A quick take on Syracuse’s thrilling, come-from-behind 21-17 victory against Minnesota Friday night in the 8th Texas Bowl at Reliant Stadium in Houston, the 15th bowl victory in school history:
WHAT HAPPENED: Playing in the cavernous 71,054 seat home of the NFL’s Texans in the predicted lower scoring, defensive game, the Orange (7-6) led 7-3 at halftime on Jerome Smith’s 1 yard TD run early in the second quarter, keeping the Gophers (8-5) out of the end zone for a 12th straight quarter. Inspired that its head coach Jerry Kill moved down to the sidelines to lead his team in the second half, Minnesota erupted for two scoring passes from QB Mitch Leidner three minutes into the fourth quarter to stun a Syracuse team that seemed to be cruising behind a dominant third quarter rushing attack that had resulted in a Terrel Hunt short TD run. Down three with under two minutes to play, Brisley Estime’s blazing 70 yard punt return set up the Orange at the UM 14, and Hunt’s 12 yard TD scamper up the middle with 1:14 left won it for Syracuse.
ANALYSIS: In a match-up of teams that like to run first and struggle to stretch opposing defenses with the pass, the ‘Cuse ground game got into a groove in the third quarter utilizing the foursome of Hunt, Smith, Prince-Tyson Gully, and George Morris II leading to the second Syracuse score, but as often was the the case in defeats this season, the SU secondary struggled as Leidner burned the Orange with 20 and 50 yard TD strikes. The defensive front seven did end the season without giving up a 100 yard plus game to an opposing running back (David Cobb had 91 yards for Minnesota) and stopped Minnesota in the final minute, but both Gopher receivers were wide open on the UM second half touchdown passes. In the end it was a special teams play by Estime, the fleet Floridian, that turned out to be the difference.
HERO: Hunt has certainly come a long way from struggling in pre-season camp to lose the starting job to Drew Allen, then regaining the position for good in Sept. and finishing with a flurry in Nov. and the bowl game. His key 4th and 9 run late in the third quarter led to his subsequent five yard TD run that gave the Orange a short-lived 11 point cushion before his final heroics. Hunt finished 19/29 for 188 yards passing, and gained another 74 yards on the ground with the two scores.
ZERO:In an area that needs to be cleaned up for next season, nine more ill-timed penalties on both sides of the ball hurt at various points throughout the game, including one critical 4th quarter drive that came up empty. There is no excuse for a kicker on a FBS team to miss a 45 yard FG as Ryan Norton did in the 4th quarter with the ball placed right down the middle, and there was also Scott Shafer’s somewhat curious decision in the first quarter not to attempt a 41 yard FG to try and go up 3-0, with a fake kick run by holder Charley Loeb coming up a yard short on 4th and 7.
WHAT’S NEXT: Off consecutive bowl game victories for the first time since 1995-96, the returning players in the program begin winter conditioning drills shortly after a return to campus for the spring semester. The coaches currently have a two week break during the recruiting “dead” period before visiting and hosting recruits right up until the Feb. 5 National Letter of Intent Signing Day, and spring practice begins in March. The 2014 season opener is against FCS member Villanova on Aug. 30 at the Dome.