MINNEAPOLIS — The Gophers have known for a few weeks that they were going to a bowl game. Now they know their destination — and their opponent.
Minnesota has accepted an invitation to play Texas Tech in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas on Dec. 28 in Houston. It’s the first bowl game for the Gophers since they played in the Insight Bowl in 2009.
For 13 Texas natives on Minnesota’s roster, the trip to Houston will be a bit of a homecoming. That includes senior linebacker Keanon Cooper, who grew up in Dallas.
“It’s especially special to me because none of my family from Dallas has been able to see me play in person,” Cooper said. “It’s big that it’s my last game, but just for them to have the opportunity to see me play once is big for me.”
Cornerback Troy Stoudermire was a high school teammate of Cooper’s at Skyline High School in Dallas. It will be a homecoming for the fifth-year senior as well, and he’ll have the chance to break the NCAA kickoff return record in his home state — he’s just 13 yards shy.
“It’d be great to break it in Texas in front of my family and friends,” Stoudermire said. “It’s really exciting to me, finishing out the season in Texas.”
Many projected the Gophers to play in either the Meineke Car Care Bowl or the Heart of Dallas Bowl on Jan. 1. Purdue was invited to the Heart of Dallas Bowl earlier on Sunday, which essentially secured Minnesota’s ticket to Houston.
“This is the bowl that we really wanted,” said Minnesota athletic director Norwood Teague. “It’s the bowl that we certainly lobbied for the most. I’m proud of what we did there. They said it made a difference in how we lobbied.”
While a New Year’s Day bowl may sound more appealing on the surface, the Gophers ended up in what they feel is a better bowl for several reasons. For starters, they’ll be playing in prime time at 8 p.m. CST on ESPN. And there are only two other bowls that day, but both are earlier in the day.
That means all eyes will be watching Minnesota and Texas Tech, which can be a big asset in recruiting.
“I think as coaches, we can all downplay anything, but any time you’re in a situation and you’re the primetime game, I think it does mean something,” Kill said. “We are in a situation where the bowl is important for us. No. 1, we recruit the state of Texas. No. 2, it’s a high-profile bowl.”
Adding to the intrigue will be the fact that Minnesota is playing a Texas-based team in the state of Texas, which will surely help to create a better atmosphere on game day. It remains to be seen how many tickets the Gophers will sell, but having Texas Tech playing in its state — albeit 8-1/2 hours from its campus Lubbock — should add to the atmosphere.
The Gophers players didn’t know their opponent when they met with the media Sunday, but they knew there was a good chance it would be a team from Texas — Baylor and Texas Tech were strong possibilities. For Texas natives Cooper and Stoudermire, that made things even more special.
“That’ll be big. One thing I like about that situation is just the fact that it’ll be kind of an away game for us, but they’ll have a lot of fans there,” Cooper said. “It’ll make it feel more like a game than just a bowl game where two teams from far away just aren’t there. I’m more so looking forward to seeing how the atmosphere is if it is a Texas team.”
It is indeed, and it’s one that will perhaps induce bad memories for Minnesota fans. The last time Minnesota and Texas Tech met in a bowl game was the Insight Bowl on Dec. 29, 2006. The Gophers led 35-7 at halftime before the Red Raiders mounted a second-half comeback to win 44-41 in overtime.
This year’s Texas Tech team finished 7-5 overall and 4-5 in the Big 12 Conference. Its biggest wins of the year came against No. 5 West Virginia — a convincing 49-14 victory — followed by a win against then-No. 23 TCU in triple overtime. The Red Raiders lost two straight games to Oklahoma State and Baylor to close out the regular season.
Texas Tech has one of the top passing offenses in the country. The Red Raiders averaged 361.9 yards per game, second-most in the nation. They also scored 37.8 points per game, which was the 16th-most among FBS teams.
Minnesota’s passing defense was a strength this year. The Gophers allowed just 178.5 yards per game and had 11 interceptions.
“It would be great to play a Texas team in Texas, but the more important thing is if we play one of those teams, it would mean we’d play a high-powered offense that would be going against our pass defense,” Stoudermire said before knowing Minnesota’s opponent. “That should be a great matchup for us.”