Big Ten bowl preview: Gophers look to cap dream season

Big Ten bowl preview: Gophers look to cap dream season
December 27, 2013, 2:00 pm
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Vinnie Duber

Well this looks familiar.

Minnesota had a chance to grab its first winning season under Jerry Kill a year ago in Houston, playing in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas. The Gophers lost, 34-31, to Texas Tech in that game and instead walked away with another sub-.500 campaign.

One year later, the Gophers are back in Houston, back in the Texas Bowl and back with another chance to come up with a nice ending to their season.

"As you go through the season and what we've done, you always want to finish the job, so to speak, and I think both teams will say the same thing,” Kill said during a Thursday press conference. “I think it's a big win that sends momentum into the season. Last year, we had a great experience and we did a lot of good things, but we didn't win the bowl game. So that value of being successful and moving into the offseason, I think it's important to both teams. I think that's just the way college football works."

While the similarities are hard to ignore, things sure are different for Minnesota this time around. Last year, it was a 6-6 group looking for a winning finish. That’s already secured this season, as the Gophers went through a dream season of Twin Cities football, finishing 8-4 in a campaign highlighted by an improbable four-game winning streak that came on the heels of Kill’s announcement that he was taking an indefinite leave of absence to better deal with his epilepsy.

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It turns out that Kill couldn’t stay too far away. From his perch in the press box, he coached in increasingly larger amounts as the season went on and the Gophers kept winning. He surprised his team by making the trip to Northwestern in Minnesota’s first game following his leave, a game won in dramatic fashion thanks to a late pick-six. Three more wins came after that, including one against Nebraska that many called one of the program’s all-time biggest.

So now, as Kill mentioned, it’s about getting next season started right by finishing this one with a victory. After all, college football is about building for long-term success. Even rare winners like Minnesota — 2013 was just the 19th eight-win campaign in program history and just the fourth since 1967 — are looking toward sustained success.

So what’s different this year? What can get these Gophers better prepared for a postseason win?

"I feel like we're more focused,” defensive lineman Ra’Shede Hageman said Thursday. “There's a lot of seniors here, and there's a lot of leadership going on. And the fact that some of us have played last year, I feel like we know what it takes to prepare well for a game like this. So I feel like the seniors and the juniors are really kind of leading this thing on how to prepare, how to stay focused and let the young guys know that this is more of a business trip than a vacation."

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And a win would be big. Not only would it be a great finish to this dream season, one that most recently featured back-to-back losses thanks to a 1-2 punch of Wisconsin and Michigan State to polish off the regular-season slate, but it would kickstart next season. Since taking over the program three years ago, Kill has already shown speedy progress, going from 3-9 in Year 1 to a bowl appearance last season to 8-4 this year. A bowl win would be the perfect topper and would vault this year’s Gophers to the top of the school record books. It’d be just the eighth nine-win season ever and just the second since 1905.

The team standing in the way of all that? Syracuse. The Orange went a lackluster 6-6 in the not-so-strong ACC this season. This will be their third Big Ten opponent this year after dropping non-conference contests to Penn State and Northwestern, both teams the Gophers knocked off.

But regardless of the opponent, the result is what the Gophers are zeroed in on. They want a win, the team’s first under Kill.

"We know what it takes to come close,” quarterback Philip Nelson said Tuesday, “so we just need to finish the job this year. That's what our main focus is right now."

Minnesota and Syracuse kick off in the Texas Bowl at 5 p.m. Friday on ESPN.