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.