Sun Bowl will pit the same two teams from 1999 game

Brett Angel

The game won’t be played in the location Minnesota’s football team had hoped for. And its opponent won’t be from the conference of preference.

But for all the would’ves and could’ves left unanswered since 8-4 Michigan State officially leapfrogged 9-3 Minnesota and into the Alamo Bowl last Sunday, the reality is the Gophers will still play in as good a bowl as any the team has been to in a quarter-century – 1977 Hall of Fame Bowl.

“If you’re home for the holidays in this profession, it’s not a good year, so we’re happy to be going,” Minnesota defensive coordinator Greg Hudson said. “There’s no such thing as a bad bowl game.”

There is, however, such a thing as a better bowl game, which is why the reaction of Minnesota coaches and players was less than enthusiastic upon hearing they will play Oregon in the Sun Bowl while the Spartans get Nebraska in San Antonio.

This year’s Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas, will be a rematch of the 1999 version that Oregon won 24-20.

And while this game might not provide the Gophers the opportunity to fulfill all their preseason goals, it does give them a chance to win two straight bowl games for the first time in school history.

Statistically, the numbers favor Minnesota this time around. The Gophers boast the nation’s third best ground attack (293.2 yards per game) and average close to 40 points per contest.

“I didn’t know how good a team they were until I looked at their statistics and saw that they led the Big Ten in four different categories,” Oregon coach Mike Bellotti said.

Five different categories, actually. In addition to scoring (39.3 points per game) and rushing offense, the Gophers also lead the Big Ten in total offense (501.4 yards per game), pass efficiency (157.6) and third-down conversions (52.5 percent).

“This is going to be one of the best teams we’ve ever played in a bowl game,” Bellotti said. “It’s a daunting task, I’ll tell you that much.”

Oregon, which finished third in the Pac-10, ranks in the middle of the conference in most areas and committed 26 turnovers in 12 games.

Even though the Ducks will fly into El Paso on a three-game winning streak, the biggest challenge for Minnesota might be getting sufficiently motivated for its New Year’s Eve match-up.

Last year, the Gophers were the recipients of a holiday gift from Arkansas in the Music City Bowl, where the Razorbacks showed little spark after losing in the SEC championship game and then freefalling down the bowl selection charts.

A year later, it’s No. 24 Minnesota that has reason to feel slighted after being one victory away from a possible New Year’s Day bowl before getting blown out by Iowa in its season finale.

Turning that frustration into positive motivation will be a key factor if the Gophers hope to elevate this season above the 1999 edition that lost its final game in the same 50,000-seat Sun Bowl Stadium.

“It’s kind of disappointing, but at least we’re going to a game,” Minnesota safety Eli Ward said. “We’ll be prepared to go down there and play.”

Weekend practices continue

The Gophers will practice today and Saturday before again having most of next week off. The team will have three additional practices at the Bierman athletic complex from Dec. 19 through Dec. 21.

Players and coaches will fly to El Paso the day after Christmas and practice at an area high school in the week leading up to the Sun Bowl.

700 tickets sold so far

Only 700 tickets have been sold thus far for Minnesota’s Sun Bowl match-up against Oregon.

Ticket manager Dan Teschke of the Gopher Athletics Ticket Office said Thursday that the $45 and $55 tickets have sold out but the majority of $35 tickets are still available for purchase.

The Sun Bowl has given Minnesota 8,000 tickets to sell to potential fans. Athletics Director Joel Maturi set a goal of 5,000 tickets sold.

Tickets will be available until Dec. 24 and can be purchased by calling 1-800-U-GOPHER.