Texas Bowl Preview
Dec. 26, 2013
Friday, Dec. 27, 2013 6 p.m. ET Houston, Texas Reliant Stadium (71,054)
Syracuse, under first-year coach Scott Shafer, concluded the regular season and became bowl eligible by rallying for a 34-31 victory in the final seconds against Boston College on Nov. 30 to even its record at 6-6 and finish its first year in the ACC with a 4-4 conference mark. This will be the 25th bowl appearance for the Orange as it is 14-9-1 in past postseason trips. SU has won four of its last five bowl games, dating back to a 20-13 victory over Kentucky in the 1999 Music City Bowl. The Orange holds a current two-game bowl winning streak, having won the 2010 and 2012 New Era Pinstripe Bowls versus Kansas State and West Virginia, respectively. This is just the second postseason trip to Texas for the Orange. The first visit to the Lone Star State saw SU defeated Texas 23-14 in the 1960 Cotton Bowl for its first-ever bowl win... and the 1959 national championship.
The Minnesota offense finished the regular season ranked fifth in the Big Ten in rushing (200.9), 10th in scoring (26.4), 11th in total yards (342.8), and 12th in passing (141.8). Quarterback Philip Nelson, running back David Cobb, and wide receiver Derrick Engel have paced the Golden Gophers on the stat sheet all season. Nelson leads the team with 1,638 yards of total offense, with 1,288 of those yards coming through the air on 92-of-179 passing. Despite ranking last in the Big Ten in passing, Nelson has helped move the ball by joining Cobb in the rushing attack. Of his 15 total touchdowns this year, Nelson scored nine through the air and six on the ground. In fact, Nelson, Cobb and Mitch Leidner have all scored at least six touchdowns on the ground in 2013. Cobb was eighth in the conference this year with 92.6 rushing yards per game and had six 100-yard rushing games to his credit. His 1,111 yards on the ground gave Minnesota its first 1,000-yard rusher since 2006. Engel managed only 25 receptions for 401 receiving yards this year, but netted 16.0 yards per catch and found the end zone five times.
The Syracuse defense rated fourth in the ACC against the rush (138.2), seventh in total yards allowed (368.6), ninth against the pass (230.3), and 10th in scoring defense (26.1). Cobb and the rest of the Gophers will have to establish their ground game early as Syracuse has limited five opponents this season to less than 100 yards on the ground, including three of its last five. In addition, the Orange is the only FBS team not to allow a 100-yard rusher in a game this season. SU has done most of its defensive damage in the backfield. The Orange has recorded 87 stops behind the line of scrimmage for a loss of 400 yards this year and ranks 19th nationally with 7.3 tackles for loss per game. Linebacker Marquis Spruill leads SU with 13.5 TFLs. Two others - DT Jay Bromley (12.5) and LB Cam Lynch (10.0) - have at least 10. Bromley, an All-ACC Third Team selection, also has nine sacks on the season and leads an SU unit that posts 2.75 sacks per game, good for 22nd in the country. Durell Eskridge, who has four interceptions on the season, also leads the team in overall tackles and is 25th in the ACC with 6.5 stops per game.
On offense, Syracuse ranked fourth in the ACC in rushing (193.8), ninth in total yards (375.2), tied for 11th in scoring (22.8), and 12th in passing (181.5). The Orange has had a balanced attack with 2,325 yards on the ground and 2,178 yards in the air this season. Jerome Smith, an All-ACC Third Team back who is tied for sixth in the league with 12 touchdowns, leads all Orange ground gainers with 840 yards (70.0 ypg). In addition, Prince-Tyson Gulley (44.0), Terrel Hunt (38.7) and George Morris II (33.4) are averaging more than 30 rushing yards per game. Smith needs 120 yards on the ground to eclipse 1,000 rushing markers for the season - a feat that Syracuse has accomplished with one of its rushers in each of the last five seasons. Hunt has completed 148 of his 244 attempts (60.7) this season, while throwing for 1,450 yards and 10 touchdowns and eight interceptions. He has found a way to spread the wealth as 21 receivers have caught at least one pass this season, which ranks second in the FBS behind UCLA. Additionally, eight players have at least 10 receptions, led by Ashton Broyld's 48. Jarrod West is the Orange's active leader in catches (80) and receiving yards (1,098).
Minnesota's defense was fifth in the Big Ten in points allowed (22.3) and defending the pass (217.3), and seventh against the rush (154.0) and in total yards allowed (371.3). With Syracuse putting up just as many points as the Gophers are allowing, it will be interesting to see how the Minnesota defense responds. Gopher defenders have held nine of their 12 opponents this season to under their season scoring averages. Look for the Gophers to make an impact in the red zone. They rated second in the Big Ten and 17th nationally in allowing opponents on the board in the red zone just 73.9 percent of the time. Syracuse's offense ranked 11th in the ACC with an 81.0 clip in the red-zone. Minnesota has 10 interceptions this year by nine different players, and three of those have been returned for touchdowns. Linebacker Aaron Hill has two picks on the season and one of the three touchdown returns. Theiren Cockran finished the regular season with 7.5 sacks, which ranked second in the Big Ten, while Ra'Shede Hageman is 14th among conference defenders with 11.0 tackles for loss. Damien Wilson leads the Maroon and Gold with 5.8 stops per outing.
On special teams, Minnesota's Chris Hawthorne paces the Gophers in scoring with 75 points this year, having made 13 of 17 field goals and 36 of 39 point-after-touchdown attempts. Punter Peter Mortell is third in the Big Ten with 42.9 yards per punt. The Orange's Gulley is the team's primary return man, averaging 25.7 yards per attempt. He is the team's active leader with 2,620 career all-purpose yards. Kicker Ryan Norton has made just 10 of his 14 field-goal attempts this season, putting his 71.4 percentage 10th in the ACC.