They say "Everything is bigger in Texas".
It's only fitting then that Terrel Hunt saved arguably his biggest performance of the season for the biggest spotlight, a Texas Bowl victory over the Minnesota Golden Gophers.
Facing a 3rd-and-8 at the Minnesota 12, Hunt capped off the most important game of his college career. Hunt dropped back and scanned the field before scrambling around a Gopher lineman and into the end zone. Hunt's second rushing touchdown put Syracuse up 21-17, the eventual final score. It was only appropriate that an up-and-down game and season ended in such a thrilling, emotional and dramatic fashion.
Hunt, the Texas Bowl MVP, rushed for two touchdowns and 74 yards. In the air, he went 19-29 (66 percent) for 188 yards. Jerome Smith scored the other touchdown for Syracuse – a one yard run. Smith rushed 16 times for 74 yards in his Syracuse finale.
Just like against Boston College, it looked bleak for Syracuse late in the game after a costly mistake. Last time, it was Hunt's interception. This time, it was Scott Shafer's decision to go for a 45-yard field goal to tie the game. Hunt's scrambling ability and Shafer's two previous decisions to bypass field goal attempts made this choice particularly questionable. Norton missed the attempt and the Gophers took over with 3:31 left and a three point lead. But the Orange got the ball back just as it did in the BC game. Robert Welsh sacked Mitch Leidner on third down and forced the Gophers to punt the ball away.
And then Brisly Estime had the play of the night.
Estime backed up almost 15 yards to receive the punt, then bolted through an open seam. He weaved his way 70 yards and was tackled by the punter at the Gopher 14-yard line, setting up the go-ahead touchdown. After Hunt scored, Minnesota had one last drive to score a touchdown. Syracuse got two sacks – one from Cameron Lynch and Marquis Spruill each – and a Hail Mary attempt fell through the hands of Drew Wolitarsky. The Orange somehow, someway, managed to come away with a victory.
Despite the thrilling finish, the game started very slow. The Orange and Gopher offenses were shut out in a first quarter that featured more miscues than highlights. Estime fumbled the ball after a nine-yard run on Syracuse's first drive. But the Orange got the ball right back. The Gophers botched a hand-off and Micah Robinson smartly decided to fall on the ball near midfield.
A crisp pass from Hunt to Ashton Broyld put Syracuse in field goal range. And a few plays later, Ryan Norton was on for a 41-yard field goal attempt. Instead, Scott Shafer chose to run a fake. Holder Charley Loeb took the snap, but was tackled two yards short of a first down.
Even with the low scoring, Hunt was sharp from the get-go. He started the game 5-5 for 66 yards. Early in the second quarter, Hunt's strong play finally translated into points. Smith scored a touchdown, but Hunt's dual-threat ability marched Syracuse down the field. He looked poised in the pocket and showed the right mix of not forcing throws too early and not holding the ball too long. With pressure building around him, Hunt zipped a 20-yard pass to Christopher Clark, just over the outstretched hands of a Gopher defender. The 11-play touchdown drive featured a variety from George McDonald: there were three passes, four halfback rushes and four QB scrambles. The option runs to Hunt deked out several Minnesota defenders, as well as the ESPN cameramen. His last one got Syracuse just shy of the goal line and set up Smith's short run.
The Orange went to halftime with a 7-3 lead, which felt rather strange. No, not that the offense hadn't put more points on the board. That's not a new feeling at this point. But, that they had played so well and STILL just had the one score to show for.
Part of that can be attributed to the Gophers' slow style of play. While they didn't run the ball particularly well, they ran a lot. As a result, they won the time of possession battle and limited Syracuse's possessions.
Syracuse went up 14-3 midway into the third quarter after Hunt scrambled five yards into the end zone. That touchdown was set up by a 4th-and-8 play earlier in the drive. Hunt slipped past a lineman and muscled past a linebacker for the first down.
Minnesota's passing game came alive in the fourth quarter after being non-existent for most of the game. Mitch Leidner threw a pair of long passing touchdowns, which put the Gophers up 17-14.
Syracuse has been extremely resilient all season and that's the best way to describe its bowl performance. The Orange stuck to the game plan and didn't try to do too much when the outplayed Gophers came back.
It's now Syracuse's third bowl win in four years, a testament to the seniors on this team. Marquis Spruill and Jay Bromley, in particulary, had big games in their last night in Orange.
But the story of the night wasn't about the seniors, but a sophomore. It's about Terrel Hunt. It's about the man who started the season as a second-stringer. It's about the player who was always willing to take the blame when times got tough and deflect credit when good times came along. It's about the quarterback who didn't let almost two months without a passing touchdown phase him and went on to become the Texas Bowl MVP.
That's pretty hard-nosed if you ask me.