HOUSTON -- The Gophers' bowl game Friday against Texas Tech resembled their 2012 season. Minnesota overcame tough odds and adversity, yet it left room in the offseason for doubt and second-guessing.
The Gophers blew a late lead and lost 34-31 to the favored Red Raiders in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas.
It was Minnesota's fourth consecutive bowl loss dating back to 2005, but it was a step forward for a program that hadn't made a bowl game since 2009. Once known as underachievers, the Gophers (6-7) have returned to respectability, and they showed it in Friday's loss.
Until the end, anyway.
Texas Tech scored 10 points in the last 70 seconds, including a 28-yard field goal by Ryan Bustin as time expired, to overcome a 31-24 deficit that Minnesota had created with an effective game plan and solid all-around play.
“I think we did everything we could to win a game,” Gophers second-year head coach Jerry Kill said. “We just didn’t make a critical play.”
The Reliant Stadium crowd, which was mostly pro-Texas Tech, appeared shocked for most of the second half as the Gophers held the Red Raiders' potent offense scoreless for 29 straight minutes. But fans erupted when quarterback Seth Doege found Eric Ward for a 35-yard reception to cut Minnesota's lead to one.
They got even louder on the ensuing Gophers possession, when D.J. Johnson intercepted a deep third-down pass by quarterback Philip Nelson with less than a minute to play.
Nelson threw into double coverage on third-and-7 from his own 33-yard line, and his pass was tipped into the hands of Johnson, who returned the interception to Minnesota's 22-yard line to set up Bustin's game winner.
"We make two or three passes and kick a field goal and win the game," Kill said of the Gophers' strategy on their final possession. "We threw a corner route and they were in cover one ... and they made a play."
Nelson shined for most of his bowl game debut, but he misfired on his last five passes. He finished 7-for-18 with 138 yards, two touchdowns and an interception.
"I wish I could have sent these guys off on a better note," an emotional Nelson said postgame.
Nelson and MarQueis Gray split time at quarterback as Minnesota dominated time of possession with a powerful running game. The Gophers ran 54 times for 222 yards and two scores, but their offense stagnated whenever they had the lead.
Minnesota went three-and-out twice in the fourth quarter following interceptions by Michael Carter. On one of those possessions, Gray overthrew an open receiver twice.
Gray's last game symbolized his disappointing Gophers career, which showed flashes of brilliance but rarely turned into success. But the future remains bright -- albeit uncertain -- for Nelson and the rest of Minnesota's young core of players.
"The way we came out and played today is going to increase the confidence of the younger guys going into next season," Gray said. "I feel like this will help turn the program around."
- Minnesota blew a 38-7 lead in its only previous meeting with Texas Tech -- a 44-41 overtime loss in the 2006 Insight Bowl.
- Gophers defensive back Troy Stoudermire broke the NCAA record for career kick-return yards in the first quarter.
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