HOUSTON -- Before he delved too deeply into the analysis of where his punt coverage failed during a critical juncture of the Texas Bowl, Minnesota coach Jerry Kill rightfully acknowledged Syracuse freshman receiver Brisly Estime and his influence on the Golden Gophers' demise.
After a decisive Estime punt return, Syracuse sophomore quarterback Terrel Hunt scampered 12 yards for the winning touchdown in the latter stages of the fourth quarter and the Orange rallied for a 21-17 victory over Minnesota on Friday night at Reliant Stadium.
Estime returned a 57-yard Pete Mortell punt 70 yards to the Gophers' 14-yard line and, with the pocket collapsing on third down, Hunt broke contain and dashed untouched into the end zone with 1:14 remaining.
Hunt earned most valuable player honors, but it was Estime who positioned the Orange to rally to victory after Minnesota surged ahead.
"The biggest thing is we've got to cover better. We've got to get down the field," Kill said. "We're in spread punt and they tied one of our guys up, which is good execution on them. And you've just got to make sure when you kick the ball like that you've got to have great coverage.
"When I go back and look at it, I can tell you somebody stepped out of a lane or something of that nature. Again, I don"t want to take anything away from the kid (Estime) from Syracuse. He made a good play."
Syracuse (7-6) posted its third consecutive bowl victory and a winning record under first-year coach Scott Shafer after finishing with four victories in its final six games. Minnesota (8-5) fell in the Texas Bowl for a second consecutive year, falling 34-31 to Texas Tech last season.
Hunt passed for 188 yards and rushed for 74 yards and two scores. Estime added 194 all-purpose yards on 11 touches. Their maturation during the course of the season proved beneficial against the Gophers.
"I got better at leadership on and off the field, learning how to be the quarterback and not just a quarterback on the team," Hunt said. "Learning my players around me, who could do what versus what I could do. It was all coming together in time."
Trailing 14-3, the Gophers mounted a sudden comeback, covering 72 yards in eight plays for their first offensive touchdown in 195 minutes. Minnesota quarterback Mitch Leidner capped that march with a 20-yard strike to fullback Maxx Williams on the first play of the fourth quarter.
Leidner was sacked on the subsequent two-point conversion pass attempt, but he proved successful after the Gophers moved ahead on their ensuing possession. After completing a 55-yard touchdown pass to receiver Drew Wolitarsky that gave Minnesota a one-point lead, Leidner hit fullback Mike Henry in the flat for the conversion and a 17-14 edge.
"We started getting into a pretty good groove," said Leidner, who passed for 141 yards in the second half. "We started feeling confident. We were making plays. You've got to give the (offensive line) credit. They were blitzing like crazy and the o-line did a good job of picking all the guys up and it just started falling together. But unfortunately we came up short."
Given the Gophers' offensive sluggishness, Syracuse appeared in control after a 15-play, 86-yard drive that ended with a 5-yard Hunt touchdown run with 2:57 left in the third quarter. That was the second methodical march for the Orange. The first came in the second quarter when running back Jerome Smith capped an 80-yard drive with a 1-yard run.
Presented with an opportunity to tie the score, Syracuse kicker Ryan Norton pushed his 45-yard field goal attempt wide right with 3:31 left. When Estime provided the Orange another shot, Syracuse converted.
"The kids have learned so much from this season and I just couldn't be happier with the results from today," Syracuse coach Scott Shafer said. "It would have been nice if we could have knocked them out and won by 17, but that's not our way this year. I think it's appropriate we won in that fashion."
NOTES: Minnesota coach Jerry Kill coached from the sideline during the second half, his first time doing so since the Golden Gophers' 23-7 loss to Iowa. Kill spent the first half and the majority of the season coaching from the press box while managing his epileptic seizures. ... Syracuse and Minnesota entered play averaging a combined 4.5 yards per rush. They totaled 127 yards on 39 carries in the first half for an average of only 3.3 yards per carry. The teams combined for 132 rushing yards in the third quarter alone. ... Syracuse completed the season as the lone team in FBS to not allow a 100-yard rusher. Minnesota RB David Cobb paced the Golden Gophers with 91 yards on 18 carries.