Coach Jerry Kill vowed the Gophers would make progress when he took over the program following the 2010 season.
The first sign of that progress came this season. Minnesota finished the regular season with a 6-6 record and will play Texas Tech in the Meineke Car Care Bowl in Houston on Dec. 28.
"This is a wonderful opportunity for our team to get better and a great accomplishment for our senior class," Kill said. "I know our team will be ready to play and will do their best to represent both the university and state of Minnesota."
Considering the Gophers were coming off back-to-back 3-9 seasons, reaching a bowl seemed like a stretch in 2012. Minnesota started the season with wins over UNLV, New Hampshire, Western Michigan and Syracuse. The Gophers struggled once Big Ten play began with losses to Iowa, Northwestern and Wisconsin, but bounced back with a win over Purdue. Following a loss to Michigan, Minnesota became bowl-eligible by beating Illinois. The Gophers ended the regular season with losses to Nebraska and Michigan State to finish 2-6 in the conference.
Minnesota is making its first appearance in a bowl game since losing to Iowa State in the 2009 Insight Bowl. Senior wide receiver MarQueis Gray is one of only seven Gophers who played in that game.
"Our goal all year was to qualify for a bowl game," he said. "I am happy for our senior class, the rest of the team and our coaching staff. We have worked hard all season to be able to reach the postseason, and it is a good feeling to know we accomplished one of our goals."
Gray, who began the season at quarterback but was switched to receiver after spraining an ankle, made it clear the Gophers won't be content with just showing up.
"We are not satisfied," he said. "We will continue to work hard and will do our best to try and win this bowl game for Minnesota."
Senior linebacker Keanon Cooper is one of 13 players from Texas.
"It is a surreal feeling that I will end my Minnesota career in my home state," he said. "I am thrilled to be going to Houston for my third and final bowl game."
Minnesota face a Texas Tech team that faded at the end of the season. The Red Raiders lost their final two games and four of their last five. As is the case with most Big 12 teams, Texas Tech puts up big offensive numbers but plays little defense. The Red Raiders are 12th in the country in total offense (501.42 yards per game), 16th in points scored (37.8) and second in passing yards (361.9). Quarterback Seth Doege passed for 3,934 yards and 38 touchdowns with a 70.4 percent completion percentage.
On a positive note for Minnesota, Texas Tech's defense struggled all season. The Red Raiders, who finished 4-5 in the Big 12, are 93rd in the nation in points allowed per game (31.8).
The Gophers are 0-1 all-time against Texas Tech. Minnesota fell 44-41 in overtime to the Red Raiders in the 2006 Insight Bowl. Texas Tech pulled off the biggest comeback in Division I bowl history. The Gophers couldn't hold a 31-point third-quarter lead and coach Glen Mason was fired following the loss.
WR MarQueis Gray hasn't been the same player since spraining an ankle in the third game of the season. The injury led to the decision to move him to receiver, the position he played in his first two seasons, but the ankle still hobbled him and he was never close to full speed. Gray was projected to be a receiver in the NFL before the injury. The time off should help him get ready for his final college game.
CB Troy Stoudermire, who will also be playing the final game of his college career, leads the team with 78 tackles. He's also tops on the team with 402 yards in kickoff returns. Stoudermire's time in Minnesota has had several highs and lows. He began his career as a wide receiver, but briefly left the team in 2010. Stoudermire was switched to cornerback when he returned. He missed most of 2011 with a broken arm, but has had a solid senior season.
S Derrick Wells emerged as one of Minnesota's top defensive players in his sophomore season. He's fourth on the team with 69 tackles and made plays all over the field. Wells is tied for the team lead with two interceptions, has broken up nine passes and defended 11 passes. He also has 2 1/2 tackles for a loss of yardage.
DT D.L. Wilhite is ending his career on a high note. The senior has 30 tackles, including 11 that have resulted in a loss of 62 yards. He has 8 1/2 sacks for a loss of 54 yards.
