- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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The first text message Minnesota linebacker Mike Rallis sent after his team's bowl-clinching win last Saturday at Illinois went to Miss Ronda.
She's Ronda Evans, whose son, Gary Tinsley, played linebacker for the Gophers from 2008-2011 and died suddenly April 6, weeks before he was scheduled to graduate. Rallis and his Gopher teammates have dedicated their season to Tinsley, wearing black "GT51" patches on their jerseys. Each game, a Gopher player wears Tinsley's No. 51 jersey. Rallis wore 51 for the second time against Illinois and forced a fourth-quarter fumble that helped Minnesota seal a 17-3 win.
"We said we were going to do it for you and Gary, and we did it. We love you guys," Rallis' message to Evans read. She texted back to congratulate him and his teammates.
"It was a bunch of emotions coming out. It was a lot of happiness," Rallis told ESPN.com. "We said at the beginning of the year we were going to do it for Gary, and to finally accomplish that, to finally get that sixth win and see all of our hard work pay off in that kind of way was a great feeling.
"It got kind of emotional wearing No. 51, but we had a good time celebrating."
After back-to-back 3-9 seasons, Minnesota will go bowling for the first time since the 2009 Insight Bowl. The Gophers looked like a bowl lock after starting 4-0, but they dropped their first three Big Ten games before stomping Purdue on Oct. 27. After a day of missed opportunities against Michigan, Minnesota needed to secure win No. 6 against Illinois before a tough closing stretch (Nebraska, Michigan State).
Senior wide receiver MarQueis Gray felt a "sigh of relief" after the clock expired.
"I know Gary's somewhere looking down on us with a smile on his face," Gray told ESPN.com. "We called him our 12th man the whole season. He's going to that bowl game with us."
Gray had another reason to get back to the postseason. Minnesota trailed Iowa State 14-13 in the Insight Bowl, and drove the ball inside the Cyclones' red zone.
On first-and-10 from the 17, Gray, then a redshirt freshman, took off running but fumbled the ball. Iowa State recovered and converted two first downs to run out the clock.
"Most people would say we had plays that led up to us not being able to score before that, but I look at it as I was the last one with the ball in my hands and I fumbled, so I put that loss on my back," Gray said. "I didn't want to be remembered as the guy who lost us the bowl game. Now I want to be a guy who's remembered a great teammate, and who got the team back to a bowl game and won one."
He'll get the chance in late December or Jan. 1. Gray said Minnesota's last bowl appearance "seems extremely long ago." The seniors since have been through a head-coaching change -- technically two -- and seen assistants come and go.
"Coach [Jerry] Kill tells us every day that we’re the founders, we're the stepping stones for the improvement of this program," said Gray, who last month moved from quarterback to receiver because of a knee injury. "Being a senior, we've been through a lot that these [younger] guys probably won't have to go through. We're just doing whatever we can to make sure we get these guys to a bowl game, get that taste in their mouth so they can continue to be successful with their time here."
Minnesota still has two games left to improve its bowl position. Most projections have the Gophers playing in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas or the Heart of Dallas Bowl.
If the Gophers win out, they could enter the mix for the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl or, just maybe, the Gator Bowl.
The Gator Bowl is played in Jacksonville, Fla. Tinsley's hometown.
"It would be awesome," Rallis said. "It'd be a great way to finish out where Gary’s from. Either way, though, we're going to be representing Gary wherever we go."