Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images
By: Aj Mansour | KFAN.com
The University of Minnesota Golden Gophers entertained an announced crowd of 50,386 at Relient Stadium and the rest of the nation on ESPN last night in what turned out to be an extremely exciting edition of the Meineke Car Care Bowl in Houston, TX. Unfortunately for Minnesota, Ryan Bustis nailed a last second field goal from 28-yards to seal the 34-31 comeback victory for the Red Raiders.
While the taste left in their mouths will surely be sour for days to come, the Gophers entered the game as 14-point underdogs and displayed a markedly improved offensive attack and solid defensive play which almost won them their first bowl game since the 2004 Music City Bowl.
It was a Philip Nelson interception that was returned for 40-yards that turned the tides in the direction of the Red Raiders. The lone blemish on one of Nelson's best games as a Gopher. Up until that point, the Freshman had played a great game (138 yards passing, 2 passing touchdowns and 26 yards on the ground), but it was one mistake, followed up by a bevy of missed tackles that gave Texas Tech the ball again, already deep in Gophers territory. Three plays later, the game was over and the Gophers were once again defeated.
Outside of the entertaining play by both teams, the big story of the evening for the Gophers was the defense. Squaring off against the nations second most dangerous defense in the regular season, the Gophers struggled to keep pace in the first half as the teams exchanged blows on their way to a 24-17 Texas Tech advantage heading into the half. The second-half was a different story.
I'm not sure what it was that coach Jerry Kill and defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys said to rally the troops into the third quarter, but whatever it was, it worked. The Gophers defensive unit clamped down in the second-half and kept Texas Tech off the scoreboard until the 1:10 mark of the fourth quarter. Senior DB Michael Carter finished the game with two interceptions, and the Gophers held one of the nations most high powered offenses below their regular season average.
Back on the offensive side of the ball, it was a heavy running attack for the Gophers that tallied a total of 222 yards on the ground. The downhill running attack led the Gophers up and down the field and more importantly kept the ball out of the hands of the Texas Tech offense. When the final whistle sounded, the Gophers has won the time of possession game by nearly 13 minutes (36:18 to 23:42)! Donnell Kirkwood carried the ball 19 times for 77 yards while Rodrick Williams chipped in another 12 carries for 60 yards. Both running backs also found the endzone.
Philip Nelson and MarQueis Gray shared reps at the quarterback position and offered a unique look for a Gophers offense that failed to find it's identity during the regular season as injuries forced the team's hand in many different directions. Back healthy and effective, Gray proved once again why there are still thoughts that he could potentially land in the NFL some day as he had Red Raiders bouncing off of him all night en route to 59 yards rushing on 11 carries.
One other note, Troy Stoudermire finished the game with 111 kick return yards pushing his career total to 3,615 kick return yards, a new NCAA record pushing him pas the mark of Houston's Tyron Carrier (3,517).
At the end of the day, Gophers fans should feel encouraged, despite the way the final score read. The Gophers team we saw on the field Friday night, displayed for the nation to see, was not the same as the 6-6 Gopher team we saw all year long. They were much better. Even with the loss, you need to chalk this one up as yet another step in the right direction for head coach Jerry Kill and his staff. The hope from last night is that the national television stage, the bowl game exposure and all the other bonuses that come from playing in a bowl game will aid the Gophers in national recruiting.
Aj Mansour covers the Twins, Vikings, & Gopher Football for KFAN.com. Feel free to leave comments and questions on this post or others in the designated comment box below. For Golden Gopher updates and breaking news follow Aj on Twitter @AjKFAN