Gophers must slow Red Raiders passing game

Minnesota will have its hands full with Texas Tech's passing game, the second best in the country.

MINNEAPOLIS — Something has to give when the nation's second-best passing offense faces the 11th-best pass defense in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas.

The former belongs to the Texas Tech Red Raiders, who have passed for a whopping 361.92 yards per game — trailing only Marshall among all FBS teams. Meanwhile, the University of Minnesota's pass defense has been stout this season. Opponents have passed for an average of just 178.5 yards per game against the Gophers. 

Those two forces will collide Dec. 28 in Houston. Minnesota has yet to see an aerial attack this prolific, but the Gophers are welcoming the challenge of trying to slow down the Red Raiders.

"That excites us a lot to go out there and make plays and knowing they're going to try us in the passing game," said Gophers senior cornerback Michael Carter, who was tied for the team lead with two interceptions, including one for a touchdown. "When we get our playbook ready and get prepared, I think it's going to be a fun day."

Minnesota allowed just one 300-yard passer all season. That came Nov. 17 on the road against Nebraska when Cornhuskers quarterback Taylor Martinez passed for 308 yards against the Gophers in a 38-14 Nebraska victory. Minnesota's defense held opponents yo less than 200 passing yards seven different times this year. The lowest total of the season was 67 yards by Northwestern.

Texas Tech senior quarterback Seth Doege, meanwhile, had just three games in which he didn't surpass 300 passing yards. His season low was 199 yards in the season opener against Northwestern State. 

Doege nearly threw for 500 yards against West Virginia, coming up just one yard shy while throwing six touchdowns on 32-of-42 passing. One week later, Doege connected for seven — yes, seven — touchdowns in a 56-53, triple-overtime win over TCU. On the season, Doege has completed 349 of 496 passes for 3,934 yards and 38 touchdowns, the second-most among FBS quarterbacks.

The Red Raiders certainly don't play the same brand of football the Gophers are accustomed to seeing in the run-heavy, smash-mouth Big Ten Conference. This high-flying passing offense is certainly nothing new at Texas Tech, though. Last year, the Red Raiders were seventh in the country in passing yards per game. They led the nation in that category in 2008 with quarterback Graham Harrell and standout wide receiver Michael Crabtree leading then-head coach Mike Leach's offense.

"I always go back to Coach Leach a little bit. He started that offensive juggernaut there," said second-year Gophers coach Jerry Kill. "They haven't really changed. They've changed quarterbacks and receivers, but they're the same system. They throw it around."

This year's version of the high-powered Texas Tech offense boasts two players who surpassed 900 receiving yards. Senior Darrin Moore, a 6-foot-4, 216-pound wide receiver, led the Red Raiders with 81 catches for 948 yards and 13 touchdowns. Not far behind him was Eric Ward, a 6-foot, 204-pound redshirt junior who had 75 catches for 974 yards and 11 touchdowns.

There's no question Doege will be targeting those two in the bowl game later this month. It's up to Carter and his fellow defensive backs to stop them.

"They've got good receivers that will play physical. They've got a good quarterback, too, that likes to get them the ball," Carter said. "After watching film, just go back to the basics and play hard. It's who wants the ball more."

While the Gophers as a whole are much improved from last year's 3-9 finish, the secondary has been perhaps one of the most notable differences. Minnesota moved some players around in the secondary in order to become more physical at the safety position. An improved pass rush has also helped out the defensive backs by getting added pressure on opposing quarterbacks.

That led to breakout years for players such as safety Derrick Wells, who had two interceptions and 11 passes defended. Carter led the Gophers with 16 passes defended.

"I think (we're) just coming together more as a unit, more than anything," Carter said. "When we built that chemistry, we just like to have fun and compete against each other, which gives us the opportunity to get better every week."

The Gophers' secondary now has two more weeks to continue to get better and prepare for a passing offense the likes of which it hasn't yet seen. The highest-ranked pass offense Minnesota faced this year was Syracuse, which threw for 301.58 yards per game — 21st among FBS teams. The Gophers held the Orange to 228 yards passing.

Minnesota's best chance at a win on Dec. 28 is limiting the Red Raiders through the air. It's something not many teams have been able to do this season.

"It presents some challenges, there's no question about it. And it's very fast. They don't give you a lot of time," Kill said. "They run a lot of crossing routes, a lot of mesh routes, and they're very good at what they do. They believe in throwing the football."

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