HOUSTON — The blown lead wasn't as large, but the pain was just as piercing. Texas Tech doesn't just beat the Gophers in bowl games, it tortures them. They inflict agony.
One day short of the sixth anniversary of their Insight Bowl meltdown, the Gophers once more coughed up a fourth-quarter lead to the Red Raiders, and lost the Meineke Car Care Bowl 34-31.
The Gophers led for nearly the entire fourth quarter, and clinged to a seven-point lead with a little more than a minute to play. But before they could celebrate their first bowl victory since 2004, Red Raiders receiver Eric Ward broke into the clear for a short pass across the middle and sped 35 yards into the end zone to tie the score. Moments later, a Philip Nelson pass bounced off receiver Derrick Engel's hands and into the arms of safety D.J. Johnson, who returned it to the Minnesota 22. Before the Gophers knew what had happened, Ryan Bustis kicked a 28-yard field goal as time expired, ending Minnesota's quest for its first winning season since 2008.
In 2006, Texas Tech rallied from a 38-7 deficit to stun the Gophers in the Insight Bowl, a loss that cost then-coach Glen Mason his job two days later. Jerry Kill won't be fired for this loss, but he probably won't be able to sleep much, either.
"I wish we could have sent these [seniors] out on a better note," a choked-up Nelson said after passing for 138 yards, including two touchdowns.
They nearly did. Until the final minute, the Gophers appeared headed to victory, thanks to an offensive revival, some timely defense and a little misbehaving on the part of the Red Raiders.
Minnesota used two quarterbacks, a handful of drive-stopping plays and a host of Texas Tech penalties Friday to come within 70 seconds of pulling off the biggest victory of Kill's tenure. Texas Tech committed four personal fouls among its 13 penalties, including a pair of 15-yard marchoffs from the Gophers 1-yard line that kept the Red Raiders out of the end zone both times.
But when they weren't hurting themselves, the Gophers were doing it for them. Minnesota nearly shut out the nation's second-best passing game in the second half, blocked a field goal, intercepted Tech quarterback Seth Doege twice, and until the final plays had outgained a team that averaged almost 38 points per game this year.
The Gophers' first bowl game in four years might also have been their most entertaining game in that time.
Until the finish.
"We played like we hoped we would," said senior cornerback Michael Carter, who picked off Doege twice. "It hurts to lose. It's just a hard one."
Nelson and MarQueis Gray each took several snaps at quarterback, and could reasonably say they had their best game of the season. Nelson handled the offense on the first two drives of the game and the first one of the second half, and produced scores -- a field goal and two touchdowns -- on all three.
The highlight was a 24-yard touchdown pass to Devin Crawford-Tufts -- his first career touchdown catch -- in which Nelson was forced from the pocket, scrambled to the left sideline, then hit the sophomore standing alone in the front corner of the end zone.
The lowlight, of course, was Nelson's lone interception, which Johnson pulled down, then returned 40 yards deep into Gophers territory.
Gray was effective, too, though in a different way. The former starting quarterback reminded Gophers fans of how difficult to tackle he is when healthy, three times keeping drives alive with third-down scrambles or sneaks through the Texas Tech defense. He gained 56 yards on 10 rushes, including a 26-yard burst that set up a Gophers touchdown in the fourth quarter.
Yet for all the offense, the Gophers will long remember an impressive defensive stand that seemed to change the game's momentum. Minnesota had turned the ball over on downs near midfield, and the Red Raiders quickly marched to the Gophers 1-yard line. Grant carried the ball on a sweep and appeared to score a tie-breaking touchdown, reaching for a pylon. While one official signaled touchdown, another one was throwing a flag -- yep, another personal foul -- on Red Raiders tight end Jace Amaro, who dragged safety Derrick Wells to the ground and threw a punch when he resisted.
It marked the second time the Red Raiders had moved backward from the Gophers 1-yard line because of a personal foul penalty; left tackle LaAdrian Waddle had skirmished with Gophers defensive end D.L. Wilhite just outside the end zone on a second-quarter drive, forcing the Red Raiders to settle for a field goal.
The officials ejected Amaro, then called for a review of the touchdown, which revealed that linebacker Aaron Hill had stripped Grant of the football as he slid out of bounds. After the penalty was marched off, the Red Raiders eventually had to settle for a field goal.