Freshman Brisly Estime had returned just two punts this season entering Friday night's Texas Bowl.
Something told Syracuse coach Scott Shafer to give his offensive coordinator George McDonald flexibility to mix things up in the return game against Minnesota.
The move paid off when Estime returned a punt 70 yards to set up the winning score in a 21-17 victory by Syracuse.
"Brisly is a quick as a jitterbug," Shafer said. "We felt that he could give us something."
Terrel Hunt scrambled 12 yards for a touchdown with 1:14 remaining to lift Syracuse to the win.
"It would have nice if we could have just knocked them out and won by 17 or something," Shafer said. "That's kind of not our way this year. I think it was appropriate that we won in that fashion."
Estime would have scored on his punt return if not for a tackle by punter Peter Mortell. It was the second-longest punt return in Texas Bowl history.
"We probably out-punted our coverage," Minnesota coach Jerry Kill said.
Syracuse (7-6) led 14-3 entering the fourth quarter before Mitch Leidner threw two touchdown passes and a 2-point conversion to put the Gophers up 17-14.
After the Orange regained the lead, Minnesota attempted two long passes to the end zone on the final plays. The first slipped through Drew Wolitarsky's arms and the second, as time expired, was knocked down near the end zone.
Minnesota (8-5) got a boost to start the second half when Kill returned to the sideline for the first time since Sept. 28 before Syracuse came back to send the Gophers to their sixth consecutive bowl loss and second straight in this bowl.
Kill began the game in the press box, where he has observed his team since returning from a leave of absence because of epilepsy. Kill has had five seizures on game day in two-plus seasons at Minnesota. He took the leave of absence in October and returned a couple of weeks later.
"I felt I would do anything I can to help," Kill said about joining his team on the sideline. "I'm not sure if it helped or not. Evidently, it didn't because we didn't win the game."
Hunt finished with 188 yards passing and 74 rushing with two scores to earn Most Valuable Player honors and a 10-gallon cowboy hat.
Leidner finished with 205 yards passing, Maxx Williams had five receptions for 76 yards and a touchdown and Wolitarsky had 94 yards receiving and a score.
Syracuse attempted a 45-yard field goal with about 3 and a half minutes left, but it sailed wide right. Robert Welsh sacked Leidner on third down on the next drive to force a punt and set up the winning drive.
The Gophers took their first lead when Syracuse bit on a play-action fake that left Wolitarsky wide open for a 55-yard touchdown pass that made it 15-14 early in the fourth quarter. Leidner then hit Mike Henry for the 2-point conversion to push the lead to 17-14.
Players and coaches on the sideline jumped around wildly after the touchdown, while Kill smiled and stood nearly still amid the chaos.
Hunt was penalized for intentional grounding on third down of the ensuing drive by Syracuse forcing a fourth-and-25 and a punt by the Orange.
Jerome Smith rushed for 74 yards and a touchdown for Syracuse and Estime had five receptions for 47 yards.
Minnesota cut it to 14-9 when Williams got in front of two defenders for a 20-yard touchdown reception from Leidner on the first play of the fourth quarter. It was their first touchdown on offense since the second quarter of a 24-10 win over Penn State on Nov. 9. The Gophers attempted a 2-point conversion, but Leidner was sacked.
The Orange used a clock-eating 15-play drive capped by a 5-yard touchdown run by Hunt to push the lead to 14-3 with about three minutes left in the third quarter. Syracuse used run after run to pound the ball on that drive and had an 18-yard run by Smith and a 17-yard scamper by George Morris to keep it going.
Syracuse took a 7-0 lead when Smith scored on a 1-yard run early in the second quarter. That drive was helped by a nifty catch by Christopher Clark, who stretched out to grab a 19-yard reception with a defender in his face just before stepping out of bounds.
Minnesota cut it to 7-3 on Chris Hawthorne's 41-yard field goal as time expired in the first half.