Minnesota (8-4, 4-4 Big Ten) is slated to square off with Syracuse (6-6, 4-4 ACC), Friday, Dec. 27 in the 2013 Texas Bowl in Houston, Texas.
The Golden Gophers come into the game off their best season in a decade, while the Orange managed bowl eligibility by nipping Boston College 34-31 in their season finale.
Minnesota holds a 3-1 all-time advantage over Syracuse, the two meeting as recently as last season when the Gophers won 17-10 in Minneapolis. Syracuse’s only win came in 1995 and the two have never met in a postseason game.
This season’s Texas Bowl will feature two teams which share similar DNA. Minnesota has struggled to establish a passing attack this season (No. 118 in the FBS), but has been effective on defense (No. 28 in scoring). Syracuse, similarly, has been more effective running the ball (No. 39 in the FBS in rushing yards versus No. 87 in passing) and has done well limiting opponents' scoring (No. 59).
It will be a battle between an Orange team which can run and stop the run and a Golden Gopher squad which is slow-moving but super disciplined.
Here are the details:
Date/Time: Friday, Dec. 27, 6:00 p.m. EST
Place: Reliant Stadium, Houston, Tex.
Minnesota rushed for 271 yards in its historic win over Nebraska.
Run the Ball Effectively
The common thread in Minnesota’s four losses in 2013 was the inability to establish the running game.
In each of its eight wins, Minnesota ran for more than 175 yards, while in its four defeats it didn’t exceed the 140-yard mark. The low-point came against Iowa when it racked up 30 yards rushing.
Key number one: Rush for 200-plus yards as a team. This is a goal which will be more challenging against a Syracuse team which ranks No. 28 in the FBS in rushing defense.
Win the Turnover Battle
The Golden Gophers only lost the ball 15 times in 2013, earning them a tie for the No. 18 rank in the FBS.
What’s worth noting is that 10 of Minnesota’s 15 turnovers (or 67 percent) came in its four losses. This number includes six turnovers in its final two games against Wisconsin and Michigan State.
The Gophers won or tied the turnover battle in each of their eight wins, while they came up on the flip side in the four defeats.
This makes the second key simple: Win the turnover battle with Syracuse, a team which ranks No. 49 in the FBS in turnover margin.
Hold Syracuse to Fewer Than 150 Yards Rushing
The common denominator in five of Syracuse’s six losses in 2013 was a rushing performance of less than 150 yards.
Lowlights included only 71 yards of rushing in the opening loss to Penn State and 75 yards in the 56-0 beatdown at the hands of Georgia Tech.
The good news for Minnesota is its defense has held its 2013 opponents to—on average—154 rushing yards per game.
Key number three: Shut down the Orange ground game.
Win the Battle For Field Position
Given that Syracuse and Minnesota combine for an average of only 25 points-per-game, it’s safe to say that the 2013 Texas Bowl won’t be a high-scoring affair.
If this is the case, the margin of victory will shrink and suddenly the “little things” will loom large in deciding the outcome.
One area where the Gophers can take advantage of the Orange is in punt returns. Syracuse ranks No. 88 in the FBS in opponent's punt returns and No. 123 in opponent’s long punt return plays.
The Orange have given up almost 10 yards per return in 2013 and have allowed returns of more than 20 yards seven times. The only team with a poorer performance is 1-11 Southern Miss who has given up eight such plays.
Key four: Take advantage of Syracuse’s weakness in punt coverage and earn valuable field position by maximizing return yards. Luckily, Minnesota ranks No. 40 in average punt return yards and No. 55 in long punt return plays.
Syracuse QB Terrel Hunt
Syracuse finished the regular season ranked No. 109 in the nation in penalty yards per game with 62.6.
Beating a disciplined team like Minnesota—No. 10 in penalties—will require a much cleaner game by the Orange.
Overall, Syracuse accumulated 751 penalty yards in 2013.
Key one: Stop the bleeding and reduce the number of penalties.
Give Terrel Hunt the Ball
With a quarterback rating of 117.5, sophomore Terrel Hunt is not necessarily setting the world on fire throwing the ball. In fact, his rating makes him the No. 90-ranked quarterback in the FBS.
But that said, in each of Syracuse’s last three losses (Georgia Tech, Florida State and Pitt), Hunt rushed for fewer than 15 yards.
In each of the final three wins (Wake Forest, Maryland and Boston College), he rushed for more than 36 yards.
Even though Hunt isn’t likely to be a 100-yard rusher (though he did run for 90 against BC), giving him the ball obviously has positive results.
Key two: Allow Hunt to play his part as the team’s No. 3 rusher.
Rule Third Down
Perhaps Syracuse’s biggest defensive achievement in 2013 is a No. 10 ranking in stopping opponents on third down.
Think about it, the Orange have allowed third down conversions only 32.16 percent of the time this season. That’s 171 tries, 55 first downs and a whopping 116 fourth downs.
Only nine teams in the nation have done better.
Key three: Shut down Minnesota—a team which has converted third downs 41.57 percent of the time in 2013—on third down tries.
Force Minnesota to Throw the Ball
The Golden Gophers have been one-dimensional on offense in 2013, they rank No. 34 in rushing yards versus No. 118 in passing.
