HOUSTON – After playing 13 consecutive quarters without an offensive touchdown, the Gophers got two of them in the fourth quarter Friday night, both on passes from Mitch Leidner.
All it did was set up Minnesota for more bowl game heartbreak.
The Gophers held a three-point lead with 2:03 remaining, when Peter Mortell boomed a 57-yard punt. But Syracuse’s Brisly Estime returned it 70 yards and would have scored if not for a tackle by Mortell at the 14-yard line.
Sophomore quarterback Terrel Hunt followed that with a 12-yard touchdown scramble on third-and-8, and the Orange held on for a 21-17 victory in the Texas Bowl at mostly empty Reliant Stadium.
“Give them credit,” Gophers coach Jerry Kill said. “[Mortell] punted the ball great, and we probably outpunted our coverage.”
The Gophers (8-5, 4-4 Big Ten) lost their sixth consecutive bowl game and missed a chance to post their second nine-win season since 1905. It marked the second consecutive year Kill’s team had blown a late lead in a Houston bowl game.
Last year, Texas Tech overcame a seven-point deficit in the final 70 seconds of a 34-31 victory in what was then known as the Meineke Car Care Bowl. Syracuse (7-6, 4-4 ACC) scored Friday’s go-ahead touchdown with 1 minute, 14 seconds remaining.
“We had opportunities, we didn’t capitalize,” Gophers senior defensive back Brock Vereen said. “I think that would be the headline of the game.”
Most headlines in Houston probably focused on the tiny size of the crowd. The announced paid attendance was 32,327, but that included Houston Texans season-ticket holders, many of whom stayed away. There were only a few thousand fans in the seats.
Maybe it was the small crowd, maybe it was Syracuse’s underrated defense, or maybe it was the 27-day layoff from the end of the regular season, but the Gophers offense was abysmal for the better part of three quarters.
The Gophers tried two quarterbacks — starter Philip Nelson and Leidner, who first entered the game in the first quarter — and Kill even returned to the sideline for the second half, after starting his seventh consecutive game coaching from the press box.
But the offense couldn’t find its spark until it was almost too late.
Nelson played the first two series of the game and the first series of the second half, drives that ended: punt, fumble and punt. He completed two of seven passes for 18 yards, underthrowing some and overthrowing others.
Leidner had some shaky moments, too, but he completed 11 of 22 passes for a career-high 205 yards.
Syracuse led 7-3 at halftime and stretched the lead to 14-3 on Hunt’s 5-yard touchdown run with 2:57 left in the third quarter.
The Gophers finally found their offensive rhythm on the next drive, starting when Leidner hit true freshman Drew Wolitarsky for a 19-yard gain on third down. Leidner completed that drive with a 20-yard touchdown pass to redshirt freshman tight end Maxx Williams with 14:55 remaining.
On the next drive, Wolitarsky ran a post pattern, and Leidner hit him in stride for a 55-yard touchdown pass. Leidner hit Mike Henry with another pass for the two-point conversion, stretching the Gophers’ lead to 17-14 with 12:34 to play.
“We started getting in a pretty good groove,” Leidner said. “We started feeling confident. We were making plays.”
But the Gophers went three-and-out on their next two possessions. Then came Estime’s big punt return, and Hunt’s second touchdown run.
As Kill noted, the Gophers could have had Mortell purposely kick the ball out of bounds.
“But if you do that, you’ve got a chance to shank it,” Kill said. “We punted the ball well. They executed better than we did.”
And on Hunt’s game-winning touchdown run, the Gophers had safety Antonio Johnson and linebacker Aaron Hill blitzing. Johnson and Hill leapt in the air, taking away the passing lane for Hunt, but the quarterback tucked the ball and found a wide-open path up the middle to the end zone.
“We had a good blitz called,” Kill said. “We had a couple guys come free, actually, and he tucked the ball and made a play, so give him credit.”
In the game’s waning seconds, Leidner threw a Hail Mary into the end zone that Wolitarsky had a chance to catch, but the ball glanced off his arm and his hip before falling to the ground.
“You’re running down the field full speed, you turn around really quick, the ball is there,” Wolitarsky said. “I gave my best effort to get it. It’s not like I did it intentionally, obviously. It’s tough, but we’re going to move forward.”