The match-up will be the second meeting between the two schools in the past two seasons, however, despite the familiarity of the two, both will featuring very different teams from last season's showdown. To get an idea of what Syracuse is up against Friday I reached out to The Daily Gopher's JDMill for a preview Q&A.
1) After finishing the regular season 8-4 and 4-4 in the Big Ten Conference, how are Gopher fans feeling about the 2013 season? Were the expectations higher before the season or is this about where you guys thought you would be?
Despite losing our final two games, Gopher fans feel pretty excellent about finishing 8-4. I would say that most fans were expecting another 6-6 season, with 7 wins maybe being the ceiling. After finishing 4-0 in the non-conference, the Gophers had a couple of clunkers against Iowa and Michigan. At that point there was a lot of talk around here about if the Gophers would be able to even win a single Big Ten game, so for them to run off 4 in a row and get to 8 wins was pretty spectacular. It's been a lot of fun for all of us.
2) Last season when these two teams met in Minneapolis, the Gophers' offense featured a different quarterback, Max Shortell (now it is Philip Nelson and Mitch Leidner), running back, Donnell Kirkwood (now David Cobb and Leidner lead team in rushing), and a slew of different receivers. How has the Gophers done such a good job plugging in all these new options?
I guess it's kind of been a "next man up" mentality. Max Shortell transferred after last season because he saw the writing on the wall: he just isn't the type of QB that fits Jerry Kill/Matt Limegrover's system. Donnell Kirkwood was expected to be the feature back, but was injured in the first game of the season, allowing Cobb to emerge as a guy with great vision who gets a lot of tough yards. From a WR standpoint... your guess is probably as good as mine. That is a position group that has just been riddled with strange occurrences: AJ Barker publicly walking away from the team late last season, Devin Crawford-Tufts choosing track over football and Andre McDonald's various off-field issues. Those three had the most raw talent in the WR group over the past year, and all were unavailable for the Gophers this year. Then the guy who stepped up as the leading receiver, Derrick Engel, was lost to an ACL injury toward the end of 2013. Heading into the bowl game, the Gophers will likely rely on two true freshmen at WR: Drew Wolitarsky and Donavahn Jones.
3) Just like you asked me, it seems Minnesota relies on its defense to keep it in games. What does the Gophers defense do best and what could Syracuse take advantage of?
I guess I'd say that the Gophers aren't necessarily stellar in any one area, but are solid in all areas, if that makes sense. The Gophers rank 53rd in rush defense, 39th in pass defense, and 26th in scoring defense. What they've done well is in not giving up TD's. When teams get into the Red Zone against the Gophers, which they have 46 times, those teams have scored touchdowns exactly 50% of the time, which ranks in the top 14 in the country.
The most talented position group is our defensive line. That is a group that has the potential to do a lot of disrupting of opposing QB's, but we've seen very few teams do 5 or 7 step drops. This may be a residual feeling from last year, but I'm still skeptical of our run defense. They were incredibly solid against a fantastic Wisconsin rushing attack, giving up under 200 yards to that squad, but they have a tendency to give up big gains, especially early in games.
4) Even with TNIAAM efforts to get tickets sold, the Orange's fan base will be limited in Houston. How well will the Gophers fans travel? You guys didn't seem to pumped about play in the Texas Bowl from the get-go.
The lack of enthusiasm for the Texas Bowl was due to two things: 1) We played there last season. 2) Many Gopher fans felt like we got a bit snubbed by the bowls and were hopeful we'd be heading to the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville.
I haven't seen any official numbers on tickets sold, but I do know that the official charter heading down to Houston sold out 1 plane and was working on filling another.
Additionally, the University sold out 4 buses full of students heading down to Houston. I don't think it's anything earth shattering at this point, but the Gopher fan turnout should be quite a bit better than last season.
One interesting thing I just learned yesterday is that my aunt & uncle, Gopher season ticket holders for 30 years, bought 2 tickets to the bowl game despite not being able to actually attend. I'm not sure if other Gopher fans have done something similar, but I think it shows the level of commitment that many Gopher fans have to this program and what Jerry Kill is building.
5) Win or lose Friday, where does this Minnesota football program go? Do the health issues of Jerry Kill force a change there? Is there an upward trend or will the Gophers take a bit of a dip?
Personally, I look at that the Texas Bowl as the beginning of 2014, not the end of 2013. This is a program that should most definitely be on an upward trajectory. The Gophers will lose only one offensive starter, Left Tackle Ed Olson, to graduation. On defense they lose a couple of key leaders and play-makers, but the talent coming up behind them should fill in nicely.
I do not in any way, shape or form see Jerry Kill's health issues leading to a coaching change. Kill's staff showed that they can handle things weather Jerry is on the sideline, in the booth, or at the hospital, and Jerry Kill's leadership is felt all over the team no matter where he is. His players and his staff, along with Athletic Director Norwood Teague, will be the first to tell you that this is Jerry Kill's program and he has things moving in the right direction.
6) NFL Draft wise, what Gophers players will be playing to raise their draft stock?
DT Ra'Shede Hageman and DB Brock Vereen are the two Gophers most likely to hear their names called.
Hageman has been on the draft radar since late last season, and will likely be a late first or early second round pick. He's a beast of a man who takes up space and demands double and triple teams.
Vereen is a heady defensive back who has played both safety and CB for the Gophers successfully. He doesn't miss assignments,he's a good tackler and he's a leader. He also has some NFL pedigree as his brother is Patriots RB Shane Vereen.
7) Prediction time: Who you got and why?
It's really tough to predict these games when both teams have a month to prepare, but I'm taking the Gophers. Based on what they were able to do with a month to prepare for last year's bowl game, I think the coaching staff will have this team ready and some wrinkles available in the playbook.
I think the Gophers win a game in which they show enough creativity on offense to overcome a solid Orange defense.
Gophers 31 Orange 20.