Gophers prep for Texas Bowl against Syracuse

Minnesota beat Syracuse 17-10 last season at TCF Bank Stadium.

Minnesota running back Donnell Kirkwood escapes Orange line backer Siriki Diabate on Saturday at TCF Banks Stadium.

Anthony Kwan

Minnesota running back Donnell Kirkwood escapes Orange line backer Siriki Diabate on Saturday at TCF Banks Stadium.

Jack Satzinger

Minnesota’s past two games were low-scoring affairs against defensive-minded teams.

And the Gophers (8-4, 4-4 Big Ten) should expect more of the same as they face off with Syracuse (6-6, 4-4 ACC) in the Texas Bowl on Friday night in Houston, Texas.

That’s because Syracuse’s Scott Shafer and Minnesota’s Jerry Kill have similar backgrounds.

“We both came through Northern Illinois,” Kill said at a press conference Thursday. “We both pride ourselves on great defense and not turning the ball over, playing physical, running the football.”

The Gophers calling card all season has been running the football. And that identity shined as the team averaged 201 rushing yards per game.

David Cobb became the program’s first 1,000-yard rusher since 2006, wide receivers routinely took jet sweeps, and quarterbacks Philip Nelson and Mitch Leidner  combined for 13 rushing touchdowns.

While the Gophers’ strength is the run, Syracuse’s forte is stopping it.

The Orange are the only team in the nation that hasn’t allowed a 100-yard rusher this season.

“We definitely take it as a challenge and it’s a great challenge to be on ESPN and play against a great defense like those guys,” Cobb told reporters Thursday. “The past two weeks we played against pretty good defenses.”

Syracuse also plays smash-mouth offense, averaging 194 rushing yards per game.

Still, that doesn’t necessarily mean it doesn’t have explosive athletes.

“They like to get their guys in space,” defensive back Brock Vereen told reporters Thursday. “They’re really athletic and when their athletes are in space they can make plays.

“You definitely don’t want to give them too much room.”

While dealing with an offense that presents multiple looks requires attention to detail, the Gophers appear more focused than ever.

Minnesota standout senior defensive lineman Ra’Shede Hageman said playing in the Texas Bowl last year has his team focused and knowing what to expect.

“There’s a lot of leadership going on,” Hageman told reporters Thursday.

Hageman said Kill advised his players to keep things simple and not overthink their final game of this season.

That’s no surprise. Minnesota has kept things simple all season, playing with more substance than flair.

So has Syracuse, which puts extra emphasis on the battle up front Friday night.

 “Whoever … controls the line of scrimmage will be more successful,” Cobb said.