Picked to finish at or near the bottom of the ACC just about everywhere, Syracuse being in a bowl at all after losing coach Doug Marrone and quarterback Ryan Nassib to the NFL was impressive. But nobody's going to be picking the Orange to finish last in 2014 after a 21-17 come from behind win over Minnesota in the Texas Bowl on Friday.
Scott Shafer had the typical first-year coaching bumps and bruises along the way, but he -- and Orange faithful -- have to be pleased with how quickly he has been able to establish an identity all his own. The defense is coming along, and the team looks to have a productive quarterback in Terrel Hunt, assuming he continues to improve. Hunt was 19-of-30 for 188 yards along with 91 rush yards and two rushing touchdowns, including the go-ahead score with 1:20 to play, coming off a big punt return by Brisly Estime.
Down 7-3 at the half, Minnesota coach Jerry Kill came down from the coaches box to the field level, the first time he'd been on the sidelines since the Iowa game on Sept. 28. The hope was that Kill's presence on the field would light a fire under the Golden Gophers. It worked. Quarterback Mitch Leidner hit Maxx Williams for a 20-yard score to cut the lead to 14-9 for Minnesota's first offensive touchdown since Nov. 9 against Penn State. He connected with Drew Wolitarsky for 55 yards and the go-ahead touchdown on the team's next possession, taking the lead 17-14 after a two-point conversion.
Kill suffered seizures the week of the Michigan game in early October and did not travel with the team. The Golden Gophers responded well under interim coach and defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys, winning four straight after the 42-13 loss to the Wolverines, and Kill later returned to coach from the box the remainder of the year.
Syracuse's defense hadn't allowed a 100-yard rusher coming into the game. Minnesota averaged just over 200 yards on the ground per game. Something was bound to give one way or the other. The Orange put the clamps down on the Gophers' rushing attack, forcing them to try and air it out vertically with no real success. Quarterback Philip Nelson couldn't do it, leading to Leidner (11-of-23, 205 yards, 2 TD) coming in, which helped get the Gophers back in it. Minnesota had the ball and the lead with just over two minutes to play, but Estime's 69-yard punt return erased the field position and put Syracuse in the right spot for Hunt to make a play. The Orange still have a long way to go before they can compete in the ACC, but they're ahead of the curve, which is all anyone could've asked for in Year One.