Gophers a rare favorite over Syracuse

Gophers a rare favorite over Syracuse

Published Dec. 11, 2013 11:17 a.m. ET

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


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

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

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

"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.