Minnesota (6-6) vs. Texas Tech (7-5)
Friday, December 28, 9 p.m. (et)
The Sports Network
By Nicholas DeLorenzo, Associate College Football Editor
GAME NOTES: The Meineke Car Care Bowl will consist of two programs who have never before played each another, as the Minnesota Golden Gophers and the Texas Tech Red Raiders are set to square off on Friday, Dec. 28 at Reliant Stadium in Houston.
Minnesota's 2012 campaign got off to a fast start, as the team posted wins in each of its first four games, but things took a turn for the worse once it entered Big Ten Conference play. The Gophers won just two of their eight league bouts, defeating Purdue at home (44-28) and Illinois on the road (17-3). Their season ended on a sour note, losing back-to-back games against Nebraska (38-14) and Michigan State (26-10), but at 6-6 they qualified for a bowl game after a two-year absence from postseason play.
"This is a wonderful opportunity for our team to get better and a great accomplishment for our senior class," Minnesota head coach Jerry Kill said. "We have 13 players from Texas and I know they will be excited to play in their home state. Texas Tech is a great team and we will have our hands full. However, I know our team will be ready to play and will do their best to represent both the university and the state of Minnesota."
Senior wideout and quarterback MarQuies Gray was one of just seven Gophers who played in the 2009 Insight Bowl, and he is proud that his last game will be in another bowl game.
"Our goal all year was to qualify for a bowl game," Gray said. "It's a good feeling to know we accomplished one of our goals, (but) we are not satisfied. We will continue to work hard and will do our best to try and win this bowl game for Minnesota."
Much like Minnesota, Texas Tech also started the year red-hot, winning six of its first seven games, highlighted by impressive Big 12 Conference wins over Iowa State (24-13), West Virginia (49-14) and TCU (56-53, 3OT). The Red Raiders' success in the first half allowed it to rise to No. 14 in the national rankings, but they finished the season poorly, suffering losses in four of their last five games, including a 52-45 overtime defeat against Baylor in the regular-season finale.
Despite the Red Raiders being bowl eligible for the 19th time in the last 20 seasons, coach Tommy Tuberville decided to leave the shool to become the new head coach at Cincinnati. Texas Tech wasted little time in bringing one its own back to the fold, as Kliff Kingsbury was named the 15th head coach in school history after serving as offensive coordinator at Texas A&M where he mentored Heisman winner Johnny Manziel. Kingsbury is the second-leading passer in Texas Tech history.
In this game however, the Red Raiders will be led by interim head coach Chris Thomsen. Tech's offensive line coach under Tuberbville, Thomsen spoke about the opportunity to lead the team into battle against Minnesota.
"I'm looking forward to the opportunity to lead our team into the bowl game. I know our kids are excited about the opportunity to play another game and to get the opportunity to compete. We're excited, we've got a group of coaches and players, a great group of senior leaders that we are excited about and they are looking forward to finishing the season the right way."
Offensively, Minnesota has been stuck in neutral for most of the season, as it has been stifled by hard-nosed Big Ten defensive units for just 21.3 ppg on 317.5 ypg.
The biggest reason for the struggles has been a lack of continuity under center, as neither Philip Nelson (.500 completion percentage, 735 yards, 6 TDs, 7 INTs) nor Max Shortell (.560, 853 yards, 6 TDs, 5 INTs) has established himself as a reliable option. Gray has also seen snaps, and he has arguably been the team's most effective passer (.589, 464 yards, 5 TDs, 2 INTs).
A struggling passing attack has hindered the receiving corps, but A.J. Barker has still managed to put together a solid campaign, leading the team in catches (30), yards (577), and touchdowns (7).
Almost by default, running back Donnell Kirkwood has been the team's most reliable offensive performer, as he has gained 849 rushing yards and scored 5 touchdowns.
Luckily for the Gophers, they are saved by an impressive defensive unit that allows fewer than 24 ppg.
Five different players have recorded two interceptions, including Michael Carter, who led the team with 16 passes defended. D.L. Wilhite is one of the best pass-rushers in the Big Ten with 8.5 sacks and 11 tackles for loss, and Troy Stoudermire has a team-high 78 tackles.
While Minnesota struggles to put points on the board, Texas Tech lit up at will this season, ranking 12th in the nation in total offense (501.4 ypg) and 18th in scoring (37.8 ppg).
Texas Tech has a long line of quarterbacks that have been successful in its pass-heavy system, including of course its new head coach, and Seth Doege is no exception. He's completed better than 70 percent of his passes while ranking sixth in the nation in yards (3,934) and second and in touchdowns (38).
Doege has the good fortune of throwing to one of the best receiving duos in the country, as Darrin Moore (81 receptions, 948 yards) and Eric Ward (75 receptions, 974 yards) both narrowly missed the century mark and combined to catch 24 touchdowns.
While the rushing attack played second fiddle to the aerial assault, that doesn't mean the Red Raiders weren't effective on the ground. Kenny Williams (779 yards, 5 TDs), SaDale Foster (440 yards, 3 TDs), and Eric Stephens (414 yards, 5 TDs) all averaged at least 4.9 ypc.
Texas Tech's defense started the season as one of the nation's best, as it allowed 14 points or fewer in each of its first five wins, but when the unit isn't clicking, the results have been terrible, as it has given up 41 points or more on six occasions. Part of the reasons for its struggles has been an extreme lack of takeaways, as it has caused just nine turnovers in 12 games.
Cody Davis is both the team leader in tackles (91) and interceptions (3), while Kerry Hyder makes plenty of plays behind the line of scrimmage with 13.5 tackles for loss and 5 sacks.
It'll be strength versus strength when the Red Raiders offense goes up against the Gophers defense, while the opposite will be true when Minnesota has the ball. Texas Tech, despite the coaching upheaval, might score slightly less than its used to against a tough defensive opponent, but it'll still be enough to get past a Gophers squad that struggles to produce on offense.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Texas Tech 34, Minnesota 20
12/24 14:44:46 ET