Sandell: Late collapse overshadows strides made by rejuvenated Gophers
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HOUSTON -- As a disastrous closing stretch was punctuated by a last-minute Texas Tech field goal, a gut-wrenching sting overtook the Gophers.
Seconds after Ryan Bustin's 28-yard kick sealed Texas Tech's 34-31 come-from-behind victory Friday night in the Meineke Car Care Bowl, senior wide receiver Brandon Green veered off for the locker room, eyes cast downward. An emotional Keanon Cooper stood near midfield as a teammate embraced the senior linebacker, trying to console him after a bitter loss that resulted in the Gophers' fifth straight bowl game defeat. Safety Brock Vereen stayed behind, wandering the sidelines shell-shocked.
For 35 minutes, the Gophers defied predictions that they would be clearly outmatched. They followed through on a game plan to slow Texas Tech's offensive tempo and blend a power run game with sporadic passing. However, a game that had the potential to be the most impressive all-around victory in Gophers coach Jerry Kill's two-year tenure fell apart in the course of four drives.
"We wanted to keep their offense on the boundary as much as we could. I think we did everything we could to win the game. We just didn't make a play," Kill said.
Holding a seven-point lead with just over four minutes to go, the spirited and well-executed style of play that put the Gophers in position to end a four-year streak of losing seasons disappeared.
The oft-criticized "U" offense answered doubts about its ability to keep up with Texas Tech with 368 total yards and four touchdowns, but the unit broke down at a critical juncture.
A quick three-and-out set up Texas Tech for a seven-play drive against a suddenly reeling defense that tied the game at 31 apiece with 1:10 remaining.
"That's my fault at the end of the game," defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys openly admitted. "I should have kept some over the top and didn't, we missed a tackle. But up to that point we played well."
Three plays later, true freshman quarterback Philip Nelson, who had glided to a notable 164 total yards (138 passing, 26 rushing), had his night turn into a nightmare. He floated a pass deep downfield on 3rd down and 7 that was intercepted by D.J. Johnson, who returned it 39 yards to put the Red Raiders in prime position for the eventual winning field goal.
Though Nelson does not deserve to shoulder the blame for the Gophers' heartbreaking loss, his crucial mistake proved to be a defining moment in the game. It left the true freshman, a starter in his team's final six games, to fight off tears in the postgame news conference.
It was a turn of events senior quarterback MarQueis Gray, who shared snaps under center with Nelson, is all too familiar with. In the Gophers' last bowl appearance, the 2009 Insight Bowl, the then-freshman Gray fumbled in the redzone on a key fourth quarter drive, allowing Iowa State to drain the remaining time on the clock.
That moment has stayed with Gray in the three years since. Recalling how he felt afterwards, Gray took Nelson aside to assure him there was no use on dwelling on one wayward pass.
"I really appreciated hearing that from MarQueis, because right now this sucks," Nelson said. "I really wish we could have sent (the seniors) out on a better note, but MarQueis is such a great guy and he has helped me throughout this whole process. He's been the best teammate I've ever had in my life."
On first glance, it's easy to label the Gophers' late collapse as another missed opportunity, another blemish on what has been a season of harsh highs and lows.
The Gophers faltered when a chance for the program to take a palpable step forward in its perceived rebuild was minutes away. Kill's squad ended the season with victories against 7-5 Syracuse and six-win Purdue - neither of which was a true upset - standing as their only claims to a "signature win."
But to see the defeat, and the season as a whole, as an outright failure and sign that the program is stuck in an endless cycle of mediocrity, would be a vast overreaction.
There is no denying the Gophers still have not shown they can close out a game in the fashion a team that wants to earn respect in the Big Ten has be able to do. But in their first bowl appearance since 2009, the 13-point underdogs looked like an almost completely different team than the one that sputtered to losses in three of its last four games. Rarely in the last two years have the Gophers been more competitive from the get-go than they were on Friday.
Undeterred by a 99-yard kickoff return the first time Texas Tech touched the ball, the Gophers responded with an efficient six-play, 67-yard touchdown. Each time the Red Raiders attempted to take control of the game, the Gophers refused to yield, casting themselves into a gritty shootout.
Backed by a finally healthy offensive line, it took the offense less than one half to surpass its combined rushing total from its final two games, picking up 111 yards en route to finishing with 222. Interception aside, Nelson displayed enough positives -- well-timed deep passes, renewed confidence when the pocket broke down, etc. -- to warrant confidence that he can be the quarterback the Gophers can build their future offense around.
Wide receiver Derrick Engel stepped in to fill a go-to receiving role (four catches, 108-yards, two touchdowns), while running backs Donnell Kirkwood and Rodrick Williams were the strong backfield tandem the Gophers needed (137 combined yards and a touchdown apiece).
Defensively, Claeys' group didn't unravel after a spotty finish to the first half. Texas Tech was unable to score in the third quarter, stopped on penalty-derailed drive by defense that saw a 1st and goal situation turn into a blocked field goal by defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman. The Gophers didn't surrender a second half touchdown until Texas Tech broke through to tie the game late.
"There's a call or two I'd like to have back, but you play those hurry-up deals that's kind of the way it goes," Claeys said. "If (cornerback Martez) Shabazz picks that one off in the end we're all celebrating."
"I'm extremely excited for the (players) that are coming back. It's a good thing to build on, but I'm very disappointed we couldn't finish it off."
The Gophers leave Houston with plenty of "What if?" scenarios to think about. When the initial sting wears off, however, what transpired Friday should be viewed as a glimpse at the potential they hold to evolve into a team able to legitimately compete on a regular basis next season, not just in lackluster non-conference games.
"This game will put a huge chip on our shoulders and we were so close and left a bitter taste in our mouth," Nelson said. "There are some guys talking, excited about getting to off season and working even harder. Coach has said before we have progressed throughout the season and now we know where we need to go for next season."