HOUSTON – Gophers coach Jerry Kill knew his team was desperate for a halftime spark in Friday night’s Texas Bowl against Syracuse, so he returned to the sideline for the first time since the team’s Sept. 28 game against Iowa.
Kill started the game coaching from the press box, as he had for the previous six games following his two-week leave to treat his epilepsy.
The Gophers entered halftime trailing 7-3. At that point, the team had played 12 consecutive quarters without an offensive touchdown, a streak that grew to 13 before finally ending.
“I felt that we needed a little bit of pickup,” Kill said. “I talked to a couple coaches, and we weren’t maybe as zippy as we’ve been. And I made an instinct decision, and whether it’s right or wrong, I did it.
“Those seniors have busted their tail end for me, and the team has busted its tail off for me. And if I can go down there and get them a lift, Coach Kill will do anything he can to get a win.
“I don’t know if it helped our not. Evidently, it didn’t because we didn’t win the game.”
Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys, who moved from the press box to the field for the team’s final seven games, stayed on the sideline with Kill in the second half. It was all hands on deck, and the players said they believed Kill made the right move.
“I think the whole team got pretty pumped when he made that announcement,” freshman wide receiver Drew Wolitarsky said. “Coming into halftime, I felt like everything was a little flat, and he gave us that spark, which is another reason why we came out and started executing better.”
Leidner takes over
The Gophers’ offensive plan coming into Friday’s game was to have Philip Nelson take the first two series at quarterback, with Mitch Leidner taking the next two.
That’s exactly how it unfolded. The only surprise was that Leidner remained in the game for the rest of the first half. Nelson started the second half, but Leidner replaced him after one series and finished the game, racking up a career-high 205 passing yards.
“We were trying to find a rhythm, something to get us going, and Mitch had practiced well over the last two or three weeks,” Kill said. “He did great. He went in, felt like he was in a good rhythm and for just whatever reason, we moved the ball with him. So we stayed with it.”
Feeling for Wolitarsky
Wolitarsky had four catches for a career-high 94 yards, including a 55-yard touchdown catch. But on the game’s second-to-last play, Wolitarsky had a Hail Mary pass from Leidner bounce off his arm and hip before it fell to the ground in the end zone.
“I give Drew credit; he made really good plays throughout the game, and that was a tough catch,” Leidner said. “But those are plays we need to make, and we’re going to make them in the future.”
The announced paid attendance was 32,327, which included a slew of Houston Texans season-ticket holders who didn’t show. There were only a few thousand fans in the seats.
The previous smallest announced attendance for this bowl game was 50,386 for last year’s game between Minnesota and Texas Tech.
This year, the Gophers sold 3,375 tickets, well short of their 12,000-seat allotment but up from 3,163 last year. Minnesota fans greatly outnumbered Syracuse fans at the game.
Big 12 teams have been a better draw for Houston fans, and next year the Texas Bowl is slated to have a Big 12 vs. SEC matchup.