The Texas Bowl is set for an intriguing Big Ten/ACC showdown between the Syracuse Orange and Minnesota Golden Gophers. It will take proper execution from the winner in some key parts of the game.
The 8-4 Golden Gophers are making a second straight appearance in Houston's Reliant Stadium, hoping that they can close things this time around after a loss to Texas Tech in which Minnesota gave up the lead late. With two more wins than last season, it's surprising that Jerry Kill's squad didn't land a bigger bowl.
As for Syracuse, it had a tough time even getting into bowl contention with a 34-31 win over Boston College to close the season with a 6-6 record. The Orange have lost two different games by 56 points this year.
Here's a look at the biggest keys for each team in the Texas Bowl.
Establish the Run Early, Maintain it
If there's one strength to this Syracuse team, it's the run game, and it cannot be lost at any point against the Golden Gophers.
The Orange rushing attack ranks 39th in the FBS, racking up 194 yards on the ground on average. Jerome Smith and Prince-Tyson Gulley have both been successful out of the backfield and Minnesota gives up 154 yards per game rushing.
Perhaps most important is that both will be healthy. Gulley missed most of November with an ankle sprain, but is set to return in the Texas Bowl, according to The Daily Orange's Trevor Hass.
The Orange don't have much of a passing game, so they'll have to rely on their lone advantage offensively in order to stay in this one.
Bend, Don't Break on Defense
Syracuse's defense has been successful in stretches this season, but only when they've been able to bend and not break against its opposing offense.
When it breaks, the floodgates open. The Orange have given up point totals of 48, 49, 56, 59 and 31 in this season alone—those first four were losses.
They've also had success at times, however, holding Pittsburgh to 16 points recently and also giving up a total of three points in a two-week span against Wake Forest and Maryland.
Minnesota's offense isn't explosive by any means, but it can put up points in a hurry if the opportunity presents itself. Syracuse has presented plenty of said opportunities to its opponents this season and will have to avoid doing so again in the Texas Bowl.
Minnesota Golden Gophers
Get out to Early Lead
In Minnesota's best outings as of late, it has had an early lead fuel the team throughout the rest of the game, and they will need that trend to continue against Syracuse.
The Golden Gophers scored all 24 of their points in the first half in a 24-10 win over Penn State. They also scored 28 points in the first half to beat Indiana. Both of those results came in November.
Minnesota's rushing attack with David Cobb does well milking the clock and churning out long drives to keep a lead, but it first needs a lead to work with. This team is a lot less effective when it has to battle from behind and take chances offensively.
Force Orange to Throw the Ball
As was stated in Syracuse's keys, the Orange passing attack isn't going to win this game by any means. That's exactly why Minnesota needs to force it upon its opponent.
Syracuse quarterback Terrel Hunt has thrown for multiple touchdowns just once since September, only amassing three total touchdowns in that span. During one stretch of the season, he went six games without a passing touchdown.
When the Orange are able to sustain their running game, it's a different story. But if the Golden Gophers stack eight in the box in the early goings and have some success offensively, Syracuse may be relegated to the pass.
Minnesota's defense played well against Wisconsin and Michigan State in recent losses, but it trailed for much of those games and couldn't keep its opponent from running the ball at will.
If they prevent Syracuse from doing that, Minnesota should win this one by double digits.