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.
If the Gophers can remain bowl eligible in coming seasons, potential new destinations could include New York for the Pinstripe Bowl, San Diego for the Holiday Bowl and San Francisco for the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl.
This piece from Stewart Mandel on SI.com taught me a lot about how the bowl system could change after next season, when the BCS contract expires, along with all the other contracts for bowls.
TV ratings have been solid, even for lower-tier bowls, but attendance is sagging. The most glaring example was the Sugar Bowl between then-No. 3 Florida and Louisville, which drew 54,178, the event’s lowest attendance since 1939.
Some bowls become more intriguing than expected and become a hot ticket (see the Cotton Bowl matchup between Oklahoma and Texas A&M). Other bowls linger as consolation prizes for disappointed fan bases, leaving schools way overmatched trying to fill ticket allotments.
As Mandel writes, Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany “wants the conference bowl lineup to become ‘more national’ than its current glut of Florida games; he wants to keep fans from becoming fatigued by repeat trips to the same destination." So Delany believes it's time to get more creative.
The Big Ten is expected to sign on with the Pinstripe Bowl, as it looks to strengthen its eastern footprint after adding Rutgers and Maryland. And a source tells Mandel that over a six-year term, the Big Ten and Big 12 could share spots in the Holiday Bowl and Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl in San Francisco, with each conference taking three trips over the six years.
I’m not sure where those bowls would rank in the Big Ten’s new pecking order, but it sounds like we could have an idea by this April.
I'm in one of those bowl pools, the kind where you pick the winner of all 35 games and then rank them in order of your confidence in the pick. Of the 17 players who entered, 10 of them picked Texas Tech as their 35-point lock.
So yeah, MarQueis Gray was right when he said, "We're the Gophers. Anytime you're a Gopher, you're the underdog." But he and his now-former teammates, two-touchdown underdogs against the 7-5 Red Raiders, have nothing to be ashamed of after their last-minute 34-31 loss to Texas Tech.
Minnesota displayed an offense that's good enough to win plenty of games, mixing a hard-nosed running offense with some well-timed passes downfield. They still don't have a breakout star at a skill position, but the promise is there. Philip Nelson completed just seven of 18 passes, but he's only 19, and the Gophers will find a few more targets for him to throw to.
Derrick Engel is a pretty good one right now. The junior from Chaska caught four passes for 108 yards, though he's surely haunted by the one that got away -- the pass that bounced off his hands as he tried to make a difficult catch, and landed in the arms of safety D.J. Johnson instead. But Engel, who appeared to score a touchdown that was overturned by a replay that showed his elbow touching the ground as he crossed the goal line, is surely at the top of the depth chart for 2013.
The Gophers converted 9 of 16 third downs, by the way. Quite a performance by an offense that sometimes appeared hopelessly unable to score for much of November. Too bad the Gophers allowed a special teams touchdown, on Jakeem Grant's 99-yard kickoff return.
The squad that really deserved this victory, though, was the defense. Seth Doege completed 31 passes, more than any quarterback had against the Gophers all year. Yet the Red Raiders didn't score a point after halftime until the final 70 seconds, when a tired secondary couldn't stop all-Big 12 receiver Eric Ward, who scored a 35-yard touchdown that tied the score and set up the devastating finish.
The defense loses several of its most important players to graduation, of course, but there is reason to believe the Gophers are making genuine progress.
HOUSTON -- This time, the blown lead was only seven points, not 31. But that doesn't mean Minnesota's loss to the Texas Tech Red Raiders will hurt any less.
One day short of the sixth anniversary of their Insight Bowl meltdown, the Gophers once more coughed up a fourth-quarter lead to Texas Tech, and lost the Meineke Car Care Bowl, 34-31.
The Gophers owned a seven-point lead with just more than a minute to play when 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, safety D.J. Johnson intercepted a Philip Nelson pass and returned it to the Minnesota 22, setting up a game-winning 28-yard Ryan Bustis field goal as time expired.
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.
That's because until the final minute, the Gophers appeared headed to their first bowl victory in eight years, 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 march-offs from the Gophers' 1-yard line that kept them out of the end zone both times.
But when the Red Raiders weren't hurting themselves, the Gophers were doing it for them. Minnesota shut out the nation's second-best passing game for most of the second half, blocked a field goal, intercepted Tech quarterback Seth Doege twice, and nearly outgained a team that averaged nearly 38 points per game this year.
