HOUSTON — Sixty-nine days.
That’s how long it had been since Texas Tech had forced a turnover. Before it came up with another one, a presidential campaign had been waged, a coaching change had taken place in Lubbock and a number of major holidays had fallen off the calendar.
But the wait turned out to be well worth it for the Red Raiders.
D.J. Johnson intercepted a Philip Nelson pass with less than a minute left in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas and returned it 39 yards to the Minnesota 22-yard line.
A few moments later, Ryan Bustin nailed a 28-yard field goal as time expired to give Texas Tech a 34-31 victory inside Reliant Stadium.
The winning boot sent the Red Raiders pouring onto the field to celebrate a victory that seemed so unlikely only minutes earlier.
With the score tied at 31 in the closing minute, Nelson, a freshman who guided the Golden Gophers to one of their best offensive performances of the season, went deep for his top target, Derrick Engel.
But the ball glanced off Engel’s hands and into Johnson’s. The senior safety capped a career night — 14 tackles — by sprinting on a tight rope down the sideline to put the Red Raiders into position to win the game.
“D.J. got beat in the third quarter on that long play, comes back and just makes the play right there,” Tech interim coach Chris Thomsen said. “That shows you the heart and character of this team. That’s what I’ve been saying all along. Great, great guys.”
Before the turnover, the type of play this defense hadn’t known in so long, the Red Raiders appeared on their way to another self-destructing collapse. Penalties (13 for 135 yards) and turnovers (Doege threw two fourth-quarter interceptions) were crippling. Doege’s second wayward toss was intercepted by Michael Carter at the Tech 46 with 5:06 left and Minnesota already leading 31-24.
But a Tech defense that was scorched for much of the game came up with a huge stand, and Doege took over determined to write a better ending to his final college game. He moved the Red Raiders 82 yards down the field in a little more than two minutes, culminating in a 35-yard game-tying touchdown pass to Eric Ward.
“This is awesome,” Doege, who was named the game’s most valuable player, said on the award podium after the game. “These guys have battled through adversity our whole careers. It doesn’t surprise me that these guys battled tonight.”
What was surprising was the how the Red Raiders ended the game given the monumental struggles they had producing takeaways in the season’s second half. Johnson often said he believed Tech had the best defense in the country that couldn’t come up with a turnover.
His lightning-quick return down the sideline gave Bustin a chance, and the sophomore hit the biggest kick of his life. His 17th successful attempt tied a school record, and it was the first time the Red Raiders won a game on a field goal in the final minute of regulation since 1997.
“It was an up and down game the whole night,” Bustin said, “and I was just glad I could put it through the uprights for these seniors.”
Minnesota coach Jerry Kill said he did not regret trying to drive down the field with only a minute left in a tie game.
“You play the game to win,” he said, “and we had plenty of time to win.”
Before the late-game flurry, Tech’s offense had been stymied by Minnesota. Doege used a spin move and a dive to score a rushing touchdown on the final play of the first half that put Tech up, 24-17, but the Red Raiders didn’t score again more than 27 minutes. That span included a blocked Tech field goal, an ejection of tight end Jace Amaro and the two interceptions by Doege.
“The whole game we battled adversity,” Doege said. “We shot ourselves in the foot the entire football game. That drive where we went and tied the game; we finally started clicking. It finally happened at the right time.”
Just like that long-overdue turnover.
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