Syracuse will have to rely on its No. 28-ranked rushing defense to shut down the Gophers’ ground attack and force Minnesota quarterback Philip Nelson to win with his arm. Nelson ranks No. 85 in the FBS in passer rating and No. 99 in yards per game.
This could also give the Orange an opportunity to cash in on its opportunistic defense which ranks No. 27 in the nation in interceptions.
The prospect for improving this ranking is good given that Nelson has thrown nine touchdowns versus six picks in 2013.
Key number four: Load up the box, shut down the run and then pick apart Nelson.
Minnesota DE Theiren Cockran
Cobb is a junior running back from Killeen, Texas who came to Minnesota as a 3-star recruit in the class of 2011.
After rushing for eight yards as a sophomore last season, Cobb racked up 1,111 yards and seven touchdowns on 219 carries this year.
Cobb is Minnesota’s first 1000-yard rusher since 2006 when Amir Pinnix rushed for 1,272 yards and 10 scores on 252 carries.
Cobb ranks No. 35 in the nation in yards per game and No. 29 in yards. NFL Draft Scout has Cobb at No. 46 among running backs eligible for the 2014 draft.
Cockran is a sophomore defensive end from Homestead, Fla. who came to the Golden Gophers as a 2-star recruit in the class of 2011.
Cockran recorded six tackles, a single sack and a tackle for a loss as a freshman in 2012 before storming into 2013.
Through 12 games this season, Cockran has accumulated 29 tackles, 10 tackles for a loss, seven-and-a-half sacks and four forced fumbles.
He ranks No. 35 in the FBS in sacks and No. 8 in forced fumbles. According to NFL Draft Scout, Cockran is projected as the No. 43 defensive end eligible for the 2016 draft.
Hageman is a monster (6’6”, 311 pounds) senior defensive lineman from Minneapolis, Minn. He came to the Gophers with the class of 2009 as a 3-star recruit. According to Rivals, he was the No. 6-ranked tight end in the nation in his class and the No. 3 overall ranked player from the state of Minnesota.
Hageman switched to defensive line as a freshman and has played in every game since he was a sophomore in 2011.
As a senior, Hageman has racked up 34 tackles, 11 tackles for a loss, two sacks, two blocked kicks, one interception and eight broken-up passes.
NFL Draft Scout projects Hageman will be the No. 1 defensive tackle in the 2014 draft.
For a look at Minnesota’s complete depth chart, check out Gopher Illustrated.
Syracuse DE Jay Bromley
Bromley is a senior defensive tackle from Jamaica, NY. He is a three-year starter who has made significant statistical gains in Syracuse’s first season in the ACC.
Bromley has racked up 37 tackles, 11.5 tackles for a loss, eight sacks and three forced fumbles in 2013.
He is ranked No. 10 in the ACC in sacks, No. 17 in tackles for a loss and No. 2 in forced fumbles.
NFL Draft Scout has Bromley as the No. 12 defensive tackle eligible for the 2014 draft.
Eskridge is a sophomore free safety from Miami, Fla. who came to Syracuse as a 3-star recruit in the class of 2011.
After a promising debut in 2012, Eskridge’s second season as a collegiate has been stellar. He’s scored four interceptions, 78 tackles, four tackles for a loss and a forced fumble.
He is ranked No. 4 in the ACC in interceptions and No. 23 in tackles.
NFL Draft Scout has Eskridge ranked as the No. 6 strong safety in its 2016 draft rankings.
Syracuse’s leading rusher in 2013, Smith is a junior from Bear, Delaware. He was a 3-star recruit in the class of 2010.
Smith was a 1000-yard rusher last season and has accumulated 840 yards on 184 carries as a junior this year.
What’s most impressive about his performance this season is his 11 touchdowns, a mark which ties him at No. 41 among FBS rushers and No. 6 in the ACC.
According to NFL Draft Scout, Smith is the No. 13 rated running back eligible for the 2015 draft.
For a look at Syracuse’s complete depth chart, check out Scout.com.
Syracuse center Macky MacPherson
According to Marcus R. Fuller of the Pioneer Press, here’s Minnesota head coach Jerry Kill’s take on the Gophers' 2013 season.
We moved our program forward…We’ve had some great wins. We’ve had some disappointing losses. But more importantly, we’re going to a bowl game. As coach (Dennis Franchione) taught me a long time ago, there is no bad bowl game. That’s an extra 15 days of practice.
As far as how Syracuse feels about its dramatic win over Boston College to clinch a bowl bid, check out what senior center Macky MacPherson had to say according to Josh St. Croix of the Watertown Daily News.
All I can think about now is that I get another opportunity to play…I don’t care who we play or where, we can play in Alaska for all I care. I just want to go out there and play one more game.
It’s safe to say that both these teams have the proper perspective and will be fired up coming into the 2013 Texas Bowl.
Given that these two teams are so evenly matched statistically, this game will come down to who can play mistake-free football.
In this case, it’s impossible not to go with Minnesota, the team that has been more disciplined all season. The Gophers have only turned the ball over 15 total times this season and they are in the top ten in penalties.
The other element that gives the edge to Minnesota is the fact that its defense has played better than Syracuse’s throughout the season. Where the Orange have allowed 26.1 points per game, the Gophers have given up only 22.3.
The game is likely to be closely contested with Minnesota edging Syracuse by fewer than seven points.