BOWL HISTORY: Minnesota is 6-8 in bowl games and has lost four in a row. The Gophers' last bowl win came in the 2004 Music City Bowl, a 20-16 victory over Alabama. Minnesota is making its first bowl appearance since a 14-13 loss to Iowa State in the 2009 Insight Bowl.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "This will be a great challenge for our team. We're excited about this opportunity and I know we will be prepared to give a great effort." Minnesota coach Jerry Kill, on the Gophers' matchup with Texas Tech in the Meineke Car Care Bowl.
Scouting the running game: The offense revolved around the dual threat of QB MarQueis Gray's running and passing ability going into the season. That changed when Gray sprained his ankle in the third game. The senior was a full-time receiver for the final six games, which had a big impact on the running game. Sophomore Donnell Kirkwood rushed for a career-high 878 yards with a 4.3-yard average and five touchdowns. Freshman Rodrick Williams was the only other running back to pass the 100-yard mark with 201. The constant shuffling on the offensive line thanks to numerous injuries didn't help.
Scouting the passing game: The plan before the season was to redshirt freshman QB Philip Nelson. That changed when MarQueis Gray was injured and the coaching staff decided Max Shortell wasn't their quarterback of the future. Nelson, who became the starter in the seventh game, did well under the circumstances. He completed 50 percent of his passes with six touchdowns and seven interceptions. Losing A.J. Barker (30 catches, seven touchdowns), who had become Nelson's favorite receiver, hampered Nelson's development. Seven other players caught 10 or more passes.
Scouting the run defense: This area needs more improvement than any on the team. Minnesota still gets dominated at the line of scrimmage far too often, especially by good teams who have been able to run the ball at will. The Gophers allow 174.2 yards a game and 4.6 yards per rushing attempt. Minnesota has also given up 21 rushing touchdowns. While other parts of the defense have improved, the Gophers still can't stop the run.
Scouting the pass defense: The Gophers are no longer pushovers in this department. Minnesota has shown it can get to the quarterback and make plays in the secondary. The Gophers have already recorded 25 sacks after registering only 19 last season. It's no surprise the interception total has also gone up. Minnesota has 11 interceptions after picking off a paltry four passes in 2011. The Gophers have allowed 17 passing touchdowns, but opposing quarterbacks can no longer stand in the pocket and pick out receivers without feeling any pressure.
Scouting the special teams: Freshman P Christian Eldred has averaged 38.5 yards on 63 kicks. He's had seven punts of 50 yards or more and 21 kicks inside the 20-yard line. Senior PK Jordan Wettstein has been inconsistent all season, making 13-of-21 attempts. A.J. Barker, the team's leading punt returner, quit the team last month. Senior Troy Stoudermire leads the Gophers in kickoff returns.
Intangibles: It's difficult to gauge how the Gophers will approach the game. On one hand, they should be ready to play by reaching a bowl game after two straight 3-9 seasons. On the other, the team will take some baggage into the game. The Gophers are coming off two discouraging losses, their top receiver quit the team and coach Jerry Kill continues to deal with health problems.
Sophomore QB Max Shortell, who started three games this season but became the odd man out when freshman QB Philip Nelson was made the starter, announced that he is transferring.
WR Andre McDonald will not participate in the 2012 Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas because of a violation of team policy.
OL Zach Mottla sustained a broken leg against Illinois and will miss the bowl game.
C Jon Christenson has missed the last two games after sustaining a sprained left ankle in the first half against Illinois.
T Ed Olson started on the left side against Michigan State after leaving the Nebraska game with an ankle injury.
OL Marek Lenkiewicz sustained a knee injury in the Nebraska game, but played against Michigan State.
DL Roland Johnson tore an ACL in the walk-through before the Nebraska game and is out for the season.
TE Drew Goodger sustained a shoulder injury against Nebraska and didn't play in the Michigan State game.
WR Marcus Jones missed the Michigan State game because of a knee injury.
LB Brendan Beal, who has battled knee injuries throughout his career, didn't play against Michigan State. He suffered a leg injury in the fourth quarter against Nebraska.
WR Jamel Harbison tore the ACL in his right knee against UNLV and is out for the season.