tech got the ball at the Gophers' 42-yard line following a punt. The Red Raiders went on to score a go-ahead touchdown with just seconds remaining in the half. The two teams combined for 132 penalty yards on 11 total penalties in what was a very chippy first half. Late in the third quarter, a personal foul penalty on Texas Tech — when Jace Amaro was ejected for throwing a punch at Gophers safety Derrick Wells — gave the Red Raiders a 3rd and goal from the 15-yard line. Two plays later, they had a field goal blocked in what was a big turning point at the time.
3. The quarterback tandem was not the way to go on offense for Minnesota.
Leading up to the bowl game, Gophers head coach Jerry Kill wouldn't commit to one starting quarterback. Senior MarQueis Gray was the team's starter at the beginning of the year but moved to wide receiver after an ankle injury in the non-conference season. Nelson, a true freshman, took over in Minnesota's game against Wisconsin and made seven starts, including Friday's bowl game.
Nelson got the majority of the snaps under center Friday and was 7-for-16 for 138 yards and two touchdowns. But Minnesota put Gray back at quarterback in the fourth quarter while the Gophers held a seven-point lead. Gray threw a pair of incomplete passes that were nowhere close to his receivers. It was a curious decision, given that Nelson had been establishing a rhythm at quarterback. After Gray's incompletions forced a punt by the Gophers, Nelson didn't appear as comfortable. He didn't complete another pass the rest of the game and threw a costly interception with under a minute remaining that eventually led to the game-winning field goal. In hindsight, Minnesota should have kept Nelson at quarterback and allowed him to continue to get comfortable. Throwing Gray into the mix seemed to mess with Nelson's rhythm.
4. The Gophers' pass defense is legit.
Texas Tech came into the game with the second-best passing offense in the nation, averaging 361.9 yards per game through the air. The Gophers, meanwhile, had the 11th-best passing defense and were excited for the challenge. Minnesota knew the Red Raiders were going to pass early and often. That's the way it's been at Texas Tech since Mike Leach was coach. Passing has been the calling card.
But for a good portion of the game, Texas Tech's passing game was not a big factor. Quarterback Seth Doege finished 31-of-45 for 271 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions. Backup Michael Brewer completed his only attempt, a 13-yard touchdown. Gophers cornerback Michael Carter intercepted Doege twice in the fourth quarter, including once on a deep pass and another with under six minutes remaining in the game.
But Texas Tech had 101 passing yards in the fourth quarter, including the 25-yard scoring strike from Doege to wide receiver Eric Ward. Minnesota's secondary held for nearly the whole game but couldn't come up with one more big stop in the end.
5. Despite the loss, Gophers fans can be optimistic about 2013.
Minnesota's loss was a tough way to cap the 2012 season, and a difficult way to end a career for the Gophers' seniors. But Gophers fans can be optimistic for what 2013 could bring for this team. Two years ago, Minnesota was coming off its second 3-9 season. At the beginning of this season, a bowl game was the goal for the Gophers. They accomplished that by going 6-6 in the regular season.
Minnesota loses a good group of seniors, but plenty of the Gophers' impact players will be returning. That includes running backs Donnell Kirkwood and Rodrick Williams, who combined for 137 yards and two touchdowns against Texas Tech. Nelson showed glimpses this year as a true freshman and made some big throws in Friday's game. And wide receiver Derrick Engel showed Friday that he can be a go-to target for Nelson, as he caught four passes for 108 yards, establishing career highs in both categories.
Kill has a history of turning around programs at his previous coaching stops — first at Southern Illinois, then at Northern Illinois. In just two seasons, he's taken Minnesota from a 3-9 team to a bowl game.
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