HOUSTON (AP) — Minnesota made plenty of plays Friday night. They simply could not make one when it mattered most.
Philip Nelson passed for 138 yards and two touchdowns but threw a costly interception with under a minute to go, and the Gophers lost to Texas Tech 34-31 on a last-second field goal in the Meineke Car Care Bowl.
Troy Stoudermire broke an NCAA record for career kickoff return yards on the opening kickoff, and Donnell Kirkwood rushed for 77 yards and a touchdown for Minnesota (6-7), which was aiming for its first winning season since 2008 and first bowl victory since 2004.
“I think our kids played hard tonight; they played their guts out, and I appreciate that,” Minnesota head coach Jerry Kill said. “We just couldn’t make a play at a critical time.”
The Gophers outrushed the Raiders 222-145 and held Texas Tech quarterback Seth Doege under 300 yards for only the fourth time this season, but they hurt themselves with seven penalties for 84 yards.
The game marked the Gophers’ first bowl appearance since 2009. They last won a bowl eight years ago, when they beat Alabama 20-16 in the Music City Bowl.
Minnesota was 7-6 in 2008.
“This game is going to put a huge chip on our shoulders,” Nelson said, fighting back tears. “We were so close.”
Doege went 31 for 45 for 271 yards and a touchdown. He entered the game averaging 327.8 yards passing.
Doege, who also rushed for 20 yards and a score, threw interceptions on consecutive drives in the fourth quarter, but made up for them with a 35-yard TD pass to a streaking Eric Ward to tie the game at 31 with 1:10 remaining.
Minnesota had a chance to win the game, but that all changed when D.J. Johnson picked off Nelson and returned the interception 39 yards with less than 40 seconds to play.
“It (stinks),” said Nelson, his voice cracking. “I wish I could have sent these guys (seniors) off on a better note.”
Ryan Bustin made a 28-yard field goal three plays later to give Texas Tech the comeback victory.
“The game sometimes comes down to just making a play, and we didn’t make one at the end,” Kill said.
The loss aside, the season proved a marked improvement for Minnesota, which posted three-win seasons the previous two years.
“There’s no question in my mind that we are moving forward,” said Kill, who is in his second season with the Gophers.
Michael Carter intercepted two of Doege’s passes in the fourth quarter before the tying score, but Minnesota couldn’t convert either of the turnovers into points.
A 1-yard touchdown pass from Nelson to Drew Goodger gave Minnesota a 31-24 lead early in the fourth quarter.
Texas Tech led 24-17 at halftime, but couldn’t do anything offensively in the second half until the last couple of minutes. It was an ugly game for the Red Raiders, who had 13 penalties for 135 yards and lost the tight end Jace Amaro when he was ejected for throwing a punch.
Jakeem Grant ran for what was initially ruled a touchdown for Tech late in the third quarter. Amaro threw a punch at Derrick Wells in the end zone on the play and was ejected.
After the penalty, the play was reviewed and overturned. Doege threw an incomplete pass before Tech made a 32-yard field goal. But the Red Raiders had a false start penalty on the play and had to kick again and this time the Gophers blocked it.
Nelson threw a 17-yard touchdown pass to Devin Crawford-Tufts, who was left uncovered in the end zone, to tie it at 24 early in the third quarter.
Donnell Kirkwood scored on a 3-yard run to leave Minnesota up 17-14 early in the second quarter.
Texas Tech had a first-and-goal at the Minnesota 2 after a pass-interference call on the Gophers. But Texas Tech had to settle for a field goal after a rush for a 3-yard loss and two penalties.
Minnesota’s next drive started out well, making two first downs. Then MarQueis Gray was sacked for a loss of seven yards. Kirkwood ran for 17 yards on the next play, but Minnesota received two 15-yard penalties on the play, one for a personal foul on lineman Zac Epping, to make it second-and-42. Epping received a second personal foul penalty on the next play to bring up third-and-49.
Christian Eldred shanked the punt, giving Texas Tech the ball at the Minnesota 42.
The Red Raiders capitalized on their great field position when Doege scored on a 4-yard run to leave Tech up 24-17 at halftime.
Minnesota’s Rodrick Williams Jr. scored on a 2-yard run to give the Gophers a 10-7 lead in the first quarter.
Stoudermire returned the opening kickoff 26 yards to break the NCAA record for career kickoff return yards. He finished the game with 111 yards to push his total to 3,615. That surpassed the 3,517 yards Houston’s Tyron Carrier amassed in a career that ended in 2011.
Stoudermire entered the game needing 14 yards to break the record. He had 402 return yards this season entering Friday’s game after missing most of 2011 with an injury.
The drive yielded a field goal that gave the Gophers the early 3-0 lead.
Grant returned the ensuing kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown to put Texas Tech up 7-3.
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