By Kate Butler
Tonight, under the lights of TCF Bank Stadium, the Minnesota Golden Gophers took on the Syracuse Orange for the first time since 2009. Though this was their fourth meeting all-time, tonight marked the first time in 16 years that the boys in orange traveled to Minnesota. Coach Jerry Kill spoke to KFAN’s Justin Gaard after the game, describing tonight’s 17-10 win as the hardest he has ever seen his boys play. Maybe it was the excitement of this season’s first night game at home, or the idea of beating Syracuse for the third consecutive time. Perhaps it was the prospect of opening their season 4-0 for the first time since 2008, or it could have been the roar of the 50,805 people in attendance at The Bank. Whatever their motivation was, the Gophers outplayed Syracuse, from the opening kick to the final play.
Despite what the scoreboard read, there was something to be said about the intensity in the low-scoring first half. Midway through the first quarter, Donnell Kirkwood’s two-yard touchdown was followed by an extra point from Jordan Wettstein, putting the Gophers on the board. Minutes later, Syracuse kicker Ross Krausman cleared a 33 yard field goal for a score of 7-3. Though no more points were scored until the second half, it was the edge-of-your-seat plays that had fans gasping in unison.
In the end zone, A.J. Barker couldn’t hold on to a pass from Shortell, which made the sold-out crowd go wild. Later in the second quarter, Shortell fired a pass downfield into the end zone to Devin Crawford-Tufts. A penalty flag was thrown on Crawford-Tufts, and the Gophers were awarded no points. In yet another white-knuckle moment, just as a 44-yard field goal attempt from Wettstein looked good, the ball was caught in the crosswind and went wide. A beautiful play at the end of the second quarter by Ra’Shede Hageman resulted in a huge turnover for Minnesota. By forcing Ryan Nassif to fumble, Hageman said "We were just doing our job" as teammate D.L. Wilhite recovered the ball.
After sustaining an ankle injury in the Western Michigan game last Saturday, star QB MarQueis Gray watched from the sidelines. Stepping in for Gray was Max Shortell, a sophomore who continued to display his intelligence, strength, and talent in tonight’s game. Executing 16 of 30 completions, the longest of which was 40 yards, Shortell threw a total of 231 yards. The offensive line adapted to the fresh QB extremely well, both in terms of protection, and giving him time to set up.
Often described as "an absolute second-half" team, Syracuse came into the third quarter with something to prove. During their last three games, the Orange had a second-half average of 341 yards. Halfway into the second half, Kirkwood landed a one-yard touchdown, complete with the extra point from Wettstein. There’s no doubt that Syracuse looked much stronger in the latter half of the game, but the Gopher defense held their ground. The mentality of the Minnesota defense, according to Hageman, was simply "Don’t let ‘em in our house." An interception by Gopher Aaron Hill, the first of his career, marked the fourth turnover from Syracuse.
A 43-yard field goal from Wettstein towards the end of the game put Minnesota up 17-3. Syracuse answered with a touchdown pass from Nassif to Marcus Sales, and the extra point from Krautman, with less than a minute left to play. With a final score of 17-10, the Golden Gophers continue their winning streak of 4-0. Minnesota will travel to Iowa next Saturday in hopes of taking home their second W on the road, pregame on KFAN begins at 9:00a with Kickoff at 11:00a.