The Texas Bowl knew it would have to scramble for its matchup this year, thanks to the Big 12 not having enough eligible teams to fill its slot. Fortunately, it found a match in the ACC which had two more eligible teams than slots to fill.
As a result, the bowl got a Syracuse team that's truly happy to be here to match up against a Minnesota squad heading back to Houston for the second year in a row with something to prove.
The Golden Gophers met Texas Tech in what was then called the Meineke Car Care Bowl, and lost 34-31. It comes back on the heels of an 8-4 regular season, its best mark since Glen Mason took the team to a 10-3 season in 2003.
Moreover, this season proved to be the step forward that the program needed, at least on the field. It won four Big Ten games in a row for the first time since 1973, a 40-year gap between winning streaks. It ended a 16-game losing streak against Nebraska. It won a pair of league road games against Indiana and Northwestern. And it's doing with a young roster where underclassmen dominate the depth chart.
Off the field has been another story. Coach Jerry Kill is fighting a well-publicized battle with epilepsy, and suffered a fifth game-day seizure in October. He took a brief leave of absence and has coached from the press box since coming back, with defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys on the sidelines. It hasn't slowed the Gophers down, though the team did struggle against the top of the league.
Syracuse literally came six seconds away from being ineligible to go anywhere at all. It took a Terrel Hunt pass to Josh Parris in the final seconds against Boston College to secure a 34-31 victory and a 6-6 record, and then a considerable amount of lobbying from the Syracuse athletic department to secure an at-large berth elsewhere when it became clear it wouldn't be selected by a bowl with an ACC tie-in.
The Orange struggled early in the season under first-year head coach Scott Shafer, replacing Oklahoma transfer Drew Allen with Hunt at quarterback. That hasn't exactly led to a robust passing game, and Syracuse has struggled mightily against top teams, but the defense has shown it can stop any rushing attack -- which bodes well when facing a team that relies on the run.
Syracuse and Minnesota played each other a year ago, with the Golden Gophers eking out a 17-10 win at home. Given the amount of new faces on both teams' depth charts, that doesn't pose much predictive value, but at least the fanbases will be familiar with each other.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
--DE Ra'Shede Hageman is the star of the Golden Gopher defense. He made the All-Big Ten First Team in both the coaches and the media votes, and has 11 tackles for loss this season.
--RB David Cobb finished with six 100-yard games this season, and enters the Texas Bowl on a roll. He had 27 carries for 101 yards in the Gophers' loss to Michigan State, and the Spartans entered the week as the top-ranked team in total defense.
--DB Brock Vereen was named a first team All-Big Ten selection by the coaches, and was an honorable mention pick by the media. He finished the regular season with 56 tackles, one interception, six passes broken up, one forced fumble and 2.5 tackles for loss.
--RB Jerome Smith plays the most pivotal role on the Syracuse offense. The junior led the team with 840 yards and has 11 rushing touchdowns despite an inconsistent passing game that has encouraged opposing defenses to focus on stopping the run. When the Orange need to move the chains on a third and short, he's the guy trusted to do so.
--DT Jay Bromley played his best football down the stretch in helping Syracuse reach the postseason. He leads the Orange with nine sacks and has forced three fumbles, and if he can get into the Minnesota backfield as consistently as he did in the ACC, the Golden Gophers are in trouble.
--S Durrell Eskridge is having a big year for a Syracuse secondary that's battled injuries and doesn't have much experience or depth. Eskridge led the team with 78 tackles and picked off four passes.
BOWL HISTORY: Syracuse enters the postseason with a 14-9-1 record in bowl games and has won its last two, both Pinstripe Bowl victories. Minnesota is 5-10 in bowl games and has lost its last four, including a 34-31 defeat to Texas Tech in this game a year ago.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Daryl told me don't worry about the bowl and he went to work. He didn't want to settle for something that wasn't the best for our kids, and I appreciate the hard work he put in and our administration. I told him, 'Hey, you've been doing this a lot longer than I have.' He said, 'Don't worry, I'm going to get you the best bowl possible,' and I believe he did." -- Coach Scott Shafer told the Syracuse Post-Standard, on the efforts of athletic director Daryl Gross to secure the team a bowl bid.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
Scouting the running game: Syracuse relies on its running game to move the chains. Jerome Smith carries most of the workload, and while his numbers don't jump out at you he's got sneaky explosiveness and a newfound knack for finding the end zone. David Cobb plays a similar role for the Golden Gophers. He broke the 100-yard barrier six times in 2013, so he'll be a stern test for a Syracuse defense that is outstanding against the run.
Scouting the passing game: Minnesota's passing game suffered a blow with the injury to Derrick Engel, who tore his ACL in a November practice. Though the Gophers tend to win when the throw the ball well, they rely heavily on the run. Syracuse's passing game hasn't been great either, and the wideouts have been disappointing. Getting some more production from the receiving corps, which has been a disappointment this year, would help.
Scouting the run defense: Syracuse did not allow an opposing running back to break the 100-yard mark all season. That's the unit that will decide the game for the Orange, since if it can keep that going against David Cobb, it has to like its chances. Minnesota surrenders more yards, but has been much stronger in the red zone, so Jerome Smith may have a harder time finding the end zone than he did in ACC play.
Scouting the pass defense: Syracuse's secondary might seem like a weakness, but it has picked off 15 passes this season and the pass rush averages 2.75 sacks per game. The Orange corners are inconsistent, however, and Syracuse is in real trouble if it suffers any injuries in practice or early in the bowl game. Minnesota has a solid secondary that should be more than capable of handling Syracuse's air attack.
Scouting the special teams: Minnesota's Chris Hawthorne has made 13 of his 17 attempts this season, but just two of those misses are from inside 50 yards. Syracuse lost kicker Ross Krautman midseason to an injury, and Ryan Norton has been an inconsistent replacement, though he did come up big in the finale against Boston College.
Intangibles: Minnesota has been here before -- indeed, just a year ago -- and legitimately deserves better. Are they going to show up fired up and ready to play, or resentful that they're here? No doubt that Syracuse is thrilled to be there, but the Orange are also injury-plagued and perhaps spent after the late charge to the postseason.
--Syracuse OL Sean Hickey has been battling a sprained ankle, and lasted a little more than a half in the final regular season games. He hopes to be able to play in the bowl game, but likely won't be able to spend much time on the practice field.
--Syracuse TE Beckett Wales is out with an injury for the bowl game. However, he accepted a spot in the College All-Star Bowl, played on Feb. 14, indicating he thinks he'll be able to play by then.
--Syracuse RB Jerome Smith was rumored to be considering forgoing his senior season and declaring for the NFL draft. However, he said after the regular-season finale that he'd be coming back to school next year.
--Minnesota QB Phillip Nelson left the regular-season finale against Michigan State with an apparent concussion. He should play in the bowl game.
--Minnesota WR Derrick Engel tore his ACL in practice leading up to the Wisconsin game and is out for the year. His 25 catches and 401 receiving yards both lead the team.
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