Gophers a rare favorite over Syracuse

MINNEAPOLIS — The Gophers football team admittedly didn’t

know much about its Texas Bowl opponent Sunday when it was announced Minnesota

would face Syracuse. They played each other last season, but this is new year

and a new team.

So just what kind of Orange team will Jerry Kill’s squad be

up against Dec. 27 in Houston? For starters, this Syracuse team is one that was

barely bowl eligible. The Orange finished the regular season 6-6 and needed a

win against Boston College in the regular-season finale to get that sixth win.

In fact, it took a touchdown pass with six seconds remaining in regulation for

Syracuse to eke out the win against the Eagles.

With that victory, the Orange secured a spot in the Texas

Bowl, where it will face a Gophers squad that surprised many people by winning

eight games in Kill’s third season at the helm. Minnesota is the early

4.5-point favorite, according to Las Vegas oddsmakers, a position the Gophers

weren’t too familiar with this year.

“I don’t know if there’s been many games where we’ve

actually been favored going in,” said Minnesota senior defensive back

Brock Vereen. “It’ll be different, but at the same time it’s not something

we pay attention to. If anything, it’ll just raise confidence a little

bit.”

These same two teams did face off last year at TCF Bank

Stadium in Minneapolis, with the Gophers eking out a 17-10 win over the Orange.

In that game, Minnesota intercepted Syracuse quarterback Ryan Nassib twice and

scored a pair of rushing touchdowns thanks to Donnell Kirkwood.

Nassib is gone from Syracuse, and the Orange have a new

coach as well — one Kill is familiar with. Scott Shafer is in his first year

in charge at Syracuse. He previously served as the team’s defensive coordinator

since 2009. Before that he bounced around between a few schools as an

assistant, including Northern Illinois as the defensive coordinator from

1996-2003.

Just a few years after Shafer left, Kill took over as the

head coach at Northern Illinois. While they never coached together, the two are

still familiar with one another.

“I was at Northern Illinois when he was at Southern

Illinois, so I got to know him bumping into him and his coaches throughout the

years,” Shafer said in a conference call. “And then he ended up

taking the Northern Illinois job, and I was so proud of the job he did there

because so many of those kids were kids that we recruited with coach (Joe)

Novak, and you always hope for the best for the program. Couldn’t be happier to

be playing a first class outfit like coach Kill’s at Minnesota.”

Added Kill: “It seems like we’re always crossing paths

with somebody we know.”

If there’s one thing Syracuse does well, it’s run the

football. The Orange averaged 193.8 rushing yards per game this year, which

ranked 39th in all of college football. The Gophers were just a hair ahead of

Syracuse in that department, rushing for 200.9 yards per game (34th in the

nation).

The Orange put up impressive rushing numbers without

producing a 1,000-yard back. Four different players rushed for over 300 yards

for Syracuse, led by 6-foot, 217-pound junior Jerome Smith, who had 840 yards

and 11 touchdowns on 184 carries. Prince-Tyson Gulley chipped in 440 yards on

79 carries (5.6 yards per carry), while quarterback Terrel Hunt used his legs

en route to 426 rushing yards and five touchdowns. Minnesota gave up 154.0

rushing yards per game but was susceptible at times against strong rushing

teams — especially late in the season, when the Gophers surrendered 180 or

more rushing yards in the final five games.

Minnesota and Syracuse had two common opponents during the

2013 season, as each team played Penn State and Northwestern. The Gophers beat

both of those Big Ten teams, while the Orange lost to the Nittany Lions and

Wildcats to open the season 0-2. Syracuse faced a pair of top-three teams this

season as well, losing 49-14 to No. 3 Clemson and later getting blown out by

then-No. 2 Florida State, 59-3, in Tallahassee. The Orange’s two biggest

margins of victory came against Wagner (54-0) and Tulane (52-17) in

nonconference play.

Defensively, Syracuse defensive tackle Jay Bromley could

give Minnesota’s offensive line a handful. He finished the year with nine

sacks, 12 tackles for loss and three forced fumbles. Safety Durell Eskridge had

a team-high four interceptions while also leading the Orange with 78 tackles.

Linebacker Marquis Spruill can also get into the backfield, as was evident by

his 4.5 sacks and his team-high 13.5 tackles for loss.

As good as Syracuse’s running game was, its passing game was

mediocre at best. The Orange passed for 181.5 yards per game, which is 40 yards

per game more than Minnesota averaged but still just 102nd in the nation. Hunt

passed for 1,440 yards and 10 touchdowns, but just three of those scores came

in the final eight games after a combined seven touchdowns against Wagner and

Tulane.

“The offensive style that they run, unless that’s

changed, is very prolific,” Vereen said. “They can strike from

anywhere. I know when we did play them, a lot of their skill players were

fairly young so I’m expecting to see a lot of the same guys out there and

they’ll be even better.”

Syracuse might not be the marquee matchup that fans were

hoping to see the Gophers play later this month, but to Minnesota’s players and

coaches, the opponent — or the bowl game — don’t necessarily matter. What

does matter is winning the bowl game and getting to nine wins.

Is Las Vegas is right, odds are the Gophers should have a

good shot at doing just that.

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