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Game Preview: Minnesota vs Syracuse - Gophers Hungry for Texas Bowl Redemption

12/26/2013, 12:45am CST
By Grant Erickson and Travis Erickson

Syracuse (6-6 overall, 4-4 ACC) vs. Minnesota (8-4 overall, 4-4 Big Ten)

Houston, Texas – Reliant Stadium (71,500)

Friday 5:00 p.m. CT – ESPN

Spread: Minnesota -4

 

PREGAME NOTES 

 

Texas Bowl

On December 27, the Gophers will make their return to the Texas Bowl, this year to take on the Syracuse Orange. This will be the second straight trip to Houston for Minnesota after a tough 34-31 loss against Texas Tech in 2012.

 

“We had such a great time last year; people were great to us,” said Jerry Kill. “Coming down with our coaches, families, having Christmas, it bonds your football team. For us, it shows you you’re moving the program forward. It shows you that people recognize that you’re doing good things. This time of year, this is what you work 365 days. In coaching, you don’t get a lot of time off and this is what you work for and it’s what you work for, for the kids. It’s an exciting time for us and for where our program’s headed.”

 

The Gophers enter the game as the favorite, with the best odds for Minnesota giving 4.5 points. Like Minnesota, the Orange are in a rebuilding phrase with first year head coach Scott Shafer on the sidelines. Both teams know the value that playing in the postseason can have on the future of the program.

 

“There’s so many fronts that are conducive to take the program in a positive step forward when you’re playing in a bowl,” said Shafer. “The obvious is extra practice time. Practice time that can be devoted to some of the young kids that don’t get a lot of reps…Just the fact that people are talking about Syracuse during December and the Holidays is advantageous to our recruiting front. A chance to be on national TV and play two days after Christmas and all those recruits that we’ve been working hard to try to get here at Syracuse.”

 

For the Gophers, playing in the Texas Bowl will be a chance to play in front of one of their most heavily recruited areas.

 

“We recruit Texas,” said Kill. “There’s a lot of Texas kids. I was looking, our three past freshmen of the year defensively, all three are from Texas…So it’s great for us in recruiting and it’s a great opportunity for us.”

 

More importantly, Minnesota will be attempting to win their ninth game of the season, a feat the Gophers have accomplished just once since 1905.

 

“We knew that this was just going to be an opportunity to get a ninth win,” said defensive back Brock Vereen. “That’s definitely the opportunity that’s up front for us…It’s time to go get it.”

 

Being familiar with Houston and the Texas Bowl will give the Gophers somewhat of an edge heading into the matchup.

 

“I think it’s definitely an advantage that Syracuse won’t have,” said Vereen. “We’ve been in that city, we’ve practiced at that high school field, we played in that stadium so it’s definitely something to be excited about.”

 

Series History

Minnesota and Syracuse have played each other only four times with the Gophers winning three contests. SU’s only series victory came in 1995 when the Orange topped Minnesota, 27-17. Syracuse was lead by Donovan McNabb and Marvin Harrison, who scored two touchdowns, including on a 94-yard punt return.

 

Last Meeting

Donnell Kirkwood rushed for 99 yards and two touchdowns to lead the Gophers to a 17-10 victory over the Orange last season. While Minnesota scored only 17 points, it’s defense rose to the occasion and contained the high-powered Orange offense. Cedric Thompson set the tone early with a diving interception of quarterback Ryan Nassib on the very first play of the game. The Gophers forced three other turnovers to seal the victory in front of sellout crowd at TCF Bank Stadium.

 

"At the end of the day, you can't have four turnovers," former Syracuse coach Doug Marrone said following the game. "When you do those things, it's very difficult to win a game. Pretty unbelievable to have four turnovers."

 

Season to Date

The Orange finished tied for third in the ACC Atlantic division with a 6-6 overall record and 4-4 conference mark. Syracuse was welcomed to their new conference by two top teams, Florida State and Clemson, who pounded the Orange by a combined score of 108-17. Despite the tough losses, Syracuse picked up impressive wins over North Carolina State, Maryland, and a bowl-clinching sixth win against Boston College.

 

“I thought it was an adequate season,” said Shafer. “If we would have won eight, I would have said it was an outstanding season considering where we were…We lost a lot of good players and a lot of good coaches so we had to start all over with some new faces on the football field and all new faces on the sidelines and the press box. I knew it was going to be a great challenge but we were excited about that challenge.” 