The Gophers' first bowl game in four years may also have been their most entertaining game in that time. Until the finish.
The Gophers used two quarterbacks as promised, and both Philip Nelson and MarQueis Gray 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 calmly looped a pass to the sophomore receiver 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 Gopher territory.
Gray was effective, too, though in a different way. The former starting quarterback reminded Gopher 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.
But it was the tailbacks, not quarterbacks, who carried the Gophers' offense for much of the game, particularly when lined up in a formation that would have made Tom Osborne smile: the power-I. With two blockers lined up in front of them, Donnell Kirkwood and Rodrick Williams took turns finding holes in the Red Raiders' defense. That accomplished the Gophers' strategy of keeping Texas Tech's offense off the field as much as possible, but also produced consistent yardage, a great relief for a team that gained only 91 total yards on the ground in its last two games.
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 due to 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 faced third-and-goal from the 16, and nose tackle Ra'Shede Hageman knocked down a pass to force the Red Raiders to settle for a field goal. But a diving Briean Boddy deflected the kick, and could celebrate shutting out Texas TEch for an entire quarter.
Even better: They responded with a go-ahead score of their own, though it wasn't easy. Nelson nailed Derrick Engle with an apparent 43-yard scoring pass, but an official review decided that the receiver's elbow struck the ground inches from the goal line. A run failed to move the ball, but Nelson finally hit tight end Drew Goodger in the back of the end zone to give Minnesota a 31-24 lead.
The Red Raiders scored three touchdowns and a field goal in the first half -- their first touchdown came without ever taking a snap, when kick returner Jakeem Grant fielded a kickoff on the 1-yard line, burst into the middle of the Gophers' coverage, and sped through, going 99 yards for a touchdown.
Texas Tech led 24-17 at halftime. But the second half? Three punts, Boddy's blocked field goal, and two interceptions by Michael Carter kept the Red Raiders scoreless for almost 29 minutes -- until Ward's big catch stunned the Gophers.
HOUSTON -- The Gophers offense is moving up and down the field -- yes, both forward and backward -- with amazing ease in the Meineke Car Care Bowl. It's not enough so far.
Minnesota rode a powerful running game to score on its first three possessions, its best first half in five games, but the Gophers lost their composure on their next drive and faced a remarkable third-and-49 situation. Meanwhile, Texas Tech returned a kickoff for a touchdown and used good field position to score just before the half, giving the Red Raiders a 24-17 halftime lead in Reliant Stadium.
Donnell Kirkwood piled up 59 yards on 11 carries, including a 3-yard touchdown run, as the Gophers' revolving-quarterback strategy was overshadowed by their ability to find holes in the Texas Tech defense.
The game may be most notable, however, for the misbehavior by both teams, starting with a near-brawl on the game's first drive. Four personal fouls have been flagged so far, including back-to-back penalties on Minnesota center Zac Epping that spoiled the Gophers' final drive of the half. The Gophers moved the ball to the Red Raiders' 31-yard line, but an illegal block penalty on tight end John Rabe negated a 17-yard run by Kirkwood, and Epping's violations moved the ball back to the Gophers' own 11 yard line, where they faced third-and-49.
The result was a punt that sailed out of bounds short of midfield, setting up Texas Tech's final scoring drive to break the 17-17 tie.
Philip Nelson started the game at quarterback for the Gophers, and led the Gophers inside the Raiders' 10 before consecutive sacks forced the Gophers to kick a 41-yard field goal to take the early lead.
It didn't last long. Texas Tech kick returner Jakeem Grant fielded the kickoff on the 1-yard line, burst into the middle of the Gophers' coverage, and sped through, going 99 yards for a touchdown.
Nelson answered with a 67-yard drive, however, and Rodrick Williams carried the ball the final two yards for the go-ahead score.
Senior MarQueis Gray took over for Nelson after that, and looked like the running threat of old, picking up 28 yards on eight rushes. Running out of the power-I formation, he led the Gophers on a 48-yard drive scoring drive, with Kirkwood getting the touchdown.
Texas Tech quarterback Seth Doege did some running of his own, too. Just before halftime, he scrambled into the end zone from four yards out to give the Red Raiders the halftime lead.
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.
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