College Football

Late Punt Return Ignites Syracuse Win Over Minnesota in Texas Bowl

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HOUSTON — Syracuse quarterback Terrel Hunt scored the winning touchdown on a 3rd-and-8 play from the Minnesota 12-yard line with 1:14 left in the game and the Orange defense held on for an exciting 21-17 win over the Golden Gophers on Friday night at Reliant Stadium. The game was played with the roof open at Reliant on a cool Houston evening before an announced crowd of 32,327 and a national television audience on ESPN.

Syracuse (7-6) won its third straight bowl game, a school record. The Orange are 15-9-1 all time in bowl games.

Hunt was selected as the MVP of the Texas Bowl. He was 19-for-29 on pass attempts, gaining 188 yards. He also garnered 74 rushing yards on 15 carries and had two touchdowns on the ground.

The first quarter was a defensive struggle, with neither team getting into the scoring column. Fumbles cost both teams, each one coughing the ball up once.

Early in the second quarter, the Orange went on an 80-yard drive. Tailback Jerome Smith carried the ball over from the 1 yard line to give Syracuse a 7-0 lead after the conversion by place kicker Ryan Norton. The Gophers answered with a late second quarter scoring drive. Place kicker Chris Hawthorne booted a 41-yard field goal as time expired in the first half, cutting the Syracuse advantage to 7-3.

Syracuse played ball control with a long, sustained drive of 15 plays in the third quarter. Hunt was again the star for the Orange, converting on a 4th-and-8 play for the first down deep in Minnesota territory, when head coach Scott Shafer elected not to kick a field goal. Hunt scored the touchdown to put the Orange ahead 14-3.

The Gophers wasted no time getting back in the game. After a lethargic offensive performance throughout most of the first three quarters, Minnesota went on a scoring drive late in the third quarter behind the arm of QB Mitch Leidner. He threw a 20-yard scoring strike to Maxx Williams on the first snap of the fourth quarter, cutting the deficit to 14-9 after a failed two-point conversion attempt, and giving the Gopher fans who made the long trek from the “Land of 10,000 Lakes” something to cheer about.

Minnesota (8-5) then scored on its next drive, on a 55-yard bomb from Leidner to Drew Wolitarsky. They converted for two points, giving them a 17-14 lead midway through the fourth quarter. Norton missed a 45-yard field goal which would have tied the score near the four minute mark.

Minnesota got pinned back in its own territory and had to punt. Brisly Estime returned a very long punt for 70 yards, setting up the Orange offense deep in Minnesota territory. From there Hunt scored the go-ahead touchdown. The Gophers did mount an impressive last-second drive, but two late tosses into the end zone by Leidner were broken up by Syracuse defenders, sealing the bowl win for the Orange.

Estime also led Syracuse in receiving, catching five passes for 47 yards. Jerome Smith matched Hunt with 74 rushing yards from the tailback position for the Orange.

Leidner connected on 11-of-22 passes gaining 205 yards for Minnesota. Williams was the leading receiver for the Gophers, grabbing five tosses for 76 yards gained.

Minnesota tailback David Cobb led all rushers with 91 yards gained. The Syracuse defense held him nine yards short of 100 to complete a season during which they were the only FBS division team to keep an opponent from gaining 100 yards or more.

Minnesota lost a close one in the Texas Bowl for the second straight season, having lost 34-31 to Texas Tech in the 2012 game.

Minnesota head coach Jerry Kill complimented Syracuse after the game.

“They out executed us. I always say the game comes down to execution and players. Their kids did a better job executing than we did. I feel bad for our kids and certainly our seniors. They really moved our program forward and we continued to grow from last year to this year. We just need to continue to improve. Certainly, the loss is very disappointing. I feel bad for our kids, but again I congratulate Syracuse.”

When asked about how frustrating it is to lose in the same bowl game two years in a row, Kill said “I know a lot about this, I know a lot about life and all you can do is give your best effort and how you come back as a team and so forth. We got better as a team. We didn’t win and we’re certainly disappointed in that, but it’s a part of life. There’s a lot of people who have been in a lot of situations where you have to battle back. We’ll find out about it. That’s part of it. We got better from last year. This bowl helped us a bunch. We will get better from here. Even though we didn’t win the game, that’s our job. Where our program is at when we took over the job and where we are going, we are headed in the right direction. There is no question about that. Redshirt freshman at quarterback and we played two freshman wide receivers. We lost our most productive receiver to an ACL about three or four weeks ago and he was a senior, so we do have a young football team. The only way you learn sometimes is by losing. You can’t always learn by winning, sometimes you got to learn the hard way. We certainly have learned the hard way, but I know these kids will move forward. There is no question about that. We are young and that’s why you get discouraged, but you are also excited about the kids who are coming back, where we are headed, and where we are going.”

Minnesota QB Mitch Leidner remarked on the second half comeback.

“I don’t know. We started getting in a pretty good groove. We started feeling confident. We were making plays. You’ve got to give the o-line (offensive line) credit. They were blitzing like crazy and the o-line did a good job of picking all the guys up and it just started falling together, but unfortunately we came up short.”

Syracuse head coach Scott Shafer was encouraged by the performance of his team.

“At the end of the whole deal, just really excited and proud of our kids at Syracuse. We had nine graduates out there playing today, kids already got their degree. A lot of people don’t know a lot about Syracuse with the football program. Coach (Jim) Boeheim has done an unbelievable job with the basketball team, but we want to build this tradition up to where everyone in this country understands what we’re all about…”

Regarding the late-game punt return, Shafer said, “I think it gave coach (George) McDonald a little more flexibility. We have two tough hard-nosed south Florida kids in Ritchy Desir, and Brisly Estime. It was a win win situation on who was going to go back there. Brisly is as quick as a jitterbug and we felt like he could give us a little something. It was a good call on Fred Reed’s part, Tim Daoust’s part, great decision to put him in. We believe in both him and Ritchy. It gave us great momentum, and an opportunity with a short field. We didn’t have to go as far as we did against BC (Boston College).”

Syracuse QB Terrel Hunt discussed his development.

“…I would say I got better at leadership, even though I’m still learning to be better at being a quarterback not just a quarterback on the team, really just leadership and learning the players around me and who can do what. Whereas what can I do, I can work on my long ball and stop over throwing the guy, so it’s all coming together over time. So it’s a good experience.”

Regarding criticism from outside sources, Hunt said, “I didn’t really say anything. You start going outside our doors to what other people think,that’s when you start messing up. Coach does a great job of keeping everything in our family tight-knit group and just stay in our doors. They doubted us from the start saying we were going to be second to last place and we ended up in third behind the two best teams (in ACC). So when you start thinking about that your intentions drift away. They have no meaning. You really only worry about your team and moving forward and what you can do at the next level.”