Joe Christensen covered Major League Baseball for 15 years, including three seasons at the Baltimore Sun and eight at the Star Tribune, before switching to the college football beat. He’s a Faribault, Minn., native who graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1996. He covered Jim Wacker’s Gophers for the Minnesota Daily and also wrote about USC, UCLA and the Rose Bowl for the Riverside Press-Enterprise before getting this chance to cover football again.
Email Joe to talk about the Gophers.
HOUSTON -- Playing their first game in 27 days, the Gophers showed serious signs of rust in the first half of their Texas Bowl matchup against Syracuse on Friday and went to the locker room trailing 7-3.
Minnesota has now played 12 consecutive quarters without an offensive touchdown.
With only a few thousand fans on hand at 71,000-seat Reliant Stadium, the Gophers tried two quarterbacks but could get nothing going offensively.
Philip Nelson started the game and played the first two series – a three-and-out, followed by a fumble by Isaac Fruechte.
Mitch Leidner took over for the third series and finished the half. It might have been injury related for Nelson, as Leidner had some shaky moments of his own. Nelson loosened up on the sidelines but didn’t return.
Syracuse went on an 11-play, 80-yard drive, capped by a 1-yard touchdown run from Jerome Smith for a 7-0 lead early in the second quarter.
Chris Hawthorne trimmed the lead to 7-3 with a 41-yard field goal at the end of the half.
Update: Jerry Kill returned to the sideline for the start of the second half. Tracy Claeys remained on the sideline, too.
HOUSTON -- Gophers coach Jerry Kill contemplated a return to the sidelines for Friday's Texas Bowl, but decided to coach from the press box for the seventh consecutive game.
SCOUTING SYRACUSE'S OFFENSE
Syracuse sophomore quarterback Terrell Hunt had a rough October, completing just 43.1 percent of his passes for 194 yards with no touchdowns and six interceptions, as noted here by Syracuse.com. But in November, he completed 62.9 percent of his passes for 360 yards and three touchdowns. In the regular season finale against Boston College, he passed for 270 yards and rushed for 90.
"I think what makes him more challenging is he isn’t necessarily known as a dual threat," Gophers cornerback Brock Vereen said. "He doesn’t look to run first. So they can kind of lull you to sleep a little bit. He presents himself as a pocket passer, and before you know it, he’s rushing for 20 yards up the field. So we can’t fall asleep on him. He’s definitely an athlete."
SCOUTING SYRACUSE'S DEFENSE
On defense, Syracuse has several playmakers, as noted here in this story written for the Star Tribune by Stephen Bailey. Three to watch are defensive tackle Jay Bromley and linebackers Marquis Spruill and Dyshawn Davis.
"You definitely see how good they are up front," Gophers running back David Cobb said. "Their linebackers and secondary -- they all crash to the ball, and it’s not just one guy, it’s one, two, three, four. They have guys on great pursuit angles, and they don’t give up on the play. It’s a big challenge for us, but our guys up front will accept the challenge and I’ll accept the challenge, and we’ll be ready to play just like them."
Update: The Gophers will be wearing white helmets with maroon jerseys, white pants and maroon socks. Syracuse also will be unveiling new helmets -- an orange and blue blend -- with white jerseys and blue pants.
Check back here for a few other pregame notes, as well as a halftime post and game story right after the final gun. Follow along on Twitter @JoeCStrib.
HOUSTON – The Gophers sold 3,375 tickets for Friday’s Texas Bowl, according to associate athletics director Chris Werle.
That’s well short of each team’s 12,000-seat allotment, but it’s up from 3,163 last year. The Gophers have three busloads of students making the trip from Minneapolis, and two fan charter planes coming down.
It’s unclear how many tickets Syracuse sold, but if today’s Texas Bowl luncheon was any indication, Gophers fans outnumbered the Orange fans by a wide margin.
The Houston Texans include tickets to this bowl game in their season ticket package. Last year, many of those fans turned out to see Texas Tech play the Gophers, but without a nearby college playing, the in-stadium attendance could fall well short of last year's 50,386 mark.
