Five Things We Learned: Gophers vs. Orange

After another late loss in Texas, it's likely the Gophers will be wishing for a different bowl location in 2014.

David J. Phillip/David J. Phillip/Associated Pres

It was a disappointing end to an otherwise encouraging season, as the Gophers football team fell 21-17 to Syracuse in the Texas Bowl at Reliant Stadium in Houston. Minnesota was favored by 4.5 points, but it was the underdog Orange escaping with a win thanks to a late touchdown drive. The loss drops the Gophers to 8-4 overall to end the 2013 season, which is still a two-win improvement from a year ago. Here are five things we learned from Minnesota’s loss Friday in the Texas Bowl.

1. Houston has not been kind to the Gophers

For the second year in a row, Minnesota played its bowl game in Houston. Last year the Gophers lost in the final minute to Texas Tech in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas. This year, it was another disappointing loss at Reliant Stadium, as Minnesota was unable to hang onto a late lead against Syracuse. The Gophers scored twice in the fourth quarter to take a 17-14 lead early in the fourth, but the Orange used a huge punt return to set up great field position late in the game. Syracuse quarterback Terrel Hunt scrambled into the end zone from 12 yards out to put the Orange up 21-17 with just 1:14 to play, and Minnesota’s last-minute drive fell short. It marked the second year in a row that the Gophers lost in the final two minutes. In last year’s game, Texas Tech scored with 1:10 left to tie it 31-31 and kicked the game-winning 28-yard field goal as time expired. Minnesota insisted it was happy to go back to Houston for the second straight year. After another late loss in Texas, it’s likely the Gophers will be wishing for a different bowl location in 2014.

2. The Gophers will have a quarterback controversy next spring

Orange 21, Gophers 17

Sophomore quarterback Philip Nelson started Friday’s bowl game under center, but his day was cut short as he was replaced by redshirt freshman Mitch Leidner late in the first quarter. Nelson was just 2-for-7 passing in the game — he eventually came back for one series to start the second half — and struggled with his accuracy. Leidner, meanwhile, led the Gophers to a pair of scoring drives, throwing touchdown passes to tight end Maxx Williams and wide receiver Drew Wolitarsky in the second half. The strike to Wolitarsky went for 55 yards and gave Minnesota a 17-14 lead after a successful two-point conversion. Leidner finished the game 11-for-22 for 206 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Both quarterbacks got plenty of playing time this year, and neither truly established himself as the No. 1 guy. Minnesota will have some decisions to make in terms of its starting quarterback next year, and Leidner made a case to be that guy as a sophomore in 2014.

3. Syracuse’s run defense is legit

Entering Friday’s bowl game, the Orange had yet to allow a 100-yard rusher all season. Meanwhile, Gophers running back David Cobb — a Texas native — had topped the 100-yard mark in five of his last six games. That included 101 yards against Michigan State, the top run-stopping defense in the country. On Friday, though, Syracuse’s defense was up to the task of slowing down Cobb, who finished the game just shy of that mark with 91 yards on 18 carries (5.1 yards per carry). He had just three carries of 10 or more yards — with a game-long run of 17 yards in the second half — and was stopped for no gain twice. Cobb likely could have topped the century mark late in the game if the circumstances were different, but Minnesota was forced to throw the ball after a late Syracuse touchdown put the Orange ahead. Even though Cobb fell shy of 100 yards Friday, he capped an impressive season in which he rushed for 1,202 yards, becoming the first Gophers player to top 1,000 yards since 2006. Having just wrapped up his junior season, Cobb should be poised for another big year in 2014 now that he has established himself as a go-to back.

4. Minnesota’s offensive woes are concerning

The Gophers’ offense struggled in the latter half of the regular season, and that trend continued Friday. Minnesota didn’t score an offensive touchdown in the first three quarters of the Texas Bowl, extending its streak to 13 straight quarters without an offensive touchdown. That drought dated back to the second quarter of Minnesota’s 24-10 win over Penn State on Nov. 9. It wasn’t until early in the fourth quarter against Syracuse that the Gophers’ offense finally found the end zone. Minnesota’s defense kept the Gophers in the game Friday, allowing just 21 points to Syracuse. It was the Gophers’ lackluster offense that proved to be the problem. Too many times, Minnesota’s quarterbacks missed open receivers. The Gophers also had a number of costly penalties that negated big gains or, in the case of an offensive pass interference, wiped away a touchdown. A fumble in the first half also contributed to Minnesota’s offensive woes, as Syracuse recovered. In order to compete with some of the Big Ten’s best teams in 2014, Minnesota will need to establish a more potent offense. The quarterback position remains the top priority, but there are plenty of other areas the Gophers can improve offensively.

5. Eight wins is still a success, despite the heartbreaking bowl loss

Sure, a loss to a beatable Syracuse team will sting for Gophers fans for quite some time. But what happened Friday shouldn’t take away from the season that Minnesota had under third-year head coach Jerry Kill. In the span of three seasons, the Gophers went from 3-9 to 6-7 to 8-4. A win Friday would have been Minnesota’s first nine-win season since 2003 and just the eighth such achievement in school history. Even though the Gophers didn’t reach that nine-win plateau, the eight wins are more than most people expected to see from this team in 2013. Minnesota is relatively young, too, with underclassmen at several skill positions. The Gophers will lose several key seniors, especially on the defensive side of the ball with the departures of defensive tackle Ra’Shede Hageman and defensive back Brock Vereen. But Kill and his staff have shown that they have this program headed in the right direction; a loss in the Texas Bowl doesn’t change that.

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