One day after a mid-level Big 12 team had throttled a Pac-12 opponent in a marquee bowl, the conference rested its hopes on the Texas Tech Red Raiders to deliver a smaller but still meaningful blow to another rival conference. Achieving just two conference victories in the B1G (Big 10) this year, the Minnesota Golden Gophers seemed poorly equipped to match score for score with an offense that remained explosive after the controversial departure of Mike Leach for Washington State. On the other hand, expectations for the B1G in bowls this year simmered at an exceptionally low ebb with its top two teams, Ohio State and Penn State, ineligible because of NCAA sanctions. A merely competitive effort in games such as the Meineken Car Care Bowl of Texas, by a 6-6 team at that, would mount a reasonable argument for the conference’s continued legitimacy in an era dominated by the SEC, Big 12, and Pac-12.
Behind four straight rushing plays from running back Donnell Kirkwood, the Gophers moved inside Texas Tech territory with a personal foul. Minnesota quarterback Philip Nelson then took over control of the offense from Kirkwood with a brave third-down dash to keep the drive alive, one play before a long completion set up an and-goal opportunity. But a sack of Nelson on second down stalled the momentum and forced the Gophers to settle for three, a lead that vanished almost immediately with a 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by Raiders speedster Jakeem Grant. Unleashing Kirkwood for more explosive runs, Minnesota plowed inside the Texas Tech 10 for a second straight possession, and this time they would not be denied the touchdown. When the Texas Tech offense took the field for the first time, they profited from a personal foul by Minnesota that brought them inside the red zone. Although receiver Derreck Edwards juggled the ensuing toss, he managed to lasso it while still on the run and dart into the end zone through a porous Gophers secondary. A penalty applied on the ensuing kickoff set up Minnesota with field position inside midfield to open the drive for their prolific offense, which encountered little resistance from Texas Tech as the period ended.
Texas Tech 14, Minnesota 10
Positioned within range of the goal line to start the second quarter, the Gophers wasted little time in producing their second touchdown of the game with a series of runs aided by missed tackles from Texas Tech. Rarely did either team face a daunting down-and-distance situation as they rolled towards each other’s red zones with impunity. Handed a first down at the 2 with a pass interference penalty, the Raiders then returned the favor with a negative play and two penalties. That sloppiness cost them a third straight touchdown and limited them to a game-tying field goal instead. Subjected to some genuine pressure for the first time on the next drive, Minnesota slowed in its march down the field and gained smaller chunks of yardage on early downs. But inspired scrambles from unpromising positions sufficed to frustrate the Texas Tech defense until a bizarre sequence of penalties led to a third-and-49 (no typo) situation for Minnesota from near its own 10-yard line. Downed well inside Gophers territory was the first punt of the game. Much to the surprise of all those watching, Minnesota responded with their first third-down stop of the game in the last minute before halftime, only to see Texas Tech convert a fourth down of significant distance. Thrust out of the pocket on third-and-goal, Raiders quarterback Seth Doege lunged and then dove into the end zone seconds before time expired.
Texas Tech 24, Minnesota 17
Shortly after play resumed, a startling event happened: the Texas Tech offense went three-and-out for just seven yards. Determined not to squander that rare opportunity, Minnesota drove for the game-tying touchdown after a 31-yard completion from Nelson on a third-down play at midfield and another third-down toss for the score itself. If Minnesota could continue to convert their chances on such key plays, the Big 10 still might leave the night with its head held high. Hoping for another long kickoff return, Texas Tech instead found itself pinned in its own red zone after alert kick coverage by their revitalized opponents. An unsportsmanlike conduct penalty by Minnesota in a game of oddly edgy behavior by both teams—far from familiar rivals—forfeited that advantage but did not forestall the stiffening Gophers defense from forcing a punt. An outstanding effort by the Raiders punter, it trapped Minnesota near its own 10, essentially flipping field position from where the Texas Tech drive had started. Not flustered by that situation, the B1G squad drove across midfield but chewed up two of their timeouts for the half, the second preceding a fourth-down play. The ensuing attempt lost overall yardage, resulting in a turnover on downs. As Texas Tech neared the end zone, the skirmishes between the teams escalated and resulted in the ejection of one player on a scramble that appeared to score a touchdown until overruled by official review. Unable to convert a long and-goal third down caused by the ejection-related penalty, Texas Tech again settled for a short field goal.
Or thought that they had, until a false start removed it from the scoreboard, and the Gophers blocked a second attempt from 37 yards. Suddenly held scoreless on a possession that had looked likely to produce seven points, Texas Tech found itself still mired in a tied game. Soaring in confidence from the recent turn of events, meanwhile, Minnesota plowed nearly to midfield on the first play of its next possession and converted a crunching third-and-one on the last play of the quarter.
Minnesota 24, Texas Tech 24
On the first play of the fourth quarter, a spectacular catch by Gophers receiver Derrick Engel on a deep pass towards the goal line positioned Minnesota for its first lead of the second half. Halted short of the end zone on consecutive running plays, they called a Nelson throw to collect the touchdown. Although Doege labored valiantly to avoid a sack in the next possession, the Minnesota defense continued to hold Texas Tech scoreless in the second half, an impressive reversal of their first-half woes. The teams then traded unproductive drives that resulted in first a Minnesota punt and then an interception of a long Doege throw. On the next two possessions repeated the same sequence, both interceptions coming courtesy of ball-hawk Michael Carter. This time, however, the Gophers took over near midfield with barely five minutes remaining, a dire time for Texas Tech. In urgent need of a stop, the Raiders defense delivered to give the offense one last opportunity. Completing a series of quick passes, Doege ledTexas Tech inside Minnesota territory before nearly firing a third interception of the quarter on another deep ball. Two plays later, Doege delivered a 35-yard throw to Eric Ward for the first Raiders points of the second half, which tied the score with barely a minute until the end of regulation. Disinterested for much of the game, Texas Tech somehow had clawed back to tie a Minnesota team that had wasted more than one chance to deliver a terminal blow. Without a turnover until the final minute of regulation, the first surrendered by the Gophers proved not only costly but decisive. Returned inside the Minnesota 25, it set up the game-winning field goal from kicker Ryan Bustin as time expired.
Able to preserve Big-12 pride by the narrowest of margins, the Red Raiders improved the bowl record of their conference and managed to hold serve against an overmatched B1G squad. Although frequently sloppy and sometimes perplexing, the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas produced suspenseful entertainment until the final play.
Final score: Texas Tech 34, Minnesota 31