Syracuse, Minnesota travel south for Texas Bowl
The Sports Xchange
NCAAF Team Report - Syracuse - INSIDE SLANT
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.
NCAAF Team Report - Syracuse - NOTES, QUOTES
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.