First and foremost, this was a highly entertaining season. There is a lot to be excited about when it comes to Gopher football. 2013 was a lot of fun and there is a lot of anticipation for 2014. The Texas Bowl was supposed to be the exclamation point on this fine season and a jumpstart to 2014. But it didn't work out that way.
I know for me, and I think for many Gopher fans, there was an expectation that the Gophers would come into tonight's game with crisp execution, few penalties and would be on their way their 9th win of the season over a 6-6 Syracuse team. Last year this program utilized their bowl practices to come up with a good gameplan that was well executed. I think we expected to see the team that we saw during the 4-game win streak. But this was a frustrating performance.
The Gopher offense looked like it was facing the Wisconsin or Michigan State defense, they were not. After not scoring an offensive touchdown in 10 previous quarters it took 3 quarters to get going against Syracuse. On the first play of the 4th quarter, trailing 14-3, Mitch Leidner hit Maxx Williams for a 20-yard touchdown. Leidner wasn't done. After the defense forced a three-and-out the offense got the ball back, Leidner found Drew Wolitarsky for a 55-yard touchdown to take a 17-14 lead.
Was this the year where the Gophers come back in the 4th quarter to snatch a bowl victory? The Gopher defense managed to stop Syracuse again and the offense opened their possession with a 15-yard David Cobb run and just over 3 minutes remaining. But a key holding penalty pushed the offense into a hole and soon the Gophers were forced to punt it back to the Orange. That is when Brisly Estime took the Peter Mortell punt and gouged the Gopher punt coverage team for 70 yards setting up 1st and 10 from the Gopher 14. Best case scenario was holding Syracuse to a field goal and living for overtime. On 3rd down, Terrel Hunt ran into the endzone to give his team the 21-17 lead with 49 seconds left.
Mitch Leidner completed a few passes to get Minnesota to the Syracuse 40 and with 12 seconds remaining had Drew Wolitarsky open at the goalline. The ball slipped threw Wolitarsky's arms and after one more deep pass into the end zone, the game was over.
A frustrating game. The problems we have seen throughout the season persisted today and then a few uncharacteristic mistakes proved too costly and Syracuse beat our Gophers. I started this post pointing out that there is much to be excited about for next season. But tonight proved that quarterback and the passing game is the one area where the Gophers need to show the most improvement in 2014. Philip Nelson started the game and never really found a rhythm. Mitch Leidner spelled him and also didn't really get the offense going until the 4th quarter when the hole was already a two-score deficit.
The Gopher have their offensive identity behind a strong offensive line and David Cobb. There appear to be a few young weapons in Maxx Williams, Donovahn Jones and Wolitarsky. But both quarterbacks have to get better, we have to be able to rely on someone's arm.
There were significant strides made defensively from 2012 to 2013. They will have to replace Ra'Shede Hageman and Brock Vereen (along with a couple other seniors) but this unit should be in decent shape next year. But the offense needs to be able to win some games and it might have to be through the air.
Ultimately this game is meaningless. The Gophers still surpassed all expectations this season and took great strides. Beating Syracuse would have been a nice cherry on the top of a great season. But it was not to be today, Syracuse executed better over four quarters and beat Minnesota. But there is much to be excited about going forward. 2014 cannot come soon enough.