Big Ten: Terrel Hunt

It was a little too much like last season: Minnesota leading late in the Texas Bowl. Plenty of hope. Critical breakdowns. And an eventual loss. The only difference this year was the opponent -- Syracuse.

The Gophers led 17-14 with just more than two minutes remaining in the game, after having clawed back from a 14-3 fourth-quarter deficit. But a 70-yard punt return from Brisly Estime set the Orange up for a touchdown and a four-point lead with just more than a minute remaining.

Minnesota wasn’t able to respond, and like its previous 20 games under Jerry Kill when the Gophers trailed at halftime, Minnesota lost. Syracuse walked away with the win, 21-17.

It was over when: Minnesota quarterback Mitch Leidner’s Hail Mary fell incomplete out of bounds at the 1-yard line. It was just the second game this season that the redshirt freshman had attempted at least 20 passes, and his final two heaves toward the end zone both looked as though they might be good. But on the final play, Syracuse dropped most of its defense deep, ready for the prayer of a pass, and Minnesota just didn’t have enough luck left to pull off the win.

Game ball goes to: Syracuse QB Terrel Hunt. The sophomore put together one of his most impressive games this season, accounting for 262 yards (188 passing, 74 rushing) and two of the Orange’s three touchdowns. The Minnesota defense just couldn’t really find much of an answer to his dual-threat capabilities, and he looked like an even better version of the QB who led Syracuse impressively through November.

Stat of the game: 13 consecutive scoreless quarters or 195 minutes -- the streak of the Gophers being held out of the end zone. But against Syracuse early in the fourth quarter, Minnesota ended that drought, as Leidner first found Maxx Williams for a 20-yard TD and then connected with Drew Wolitarsky for a 55-yard score.

Back-and-forth affair: Syracuse's 7-3 halftime lead seemed solid. But when it took a two-score lead in the third quarter against a Minnesota offense that hadn't shown any signs of life, it seemed as though the game might as well be over. But the Gophers came back kicking only to eventually be kicked once more. It was a game worth watching until the end, because that's when most of the action really was worth watching.

What Syracuse learned: This offense could really develop in the next few seasons in the ACC. With two more years in this offense, Hunt could become quite the player. His arm and feet looked reliable, and with his athleticism, he seems like he isn’t close to his ceiling. On top of that, Syracuse’s top three receivers -- Estime, Ashton Broyld and Jarrod West -- will all return next year.

What Minnesota learned: The QB competition is (and should be) open at Minnesota. Philip Nelson has had the advantage with the more reliable arm, but Leidner stepped in and threw Minnesota’s first passing touchdowns in months. Both played against Syracuse, but the offense looked the best with Leidner, and that's what Kill chose to go with when the game was on the line.

Best moment of the game: Kill returning to the sideline for Minnesota. He came down during halftime and decided to stay for the second half. He hadn’t coached from the sideline since September and since he had taken a leave from coaching to focus on his health. But it was nice to see Kill enjoying himself on the sideline again.

To watch the trophy presentation of the Texas Bowl, click here.

Texas Bowl preview

December, 27, 2013
Syracuse might have taken care of business against Minnesota in the Rodeo Bowl, but the two will meet on the football field on Friday in the Texas Bowl at 6 p.m. ET (ESPN).

Here’s a quick preview:

Who to watch: Quarterbacks. Syracuse and Minnesota had two common opponents this season: Northwestern and Penn State. This game will be played largely in the trenches, but it could come down to which team’s quarterback makes fewer mistakes downfield. Syracuse opened the season with the Wildcats and Nittany Lions, but QB Drew Allen threw just one touchdown to six interceptions in those two games. After that, the Orange staff began playing sophomore Terrel Hunt. Hunt has since completed 146 of 240 passes for 10 touchdowns and eight interceptions. Minnesota’s Philip Nelson, on the other hand, threw three touchdowns and no interceptions in games against PSU and NU. So while running backs like Syracuse’s Jerome Smith (840 yards, 11 TDs) and Minnesota’s David Cobb (1,111 yards, 7 TDs) might be the ones providing highlight-reel plays, it could be Hunt and Nelson who make the biggest difference.

