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 -- If field goals come into play at the Meineke Car Care Bowl tonight, don't be surprised if someone sets a new career high. The roof is closed at Reliant Stadium, the brand-new artificial turf is bouncy and forgiving, and the field-goal kickers may be able to take advantage.
A 50-yard field goal is easily in play. I just watched Gophers senior Jordan Wettstein, whose career high is a 51-yard kick during the 2011 season, drill a 52-yarder with plenty to spare, so it wouldn't surprise me if Jerry Kill extended his normal range to consider a kick. Similarly, Texas Tech kicker Ryan Bustin has a 50-yard field goal this year, so he's got the range, too.
The Gophers were promised a warm-weather site when they accepted their bowl invitation. That may be the only thing the Meineke Car Care Bowl committee didn't deliver.
Minnesota's coaches and players have raved about how well they've been treated while in Houston, but the 80-degree weather ended on Christmas afternoon. It rained last night, and as kickoff approaches, it's 45 degrees and blustery outside, not ideal for the Gophers' tailgating party under way just outside the stadium.
None of that will affect the game, however, as the Reliant Stadium roof will be closed. The game will be the first collegiate game played on the new artificial turf inside the stadium; the NFL's Houston Texans play on a natural grass field, but it is removed and replaced with the artificial stuff for high school and college games. (The fake turf is, somewhat ironically, stored next door in the Astrodome -- the first pro-sports stadium to use artificial turf -- when it's not being used.)
The Gophers, hoping to break their four-bowl losing streak and finish with a winning record for the first time since 2008, are wearing maroon pants and white jerseys as they warm up, though a press-box rumor has it that they will switch to gold-on-gold for the game. UPDATE: Nope, it's white-on-maroon. Just a rumor, I guess.
HOUSTON -- The new coach is conspicuously absent, but that's by design. Kliff Kingsbury will have plenty of time to make the Texas Tech Red Raiders his own.
Kingsbury will attend Friday's Meineke Car Care Bowl against Minnesota, but he's left all bowl preparations to Chris Thomsen, the offensive line coach who was designated interim head coach when Tommy Tuberville suddenly left two weeks ago to accept the head coaching job at Cincinnati.
"He's done a great job of coming in and filling in for Coach Tubs," defensive end Kerry Hyder told reporters after Thomsen conducted the team's final bowl practice on Wednesday. "He's only been here a year, but he has the respect of the team."
So does Tuberville, Hyder said, despite his abrupt departure. "It wasn't a big deal to us. It was business; he had to do what he had to do, and we understood that," the junior from Austin said. Remaining focused on their game with the Gophers "says a lot about our guys. We're able to adapt to any situation so far. No matter who's coaching, we just come out here and do our jobs."
The Gophers know Kingsbury has a reputation for innovative offense after playing for the Red Raiders a decade ago, and coaching Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel as the quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator at Texas A&M, but they assumed that the 33-year-old new coach would resist playing a role in the bowl game plan.
"Really, that offense goes back to Mike Leach," the coach who preceded Tuberville, said Gophers coach Jerry Kill. "They run a unique offense. That's hard enough to prepare for."
The Red Raiders sound relaxed as they get ready for Friday's game, which is probably a reflection of their temporary leader. Thomsen is "laid-back. He tries to crack jokes every now and then, but he's so nonchalant, that you can't really tell when he's joking," Hyder said. "He's a good coach."
Gophers freshman receiver Andre McDonald will not play in the Meineke Car Care Bowl in Houston on Friday because of a violation of team policy.
Coach Jerry Kill made the announcement this afternoon in a press release.
McDonald has 10 catches for 121 yards this season.
The Gophers' opponent, Texas Tech, will be missing three players on Friday.
The Red Raiders say the players violated undisclosed team rules.
Suspended are starting defensive back Cornelius Douglas, special teams player Chris Payne and reserve defensive lineman Leon Mackey.
Chris Thomsen is the Red Raiders' interim head coach after Tommy Tuberville left to go to Cincinnati three weeks ago. Thomsen will lead the Raiders on Friday even though Kliff Kingsbury has been hired as Tuberville's successor for next season.
Jerry Kill was sweating when he emerged from the Gophers' practice facility, and it had nothing to do with Texas Tech's passing game. Well, not much.
"It felt like it was 90 degrees in there," Kill said of the indoor practice field. "Of course, I had a sweatshirt on."
But the higher temperature wasn't his imagination, nor an accident. The Gophers' game with the Red Raiders will be played inside the Reliant Stadium on Dec. 28, and while it's possible the building's domed roof will be retracted for the game, it's more likely that the Meineke Car Care Bowl will occur indoors.
It's not a huge adjustment, but one worth preparing for, Kill figured. The long-term forecast calls for a high in the mid-60s in Houston next Friday, and the game could be played in room-temperature conditions.
That's as opposed to the normal temperatures in Minnesota's practice facility. "When we first started practicing (two weeks ago), I was about to freeze to death in there," Kill said. "I said, 'Hey, I don't think it's going to be quite this cold in Houston. We've turned the heat up to 75-80 degrees in there, to make sure we understand the sweat."
That part worked. Players were drenched in sweat as they walked off the field and onto buses to take them to TCF Bank Stadium's locker room to change.
Once they arrive in Houston this weekend, the Gophers will practice outdoors at St. Thomas High School.
With final exams mostly over and their trip to Houston looming, the Gophers turn their attention to the Texas Tech Red Raiders today.
Minnesota holds its seventh bowl practice Wednesday afternoon, but it will be different from the first six, coach Jerry Kill said. The Gophers, whose season finale comes Dec. 28 in the Meineke Car Care Bowl in Reliant Stadium, have spent December reviewing fundamentals, getting their academics in order, and giving the redshirts and underclassmen a head start on this spring's drills.
"It's been good. I've been excited about watching the young guys," Kill said. He's been impressed enough, he said, "that you'd like to take the redshirts off three or four of them, but you can't."
With recruiting entering an NCAA-enforced holiday break, most of Kill's assistant coaches are back on campus. With final exams winding down, most of his players are ready to focus on football. So the Gophers will practice today, tomorrow and Friday, before heading to Houston on Saturday.
And the generalities of the first half-dozen practices will give way to a new focus at this week's practices. In pre-practice meetings today, Kill and his staff will unveil the Gophers' game plan, then put it into motion on the practice field these next three days.
"We're going to try to get the game plan stuff in (place) here," Kill said, "so when we go down to the bowl site, we're not padded up. We can get their shoulders back, shorten up the practices."
Once they arrive in Houston, there are plenty of other activities to hold the players' interest, so Kill wants his team familiar with their game strategies ahead of time. The Gophers will hold daily practices in Houston at St. Thomas High School, roughly seven miles from Reliant Stadium, while Texas Tech works out at Rice University. (The Texans' practice facility, used by bowl teams last year, is unavailable this year because the Texans will be using it until late afternoon, and the University of Houston's stadium is undergoing extensive renovations.)
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