Minnesota looks like it'll have another quarterback controversy on its hands next spring, following Mitch Leidner's decent play Friday against Syracuse in the Texas Bowl.
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With a bowl victory in their sights, the Minnesota Golden Gophers saw the Texas Bowl slip away in the final minutes as Syracuse escaped with a 21-17 victory in Houston. Neither team found much of a rhythm in the first half, and it wasn’t until the fourth quarter that the Gophers found the end zone. The loss marks the second time in as many years that Minnesota ended its season on the losing end of a bowl game in Houston. The Gophers finished their season 8-5 overall and now look ahead to 2014. Here are Minnesota’s grades from Friday’s bowl game loss.
Running offense: B-
Much was said leading up to the game about Syracuse’s run defense, which had not allowed a 100-yard rusher all season. Minnesota running back David Cobb came close to that mark, finishing the game with 91 yards on 18 carries. Had the Gophers not needed to take to the air as they attempted to rally late, Cobb may have had a chance at becoming the first player to top the century mark against Syracuse this season. Meanwhile, quarterback Mitch Leidner carried 13 times after he replaced the struggling Philip Nelson, but Leidner only gained 24 rushing yards — 17 of which came on one play. Minnesota also fumbled on a running play as wide receiver Isaac Fruechte bobbled the handoff on a jet sweep in the first half.The Gophers established an identity this season as a run-oriented offense, but Minnesota’s running game didn’t end up making much of a difference against Syracuse.
This could really be broken down into two grades, as both Leidner and Nelson saw time at quarterback in the loss. Nelson was limited early — he was just 1-for-2 on Minnesota’s opening drive and was replaced by Leidner late in the first quarter. While Leidner also struggled at times, he led the Gophers to a pair of touchdown drives in the fourth quarter. His 20-yard touchdown pass to tight end Maxx Williams helped snap a drought of 13 straight quarters without an offensive touchdown for Minnesota. Later in the fourth, Leidner connected with a wide-open Drew Wolitarsky as the freshman wide receiver hauled in a 55-yard pass for his first career touchdown. That score put the Gophers up 17-14 early in the fourth quarter. Nelson came back in for a brief period in the second half but completed just one more pass and finished 2-for-7 for 18 yards. Leidner, meanwhile, was 11-for-22 for 205 yards and two scores. The Gophers will now have a quarterback controversy on their hands next spring.
Running defense: C+
Syracuse came into this game as an above-average rushing team. The Orange averaged just shy of 200 yards per game on the ground during the season, a number that was topped against Minnesota’s defense on Friday. Syracuse finished with 208 rushing yards, thanks in part to 74 yards each by running back Jerome Smith and quarterback Terrel Hunt. Smith did his damage on 16 carries, while the dual-threat Hunt did so on 14 carries. Hunt scored from five yards out to put Syracuse up 14-3 in the second quarter, but it was his 12-yard scamper as he escaped a collapsing pocket that put the Orange up for good with 1:14 to play in regulation. As a team, Syracuse averaged 4.5 yards per carry. While Minnesota limited the big plays — the Orange’s longest rush was a 22-yarder by Hunt — Syracuse was able to grind out the tough and important yards when it needed it most.
Special teams: B
Punter Peter Mortell was solid for Minnesota, averaging a season-high 47.7 yards per punt on his six punts in Friday’s game. However, the Gophers’ punt coverage faltered at the worst possible time. Syracuse returned a 57-yard punt by Mortell all the way down to Minnesota’s 14-yard line — a 70-yard return — before Brisly Estime was tripped up by Mortell. That set up the Orange’s go-ahead touchdown five plays later with just 1:14 remaining in the fourth quarter. Meanwhile, Gophers kicker Chris Hawthorne connected on his lone field goal try of the game, a 41-yarder to put Minnesota on the board in the second quarter. Minnesota’s return game was virtually nonexistent. Marcus Jones returned two punts for a combined -2 yards, while the Gophers gained just 48 total yards on three kickoff returns.
The Gophers were 4.5-point favorites in this game, but this year’s Texas Bowl was an illustration that Las Vegas doesn’t always get it right. Minnesota was confident heading into this game despite ending the regular season with a pair of losses. The Gophers were certainly in position to win this one, but for the second year in a row they fell victim to a late comeback in Houston. While the loss certainly stings temporarily, it shouldn’t diminish the season that Minnesota had. Third-year head coach Jerry Kill has the program on the right track, and finishing the year with eight wins was no small task. With that said, there’s no doubt the Gophers will look back at this bowl game loss and think about the "what ifs" that could have yielded just the eighth nine-win season in the program’s history.