TEAMS: Minnesota Golden Gophers (6-6, 2-6 Big Ten Conference) vs. Texas Tech Red Raiders (7-5, 4-5 Big 12 Conference)
TIME: Friday Dec. 28, 9 p.m. ET
LAS VEGAS LINES: Texas Tech -13; Over/Under 541/2 points
Teenage years are an awkward time — unless you’re Johnny Manziel. Otherwise, it’s a time when most are trying to discover their identities.
Texas Tech was the college football version of teenage awkwardness. The Red Raiders experimented with a new identity after Mike Leach was dismissed in 2009, bringing on Tommy Tuberville from Auburn. Imagine the hard partying, class clown deciding he’s going to become a pseudo-intellectual hipster. It’s just awkward and doesn’t fit.
Elements of the uptempo offense that defined TTU were retained. And indeed, Tech ranked in the top 25 of scoring offenses each of the last three seasons, and the passing attack remained central to the team’s efforts. But there was just something…off about the whole endeavor. Tuberville crowed during a radio interview about the program’s strides defensively after bullying a weak early season schedule, yet seven of the Red Raiders’ final eight opponents scored at least 31 points. Four broke 50.
Tuberville left after a third consecutive season finishing below .500 in Big 12 Conference play. Athletic director Kirby Hocutt embraced the identity that made Tech a consistent winner for a decade before Tuberville’s arrival, hiring former Red Raider quarterback and Texas A&M offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury. Kingsbury will be in attendance to take in his new, old program but Chris Thomsen is manning the sideline for the bowl game.
Thomsen joined Tuberville’s staff just this season, taking over offensive line duties after a successful stint as Abilene Christian’s head coach. The Division II program is noteworthy for its respectable alumni representation in the NFL, including Bernard Scott, Johnny Knox and Daryl Richardson.
Thomsen’s best ACU teams, in 2008 and 2010, ranked first and second among Div. II offenses at 52.3 and 43.3 points per game. He knows a thing or two about overseeing a high-powered offense, and will look to unleash Tech’s full capabilities on Minnesota’s defense.
Jerry Kill led the Golden Gophers back to the postseason for the first time since 2009 in just his second season as head coach. This year’s Gopher team ranks in the top 40 nationally of points allowed, but faces a truly daunting task trying to contain the Red Raider offense.
Minnesota’s return to the bowl season was somewhat overshadowed, both by the health concerns of Kill and the departure of the team’s leading wide receiver. Epileptic seizures removed Kill from games the last two seasons, but the coach is steadfast in his determination to overcome the disorder.
The departure of A.J. Barker was distracting. Barker left the team with 577 yards receiving and a team high seven scores through eight games, but wrote a scathing letter that criticized Kill and his staff. Barker is headed to University of Houston. His void compounds an already tumultuous situation for the Gopher passing attack, as Kill has had to play musical chairs at quarterback.
Minnesota’s offensive instability translates to a need to force this into a defensive contest. With the nation’s No. 11 pass defense, there is a glimmer of hope. But the Golden Gophers are decided underdogs, and with good reason.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Following in the tradition of Tech quarterbacks past like Kingsbury, Cody Hodges and Graham Harrell, Seth Doege will leave Lubbock with some very impressive statistics. Doege will surpass 4000 yards passing for a second consecutive season, barring an early injury or historically awful performance on Friday. He improved both his completion percentage and touchdown-to-interception ratio from a season ago and spread the ball to eight different receivers for over 200 yards.
Primary targets are Eric Ward and Darrin Moore. Ward has 75 catches for 974 yards and 11 touchdowns, while Moore has hauled in 948 yards on 81 catches, 13 of which are touchdowns.
The duo will give the Golden Gopher secondary a workout. Defensive backs Michael Carter and Derrick Wells are both highly talented coverage men, but have yet to see an attack as relentless as Tech’s. Minnesota needs to generate ample pressure on Doege, starting with defensive end D.L. Wilhite. Wilhite made 8.5 sacks and 11 tackles for loss to earn 2nd Team All Big Ten recognition from the conference’s media members.
Countering any blitzes the Gophers might offer is a capable ground game. One element introduced at Tech under the new regime was a more consistent ground game, and this year’s trio of Kenny Williams, Eric Stephens and SaDale Foster provided a combined 1600 yards of rushing support to the Red Raider aerial assault.
The Gophers’ best response is to control the ball when it has possession. Perhaps a heightened workload for Donnell Kirkwood against a Tech defense that allowed over 170 yards via the rush. Minnesota will also have quarterback Marqueis Gray in his final collegiate outing available to shoulder some of the rushes.
Gray, a highly regarded NFL prospect for his size and strength, struggled with injuries this season. His absence led to both Max Shortell and Philip Nelson getting considerable playing time. But against Tech, the 33 yard per game rusher Gray should get the majority of snaps. How effectively Gray can pass might make or break the Gophers’ upset bid.