 

The Gophers and Orange shared two opponents this year in Penn State and Northwestern. Syracuse played the Nittany Lions in the first game of the season; falling 23-17 thanks to a 278-yard, two touchdown performance by PSU quarterback Christian Hackenberg. The very next week after losing to the Nittany Lions, Syracuse traveled to Evanston to take on the Wildcats. The Orange struggled mightily; allowing Northwestern to gain 581 yards en route to a dominating 48-27 victory. Looking back, the loss to Penn State was especially painful for Syracuse because it was a tightly contest game throughout.

 

“I’m proud of the kids that they worked hard and have given themselves an opportunity,” said Shafer of the season. “I’m also disappointed. I thought we could have come up with eight victories this year. We were a touchdown short at Penn State and Pitt, basically the two Pennsylvania teams I thought we should have got. I’m proud of the kids; I’m happy for them.”

 

Last Time Out

Sitting at just 5-6 heading into their last game of the season, the Orange found themselves pitted against rival Boston College. After getting up 21-7, Syracuse allowed the Eagles to battle back, taking a 31-27 edge with just 2:08 left in the game. Quarterback Terrel Hunt marched the Orange down the field to take the lead on an 8-yard touchdown pass with just six seconds remaining in the game to become bowl-eligible.

 

“I wish it would have been easier,” said Shafer of the game. “I wish we would have knocked it out. We left ten points on the field early. But yeah, it was great. The throwback at the end of the game was exciting. The drive, bouncing back showing the resilience of our team…It was probably indicative of the type of team that we have. Not the prettiest team in the world but a team that will continue to fight until that clock runs out of time and that’s the part that I’m most pleased with.”

 

The Orange were able to hold Heisman finalist Andre Williams to nine carries for 29 yards before the explosive running back was sidelined in the third quarter with an injury. The talented Syracuse defense also forced a fumble and an interception while limiting the Eagles to just over 23 minutes of possession time on the game.

 

Coaching Preview

Scott Shafer is in his first season as the head coach for the Orange. Shafer was the defensive coordinator at Syracuse for the past four seasons before being promoted to head coach after Doug Marrone left to coach the Buffalo Bills. Prior to coaching at Syracuse, Shafer served as the defensive coordinator at Michigan and Stanford, under Jim Harbaugh. Shafer also spent eight seasons (1996-2003) as an assistant coach at Northern Illinois.

 

Matchup to Watch

Like most games, the Gophers will look to establish a physical running attack against the Orange. Unfortunately for the Maroon and Gold, Syracuse boasts an impressive run-stuffing line led by All-ACC third team defensive tackle Jay Bromley. The Orange allow just 138.2 rushing yards per game and have not allowed a 100-yard rusher all season.

 

“I think it proposes another challenge to our offense and our offensive line,” said David Cobb of the Syracuse defense. “It’s great motivation to prepare and for me, if I can take on the challenge head-on and get those guys pumped to play, I’ll be ready to play in front of the home crowd and my family so, why not?”

 

The Orange are well aware that they will need to shut down Cobb and the rest of the dangerous Minnesota offense.

 

"They're a tough, physical football team that runs the football well,” said Shafer. “Cobb is a good running back. He's a 1,000-yard rusher this season. They play two quarterbacks in situational-type looks. They both have good feet and the ability to throw and run the ball. Per Minnesota, they have big, burly offensive linemen that get after you.”

 

Minnesota’s offense should be well prepared for what the Syracuse defense will show on Friday.

 

“Because of what Syracuse does, we feel comfortable going against our defense because they have a similar type of structure,” said offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover. “Being able to work against our defense in an up-tempo pace, you’re getting almost game reps.”

 

Players to Watch

#3 Durell Eskridge – The imposing 6-foot-3, 207-pound free safety leads the Orange in tackles (78) and interceptions (4). Eskridge was named the ACC Defensive Back Player of the Week after setting a new career high with 13 tackles, including 0.5 for a loss, and returning an interception for 32 yards against NC State. The talented playmaker also had an impressive performance against No. 1 FSU. He notched a team-high seven tackles to go along with an interception for the second straight game.

 

#45 Jerome Smith – While Syracuse employs a running back by committee approach—four tailbacks have over 45 carries on the season—Smith’s production has set him apart. The 6-foot, 226-pound load leads SU with 840 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns. Smith’s best performance came against NC State when he ran for 140 yards and a touchdown on just 19 carries. The Gophers’ defense has struggled at times this season to slow down talented running backs. Smith will present one final test for Ra’Shede Hageman and Co.

 

Background

Location: Syracuse, New York

Enrollment: 21,267

Conference: ACC

Mascot: Orange

Colors: Orange

Coach: Scott Shafer (First Season)

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