What to watch: These teams met last season and Minnesota walked away with a 17-10 victory. The 2012 game, however, was mainly based in the air -- the teams combined for 459 passing yards. But in 2013, expect this game to be played a bit more in the trenches. The Orange average 194 yards rushing per game, and 22 of its 35 touchdowns this season have come on the ground. But the Gophers run defense has taken major strides this season. It gives up 154 yards per game, but held teams such as Nebraska, Northwestern and Wisconsin to below their season rushing averages. On the other side of the ball, Syracuse’s run defense ranks No. 26 in the country and has forced 23 turnovers this season, but the Gophers have scored 23 of their 33 touchdowns on the ground and Cobb averages 5.1 yards per carry. It should be interesting to see what the Gophers can do up front and whether their improved offensive line can create holes for Cobb against Syracuse.

Why to watch: Even with the Gophers on the brink of an unfortunate season and coach Jerry Kill dealing with health problems that forced him to take a leave from coaching and then took him from the sideline to the coaches’ box, Minnesota somehow managed to turn its season around. The Gophers won four of their last six games, but a bowl win would be the ending to the season that they’re really looking for. And Syracuse would love nothing more than to spoil that, coming off a regular season finale in which it clinched bowl eligibility. It should be a good old-fashioned hit-you-in-the-mouth kind of game.

Prediction: Minnesota 28, Syracuse 20

B1G bowl opponent primer: Syracuse

December, 10, 2013
Taking a page from our friends at the Pac-12 blog, we're taking a closer look at each of the Big Ten's bowl opponents. We'll get things started with the Texas Bowl, where Minnesota takes on Syracuse, and we'll have two primers each day the rest of the week.

Let's begin ...

Minnesota (8-4) vs. Syracuse (6-6)
Houston, 6 p.m. ET, Dec. 27, ESPN

Syracuse Orange

Coach: Scott Shafer (6-6, 1st year)
Combined opponents' record: 79-65 (seven bowl-bound teams)
Common opponents: Penn State (lost 23-17; Minnesota won 24-10); Northwestern (lost 48-27; Minnesota won 20-17)
Best wins: Tulane, Boston College
Worst loss: Northwestern
Record vs. Minnesota: 1-3 (last meeting: 2012)
Top passer: Terrel Hunt (1,450 yards, 10 TDs, 8 INTs)
Top rusher: Jerome Smith (840 yards, 11 TDs)
Top defenders: Durell Eskridge (78 tackles, 4 INTs, 1 forced fumble); Marquis Spruill (62 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss); Cameron Lynch (61 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, 2 INTs); Jay Bromley (9 sacks, 12.5 tackles for loss)

What to know: The Orange had an up-and-down season under their new coach, looking awful in a Week 2 loss at Northwestern, only to rebound with some strong defensive performances in ACC play. There were some ugly losses along the way against ACC heavyweights Florida State and Clemson, as well as some nail-biters against Pitt (loss), Penn State (loss) and Boston College (win). The offense struggled, to put it nicely, ranking 98th nationally in scoring and 108th in pass efficiency. Hunt replaced the struggling Drew Allen as the starting quarterback in September and brings mobility to the pocket. The bottom line is that Minnesota's defense, its stronger unit, should be able to contain Syracuse (the Gophers beat the Orange 17-10 last year in Minneapolis). Minnesota will be tested more by a Syracuse defense featuring a standout pass rusher in Bromley and a playmaker in the secondary in Eskridge. Both are third-team All-ACC selections. Shafer's background is on the defensive side.

Key matchup: Minnesota's offensive line against Bromley and the Syracuse defensive front seven. The Orange can get into the backfield -- they're tied for 19th nationally in tackles for loss (7.3 per game) -- and sack the quarterback (2.75 sacks per game, tied for 22nd). Minnesota's passing issues are well documented, and if the Gophers are behind the chains and have to throw the ball, they'll be in trouble. The offensive line took a significant step forward in last year's Texas Bowl and needs another strong performance to spark underrated running back David Cobb, who finished the regular season with 1,111 yards and seven touchdowns on 219 carries.