NEW YORK CITY — The Gophers brought four players to the news conference room at Yankee Stadium after their 28-20 victory over Syracuse in the Pinstripe Bowl on Thursday; three were as routine as a New Yorker telling an outsider, ad nauseam, how great it is to be in the city over the holidays.
They were Minnesota’s all-time leading rusher Mo Ibrahim, its all-time winningest quarterback Tanner Morgan and veteran tackling machine Mariano Sori-Marin. The fourth was a little-known true freshman safety who made his first collegiate start a few hours earlier.
And the bowl game’s shiny MVP trophy sat in front of Coleman Bryson, that little-known safety, after the Waynesville, N.C., native produced a 70-yard interception return for a touchdown in the third quarter. The Gophers’ first pick-six in its 23-game bowl history was a turning point in the victory.
The Gophers secondary was shorthanded due to two injuries and one transfer, meaning Bryson and others would have to step up. It wasn’t going well right before and right after halftime as Syracuse used big passing plays to score 10 straight points and cut Minnesota’s lead to 14-10. They were thirsty to take the lead on a third drive.
Bryson shared that he got beat on that kind of out route three or four times during the season, but he was ready on Garrett Shrader’s pass Thursday. He picked it off, made Shrader miss with his attempted tackle downfield, then had an easy path to the end zone after that.
“I looked up at the screen because I couldn’t believe it,” said Bryson, who had played in four games and wasn’t expected to play this game until the NCAA relaxed its four-game redshirt rule for this year’s bowl season.
Minnesota (9-4) was a 11-point favorite and has now won six straight bowl games and all four under coach P.J. Fleck, who was doused with Gatorade at midfield after the game.
The Gophers needed Bryson to step up with Tyler Nubin not ready to return from a broken right hand suffered against Iowa on Nov. 19. The Minnesota secondary was already short-handed when nickel back Michael Dixon transferred to Rutgers and cornerback Terell Smith exited Thursday’s game in the second quarter.
That meant Bryson, Darius Green, Ryan Stapp and Beanie Bishop were thrust into bigger roles.
Minnesota also lost starting quarterback Athan Kaliakmanis to a lower-leg injury in the second quarter. Tanner Morgan, a sixth-year senior in his final game at Minnesota, stepped in and threw two touchdown passes to Daniel Jackson.
The second connection was set up by Quentin Redding’s 72-yard kickoff return — the longest return in bowl history for the Gophers.
Minnesota desperately needed those two enormous plays from Redding and Bryson because the U’s offense was out-gained 249-49 in the second half.
Minnesota led 14-0 with one minute left in the first half, with its defense having held Syracuse to 104 yards across its first four drives.
With 55 seconds left until halftime, the Orange then gashed the Gophers with a 86-yard touchdown drive. Three big passing plays — 21, 31 and 29 yards — set up Garrett Shrader’s 1-yard touchdown run.
After playing lights-out defense, Minnesota allowed Syracuse back in the game with a 14-7 lead at the half. And the Orange cut it to 14-10 with a third-quarter field goal.
With All-American center John Michael Schmitz opting out of the bowl game, the Gophers’ offensive line had issues on the opening two drive. Backup center Nathan Boe’s poor snap forced Kaliakmanis to fall it for a 7-yard loss on third down.
The O-line didn’t pick up a blitz on the second drive and Kaliakmanis was sacked on third down to end that drive.