HOUSTON – Who says lower-tier bowl games serve no purpose?
The Gophers’ 21-17 loss to Syracuse in the Texas Bowl on Friday was played before a crowd so small, it felt like the Prep Bowl inside Reliant Stadium.
For football fans who made the trip from Minnesota and those watching on TV, the game played out like the Frustration and Agony Bowl, sponsored by Are You Serious?
But it addressed three key questions facing the team:
• When will Jerry Kill return to the sideline?
The answer arrived after halftime, when the head coach came down from the press box, hoping to rally his troops. Kill had coached exclusively from the press box for the previous six games, even after resuming all of his old duties following a two-week leave to treat his epilepsy.
Kill’s health has improved since he missed the Oct. 5 game at Michigan because of a seizure, and this was one way to prove it publicly heading into the offseason. That should only help recruiting.
• Is Philip Nelson entrenched as the starting quarterback?
No. This game definitely reopened that discussion, as Nelson completed only two of seven passes, short-hopping some and overthrowing others.
As planned, the Gophers let Nelson handle the first two drives, with Mitch Leidner taking the next two. There have been games when the offense moved better with Nelson, but this time it moved much better with Leidner.
Leidner tossed two fourth-quarter touchdown passes to give the Gophers a 17-14 lead.
“Mitch played an outstanding game,” Kill said. “He played his guts out, played hard, gave us a chance to win and did a great job for a redshirt freshman.”
Kill has been effusive with his praise for Nelson after other games. He seemingly has no favorite. Making one of these two quarterbacks the undisputed starter might help him settle in and relax, but Nelson and Leidner are too close in caliber — and both too inconsistent — to crown only one of them king.
Competition makes teams better. Offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover has said every job is open heading into the offseason, and that includes quarterback.
“All winter long, all spring long, leading into summer camp, it’s all competition,” Leidner said. “We’re going to compete every day, and whatever happens, happens. We both want to play, and we both want to lead this team to a Big Ten championship, whatever it takes.”
• Is the team positioned to win next year?
They’re moving to the Big Ten West, along with Wisconsin, Iowa, Nebraska, Illinois, Northwestern and Purdue. Their two crossover games, from the East Division, are against Ohio State and Michigan.
This could make it tough to continue the program’s upward trajectory under Kill — from 3-9 to 6-7 to 8-5 in his first three years. The Gophers were picked to finish last in the Legends Division this year but started 8-2 before losing their final three games to Wisconsin, Michigan State and Syracuse.
Defense was Minnesota’s strength, and the biggest losses to graduation come on that side of the ball. Outgoing seniors include defensive tackles Ra’Shede Hageman and Roland Johnson, linebackers Aaron Hill and James Manuel, and cornerbacks Brock Vereen and Martez Shabazz.
But the Gophers like their defensive depth. And they hope another year of growth will help an offense that went 13 consecutive quarters without scoring a touchdown before Friday’s fourth quarter. Almost the entire offense returns next year.
Senior Derrick Engel led the team in receiving, but the Gophers faced life without him for the final three games after he tore an ACL. Fullback Mike Henry and left tackle Ed Olson also graduate, but they have capable replacements.
Think about Friday’s two touchdown passes for a moment — Leidner (redshirt freshman) to tight end Maxx Williams (redshirt freshman); and Leidner to wide receiver Drew Wolitarsky (true freshman). Another freshman, Donovahn Jones, started the year as a quarterback and finished as one of the team’s best receivers.
Among this year’s redshirts who could be difference-makers next year are running back Berkley Edwards, wide receiver Eric Carter and tight end Nate Wozniak.
Nelson will be a junior. Nearly all of the offensive line and running backs return, including senior-to-be David Cobb, who rushed for 1,202 yards.
“We got better this year,” Kill said. “[Last year’s 34-31 bowl loss to Texas Tech] helped us a bunch. And we’ll get better from here, even though we didn’t win the game. That’s our job.
“Where our program was at when we took over the job, and where we’re going, we’re heading in the right direction, there’s no question about that.”