There were a lot of positives to take away from Minnesota Gopher football's first bowl game under Jerry Kill. The defense played great and the offense was better in some ways than any of us could have imagined, but in the end Minnesota fell just short, losing on a 28 yard field goal as time expired 37-34. We'll get to the positives- and I'll probably feel better talking about them tomorrow or next week or next month- but what will haunt this game for the Gophers were missed opportunities to put Texas Tech away when they had the chance, and they just couldn't do it.
E!SPN color commentator Brock Huard said it over and over in the fourth quarter, and as much of a cliche as it is, it's still true: the Gophers needed to learn how to win, and how to put a team away. This might end up being a good teaching moment and a lesson learned for future games and (hopefully) future bowl games, but for tonight, it was heart breaking to see them get this close, only to come up with a loss in the end. Like the blown 32 point lead to TTU in 2006, what we'll probably remember about this one is Minnesota holding a seven point lead for almost the entire fourth quarter, and despite repeated opportunities, they just couldn't get one more score.
After scoring the go-ahead TD on a Philip Nelson-to-Drew Goodger TD throw with 13:06 to play in the fourth, the Gophers needed just one more TD or field goal to make it a two possession game. Nelson, after looking so good on the previous two drives, tried and failed to pick a key first down, missing a WIDE OPEN Devin Crawford-Tufts on third down. MarQueis Gray came in the next series, and he missed not one but two WIDE OPEN receivers for first downs. Nelson came in for a third series, and after a couldn't-have-been-worse-timing false start penalty by Zac Epping (who, let's be honest, did not have a good night), Minnesota ran the ball three times and punted, giving Texas Tech the ball at their own 18 with two timeouts and 3:24 remaining. Tech took two minutes to march the ball down the field, did not use either of their remaining timeouts and tied it on a 35 yard slant pass.
What happened next will likely be debated by Minnesota fans all off-season. With one timeout remaining, the Gophers started from their 30 with 1:10 left. Do you go for the win, or play for overtime? It would seem Jerry Kill tried to do both. Nelson missed DCT on 1st down, stopping the clock, then ran with Nelson on 2nd, forcing TTU to use a timeout. Third and 7 from their own 33, Kill was really in tough here no matter what. Run it, and Tech burns a timeout but gets the ball back with roughly 45 seconds left in decent field position (especially with the way Minnesota punted. Egads). Try to throw it and you risk another incompletion which stops the clock, and now gives TTU the ball in decent field position with still a timeout to spare. Or you could try throwing it into double coverage and have it picked off and returned to your own 20, which pretty much ended the game right then and there.
I'm not going to blame Kill for going for it there, because I think you had a good chance of being screwed either way. The decision by Nelson to make that throw...yeesh. And really, that's what did Minnesota in- neither Nelson or Gray threw the ball particularly well tonight, and especially when they needed it most, combining for just 146 yards through the air, with both completing less than 50% of their passes. Nelson showed some signs, included a ridiculous TD pass to DCT in the corner of the end zone to the tie the game, and another thread-the-needle job to Goodger, but he also looked like a true freshman at times.
That said...there was a lot of good tonight. A lot. First, hats off to the defense. A helluva game from Tracey Claeys' crew that held a dynamic offense at bay for about 57 minutes. 34 points looks like a lot, but keep in mind 7 of those were on a kick return TD, and to hold TTU to just 284 yards passing? Impressive, indeed. Michael Carter picked a great time for a monster game with two huge picks in the fourth, as well as a couple of other pass breakups. The tackling on both sides was atrocious and the run D was...um...the run D needs some work in the offseason, but a great job against the pass, and bending but not breaking for most of the game.
Offensively, we got to see what this offense could have looked like had everyone been healthy. Now, yes this was a Big 12 school, and their defenses generally aren't built to stop power run teams, but still- that was a mighty impressive running display. The line just owned TTU's front seven all night on run blocks as Minnesota rumbled for 222 on over 4 yards per carry. And can you say Power I? The Maryland I with THREE backs lined up in an I behind the QB? Freaking love it. Not sure how well that works in the B1G, but awesome to see them run it, and run it well. Donnell Kirkland Kirkwood and Roderick Williams both were solid all game long, and showed what they're capable of. Now we just need the change of pace back to go with those two big freaking bruisers (I'm looking at you, Braylon Edwards' brother. Keep your damn commitment. Keep it!).
And I don't know about you, but I was reminded tonight of just how much of a freak MarQueis Gray is. He was so hobbled and banged up for almost the entire season, you almost forget what an absolute force of nature he is running the ball. Watching him run tonight back at full strength (or close to it), we were talking during the game and had the following question, which I'll ask you: if Q doesn't get hurt again vs Northwestern and is healthy for October and November, how many more games does Minnesota win? We said for sure one, and maybe two, and I'd be interested in your thoughts.
Also, can't leave out Derek Engel. He's my new favorite walk-on WSR at Minnesota (insert AJ Barker joke here), and yes, our best WR right now is a transfer from Winona State. I don't get it either, but he was fantastic tonight, and would have been even better had some of the passes thrown to him been in the same solar system, let alone zip code. DCT showed signs of breaking out too, but again, despite being open numerous times, they couldn't get him the ball often enough.
Finally, there was the extracurriculars. Man, there was a lot of extra crap before, during, and after the whistle. Unsportsmanlike conducts galore, and somebody joked on Twitter that there were more punches thrown the punts in this game. Maybe things got rowdy during the Rodeo Bowl or something was said during pregame warmups, but these two teams looked like they hated each other, and went after each other time and again with cheap shots and fights. Epping had a total meltdown on what eventually ended up being a 3rd and 49 (not a typo. That really happened thanks to three 15 yard penalties, two of which were on Zac). Not one of his better moments but he's the best lineman the team has, so what do you hope he responds better next time.
And with that, the 2012 Gopher football season is done. We have a LONG time between now and...gulp...August 29 against UNLV, and it's such a shame this one didn't turn out better. It was a very strange season in a lot of ways, so maybe it shouldn't be surprising things ended the way they did. It sucks, and it'll take awhile to get over this one, but in the end, there were far more positives than negatives to take away from this and into the long offseason, and long, cold Minnesota winter.