Coaches: Kicking game crucial
During the official Meineke Car Care of Bowl of Texas press conference Thursday, Minnesota coach Jerry Kill and Texas Tech interim coach Chris Thomsen both landed on a common key for today’s clash: The kicking game.
“I always go back to the kicking game,” Kill said. “When you go into the first game of the season, the kicking is sometimes a critical piece that people don’t understand. This is like going into the first game of the season. I think kicking could be a real key component in the football game.”
Added Thomsen: “With a month in between games, you worry about that a little bit.”
Tech’s field-goal kicking game has been mostly solid this season. Sophomore Ryan Bustin, in his first year as Tech’s full-time kicker, has made 15 of 21 field goals while converting all 55 of his point-after attempts.
Bustin has gone through the season in relative anonymity in that he hasn’t faced too many nail-biting kicks. One of his few pressure situations came against Kansas. Bustin missed a 41-yarder as time expired that would have won the game in regulation, but the Red Raiders went on to earn the victory in double overtime.
Minnesota senior kicker Jordan Wettstein has made 13 of 21 field goals this season and 29 of 30 point-after attempts.
Tough to tackle
The Red Raiders have faced more prolific running teams than the Golden Gophers, but Tech interim coach Chris Thomsen said Minnesota’s running backs will offer a different challenge than any the team has seen this season.
“Defensively, probably the biggest thing for us is being able to tackle some big, strong physical backs,” Thomsen said. “That’s a big thing.”
Minnesota’s top rusher is 5-foot-10, 216-pound bowling ball back Donnell Kirkwood. The sophomore has 849 yards on the ground this season and carries it almost 17 times per game.
He is not the only rusher who is tough to bring down. At 6-foot-5, 250 pounds, MarQueis Gray often carries the ball out of the backfield in the wildcat formation and can be a load.
“It’s a little bit different than what we’ve seen,” Thomsen said. “We’ve seen athletic, slasher-type backs in the Big 12. These are legitimate big, strong people that you have to tackle over and over.”
Stoudermire nears record
Minnesota cornerback Troy Stoudermire is approaching history, but it isn’t on the defensive side of the ball.
Stoudermire is also the Gophers’ kickoff returner, and he needs just 14 yards to become the NCAA’s all-time leader in kickoff-return yards. He already holds the Big Ten record with 3,504 yards.
“That’s something that he’d certainly like to have,” Minnesota coach Jerry Kill said. “If it worked out, it would be fitting, but they have a heck of a kicker, and it’s hard to return one because of where we’re playing (in an enclosed stadium). If he got that opportunity and that happened, that would be a great accomplishment, but what he’s done already has been a great accomplishment.”
A walk-on story
Mike Rallis was just trying to make the team when he walked on to the Minnesota practice field five years ago.
Now he is the team’s second leading tackler, a vocal team leader and one of the players Minnesota is counting on as it tries to secure a bowl victory for the first time since 2004.
“When I first came in, I didn’t really have any of that on my mind,” said Rallis, who has 71 tackles this season. “I wanted to earn a spot on the team. I’ve come a long way since then. It’s been a long ride; it’s been a fun ride. I can’t believe it’s about to come to an end.”
Minnesota coach Jerry Kill said Rallis’ rise up the ladder epitomizes the type of player he wants to see in his program.
“He’s done a great job,” Kill said. “He’s gone through a lot of adversity. We’re very proud of Mike. He’s a good student, a good person off the field, a good leader. When you have them all like that, you don’t have any hard stories in life.”
Rallis just wants one more thing out of a career that has turned out to be much more than he envisioned half a decade ago.
“We don’t care if people aren’t giving us a chance to win,” he said. “We know what we can do and we’re going to fight for it.”
Compiled by Nick Kosmider