Gophers running game powers way to 222 yards

  • Article by: PHIL MILLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 29, 2012 - 2:13 AM

Gophers running back Donnell Kirkwood celebrated his second-quarter touchdown Friday night.

Photo: Kevin M. Cox, Mct

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HOUSTON - The quarterbacks get the attention, especially when there are two of them.

But it was the tailbacks, not quarterbacks, who carried the Gophers offense for much of the Meineke Car Care Bowl on Friday, and helped Minnesota come close to a victory over Texas Tech.

"We were able to do what we needed to do to win the game," coach Jerry Kill said. "We tried to keep possessions and keep the ball and keep them off the field. We did just about everything we could do to win this game."

The Gophers rushed for 222 yards against the Red Raiders, their third-highest total of the season, eclipsed only by their output against New Hampshire and Illinois, far worse defenses. Donnell Kirkwood gained 77 yards on 19 carries, while Rodrick Williams added 60 yards on 12 carries; each of them also scored a touchdown.

"They have big, strong running backs, and they were a handful," Red Raiders interim coach Chris Thomsen said.

Thanks to those backs -- plus MarQueis Gray's 59 rushing yards on 11 carries, including three third-down conversions -- the Gophers held the ball for 36 minutes, 18 seconds, a huge advantage over Texas Tech's 23:42.

Recruiting boost

Playing an extra game, and receiving bowl gifts that included a 30-inch flat-screen TV, were among the benefits that the Gophers players received for participating in the Meineke Car Care Bowl. But the football program itself hopes to reap a few more benefits five weeks from now.

That's when high school seniors can sign letters of intent with Division I programs, a process that Kill said has received a boost from Minnesota's presence in Reliant Stadium.

"It's a tremendous opportunity for us to make an impact" in recruiting, Kill said, especially since the Gophers recruit Texas so heavily. A dozen current players are Texas natives, and the Gophers have received verbal commitments from at least two more this year.

In addition to preparing the current team, Gophers coaches have spent the month emphasizing to recruits how much progress the program has made, and how much fun the players are having at a bowl game.

"We've got some great players from the state of Texas," Kill said. "So it gives us the opportunity to be in a state where it's richly loaded with great coaching, great high school coaching, and great players. It helps us in a lot of ways."

New faces in charge

Bowl games are supposed to be a reward for a successful season, but many coaches get their reward before the game ever occurs, in the form of new jobs at higher salaries. (Well, a lot of them get bowl-game bonuses, too; Kill was paid an extra $25,000 for leading the Gophers into the Meineke Car Care Bowl.)

The December coaching merry-go-round, however, means an increasing number of bowl teams are led by interim coaches. Last year, two bowls (UCLA-Illinois and Houston-Penn State) featured temporary coaches on both sidelines.

Texas Tech lived that situation Friday, for the second time in three bowl appearances, because of Tommy Tuberville's decision to accept the coaching job at Cincinnati. That left the task of leading the Red Raiders to Thomsen, the offensive line coach, who juggled game preparations with job-hunting last week. Thomsen, completing his first and only season in Lubbock, reportedly found work on the staff of new California coach Sonny Dykes, according to the Houston Chronicle.

NCAA record finally his

It took to the final game of his college career, but Gophers senior Troy Stoudermire broke the NCAA record for kickoff return yardage in a career when he took the opening kick of the game 26 yards.

Stoudermire finished with 111 yards in kickoff returns, giving him 3,615 for his career. That surpassed the mark of Houston's Tyron Carrier, who finished his career last season with 3,517 yards.

Etc.

• Seven personal fouls were called in the game, four on the Red Raiders and three on the Gophers. Back-to-back penalties on Gophers offensive lineman Zac Epping in a second-quarter drive resulted in a third-and-49 situation, and forced the Gophers' first punt. "We told the kids to play hard and keep their composure," Kill said. "We talked about it at halftime and I think we moved forward from it."

• The announced attendance was 50,386, though the crowd seemed several thousand people smaller than that. Gophers fans were outnumbered roughly 5-to-1.

• Officials, headed by referee Tom McCabe, were provided by the Mid-American Conference.

• With temperatures dipping below 50 degrees by game time, the retractable roof on Reliant Stadium was kept closed.

• The Meineke Car Care Bowl (or Houston Bowl as it was previously named) has an unusually illustrious roster of MVPs. Ray Rice, a tailback now starring for the Baltimore Ravens, won the honor with Rutgers in 2006, and current Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton was MVP with TCU in 2007. The last two MVPs were Illinois running back Mikel Leshoure, now with the Lions, and Texas A&M quarterback Ryan Tannehill, now with the Dolphins.

• According to Gopher Illustrated, a rivals.com website that closely follows Minnesota recruiting, the team this week received a commitment from a 6-5, 250-pound Under Armour All-America player this week from Pace, Fla. His position? He's a place-kicker. Really.

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