Gophers coach Jerry Kill said he’ll have a meeting Thursday night to determine whether he will return to the sideline for Friday’s game. Kill has coached the past six games from the press box.
“I’ll see how things go,” Kill said. “I’m going to visit with somebody this evening who’s in charge of that, and this is about the first time I’ve listened in all the time since I’ve been dealing with [epilepsy], so I’ll listen.
“But you know, sometimes it’s all overrated. I’m doing the same things if I’m up there as if I’m down on the field. And I’m a pretty emotional guy, so it’s probably best I am in the box sometimes, so we’ll see how it all works out.”
Gophers offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover was asked if he'll be back next season or if he might go looking for a head coaching job.
"No, I’m back, I’m having too much fun," he said. "I’ve had more fun this year than I have probably in my entire career, coaching the group of guys that we have, working with the offensive staff, so unless you know something I don’t -- that they’re going to kick me out -- I’d like to be back."
Asked if he'd like to become a head coach someday, Limegrover said, "I’d like to, yeah. But I think the biggest thing is that we’ve got a lot of work to do here, and I don’t like leaving work unfinished. So until I can get that squared away, I think I’m right where I need to be."
KILL NOT SURE WHERE HE'LL COACH
Kill was asked if he plans to continue coaching in the press box or return to the sideline for the bowl game, and he said he doesn't know.
"I’m not avoiding your question." Kill said. "I really can’t comment on any of that right now because I don’t know. I just have to see. And we’ll do what’s best for the program, like we always have, and everybody – I’m doing fine, but it’s one of those things. I talked to Coach [Tracy Claeys] a couple days ago, and we talked a little bit, and we’ll worry about that as we get closer."
NELSON BACK TO FULL STRENGTH
Gophers quarterback Philip Nelson, offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover and head coach Jerry Kill were among those who met with the media after Wednesday's practice.
Nelson said it took him "about a week" to recover physically after getting shaken up in the regular season finale against Michigan State. But he's been able to practice at full speed in preparation for the Texas Bowl against Syracuse on Dec. 27 and sees similarities to how things went leading up to last year's bowl game.
"I think we’re doing a good job right now of just getting our feet underneath us again, and really putting in some new things and keep working hard on the things we already do well," Nelson said. "So we’ve got a good little balance going right now, and it’s feeling a lot like last year. So hopefully it plays out like last year, with how we played."
Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany is on a mission to make sure member fan bases don't think the bowl experience is getting stale.
Take Wisconsin, for example. The Badgers have been to the past three Rose Bowls. Nothing wrong with Pasadena, of course. But it's asking a lot for an average fan to get excited to keep returning to the same place year after year.
Before this stretch, Wisconsin played in a Florida bowl game for six consecutive years -- Tampa, Orlando, Orlando, Tampa, Orlando, Orlando. No matter how much you like warm weather and college football, that's an awful lot of Florida.
On Monday, the Big Ten and Pac-12 officially announced new six-year agreements with the Holiday Bowl (San Diego) and Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl (San Francisco). The contracts cover the years 2014-2019.
Unlike the current arrangement, the Big Ten won't stipulate that a certain team from the standings is going from to a certain bowl. This year, the No. 2 team is heading to Orlando, and No. 3 is heading to Tampa, for example. Delany said the next arrangement will have tiers and steps will be taken to ensure teams don't keep returning to the same regions for bowl games.
The Holiday Bowl will be in the top tier, for teams toward the top of the Big Ten standings. The Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl will bein the middle tier, along with the Pinstripe Bowl (against an ACC team) at Yankee Stadium. When finished, the Big Ten bowl slate likely will include games in New York, Florida, Texas, California and Detroit.
"Our goal was initially to create a national slate, and we feel like we’ve taken another step in that direction," Delany said. "We're looking to to broaden the group of opponents that we’re playing, but also to keep it fresh for fans and bowl communities, as well as our coaches and players."
Thumbs up from here. Who doesn't like San Diego? Meanwhile, the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl has been underrated at AT&T Park and figures to get even better when it moves into the 49ers new Levi's Stadium in Stadium, in 2014.
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