This wasn't a Mountain West bottom-feeder, nor a Mid-American little brother, and certainly no Colonial Athletic nobody. The Gophers finally tested themselves against BCS-level competition on Saturday, and the results were as thrilling as their 4-0 record.
Minnesota's defense held an offense -- a high-powered Big East point machine, at that -- without a touchdown until the final minute of the game, created four turnovers and made the question of who quarterbacks the Gophers offense almost immaterial.
Max Shortell did more than enough in his first start of the season, and Donnell Kirkwood ran for 99 yards and a pair of touchdowns, keeping Jerry Kill's second season perfect with a 17-10 victory over Syracuse. Say what you will about the Gophers' semi-challenging nonconference schedule, but Big Ten play opens next Saturday at Iowa, and the Gophers enter with an unblemished record for the first time since 2008. It's also their first five-game winning streak (dating back to last season's finale against Illinois) since 2004-05.
"Our kids rose to the occasion," said Kill, who already has more victories this year than in his 3-9 debut season a year ago. "When you put pressure on the quarterback, you've got a chance, and we did that."
That they did, and though the Gophers were hardly perfect -- they missed a couple of field goals and had a touchdown pass called back -- with a defense like that, they had room for a couple of mistakes. That pressure up front forced Syracuse senior quarterback Ryan Nassib into several missed passes, a trio of sacks and two interceptions, including a tone-setting pick by Cedric Thompson on the first play from scrimmage. Syracuse, which had averaged 39.3 points through its first three games, was held to a field goal until only 46 seconds remained in the game.
"We can't make any excuses, some guys got beat," Syracuse coach Doug Marrone said. "Credit to Minnesota. They have a front that can get after it."
That was never more apparent than when Syracuse threatened to close within four points late in the third quarter with the ball inches from the goal line. But after a plunge into the line produced no gain, Syracuse tried a pitch play to the left. Fullback Jerome Smith was chased out of bounds by safety Derrick Wells for a loss of 3 yards. On the next play, safety Brock Vereen, on an unguarded blitz, arrived to hit Nassib as he threw, and Aaron Hill plucked the deflected pass out of the air.
"It's a mentality thing," Kill said of his opportunistic defense. "Last year, we couldn't fight back very well."
"Hats off to the defense," saluted Shortell. "They were amazing."
The sophomore quarterback, filling in for injured starter MarQueis Gray, wasn't exactly amazing in his first start of 2012, but he was confident and mostly error-free.
"The important thing was, he didn't turn the ball over," Kill said. "You don't turn the ball over, you've got a great chance to win."
Shortell gave them that chance, completing 16 of 30 passes, rolling up 231 yards through the air, and avoiding the costly mistakes that Syracuse made commonplace. Shortell started quickly, completing five of six passes in the first quarter, and survived a second-half lull, misfiring on seven of eight passes at one point.
"I thought he did a good job, because he had to call some plays at the line of scrimmage," Kill said. "They threw the gamut at him. He got blitzed probably 85 [or] 90 percent of the time tonight, but he handled it."
He also directed 58- and 87-yard touchdown drives, both of which ended the same way: Kirkwood following fullback Mike Henry off-tackle left and into the end zone. One was a 2-yard carry, the other a 1-yard spin move, and together, they were all the Gophers needed.
There was another apparent scoring drive, too, one that included the night's best offensive highlight: With just over a minute remaining in the first half, Shortell lofted a perfect spiral to Devin Crawford-Tufts for an apparent 34-yard touchdown. But fill-in left guard Jon Christenson was flagged for a holding penalty, and the Gophers never got close enough to try another field goal before the half ended.
Orange receiver Marcus Sales caught a 14-yard touchdown pass with 46 seconds remaining to draw Syracuse within a touchdown. The Gophers, however, recovered the Orange's onside kick to end the game.
"I told the team at halftime, 'We're playing hard. We're not playing smart, but we're playing hard,'" Kill said. "But just stay after it. If you keep playing hard, good things will happen."
This season, good things really do.