At 10:15 p.m. EST, Mountaineer Nation will get to see 6-6 West Virginia take on the 8-4 Minnesota Golden Gophers in the Guaranteed Rate Bowl. The site is Chase Field, home to Major League Baseball’s Arizona Diamondbacks.
The Mountaineers are no stranger to the atmosphere, as the team occupied the same venue for 2016’s 43-42 Cactus Bowl victory over Arizona State. Today, Chase Field plays host to two teams that have never met, as well as two head coaches who have worked their way up to head coach like ships passing in the night. Although WVU’s Neal Brown and UM’s PJ Fleck have been coaching for a similar timeframe, the two have never stood opposite the hashmarks. On Tuesday night, that changes.
Both Brown and Fleck coached their respective teams to two-game win streaks to conclude conference play, and the two will meet tonight to add another bowl win to the trophy case. Despite the record discrepancy, this may not be a blowout. The spread is set at -5 in favor of Minnesota, while the over/under is 44.5 points via Caesars Sportsbook. In order to break down each area of strength per team, it’s also important to note that ahead of the Guaranteed Rate Bowl tonight, Fleck has neglected to release an official depth chart. Whether that’s due to a perceived air of play-calling mystique or legitimate uncertainty of his Gopher line-up is unclear. Both teams have cleared COVID-19 protocol though, so the last two games of Minnesota’s season should be indicative of play-calling that Mountaineer fans will see tonight.
Fleck’s 2021 roster will enter Chase Field tonight devoid of the majority of its run game. Season-ending injuries have plagued running backs coach Kenni Burns’ room since the season opener against Ohio State. Incumbent starter Muhamed Ibrahim was ruled out with a torn Achilles during the game, bolstering Trey Potts into the pocket. During the Purdue game, Potts, who had collected 552 rushing yards and five touchdowns through five games, also went down. He was also ruled out for the season with a serious, undisclosed injury that left him in a duo of Indiana hospitals for nearly a week. He reported via social media that he will make a full recovery, but that left Fleck and Burns down the Gophers’ two best running backs. Next up? A mixture of redshirt junior Bryce Williams, redshirt freshman Ky Thomas, and true freshman Mar’Keise Irving.
Next to fall was Williams, who suffered a lower leg injury in the Northwestern game, rendering him out for the remaining four games of Minnesota’s season. The Gopher run presence was suddenly cut from five solid scholarship players to two pairs of fresh legs; Thomas and Irving stepped up in a huge way to finish the season, combining for 1,250 yards on 259 rushes for nine touchdowns. Even with season-ending injuries to nearly the entire room, Burns coached five different players to 100+ yard rushing performances this season. The Golden Gophers are the only FBS team in the country to feature that kind of running back depth. Minnesota runs the ball on 67.4 percent of its snaps, good for fourth-highest, efficiency-based, run offense in the nation. That will be difficult to stop, even when the rush is being lead by limited experience, on paper.
“Five scholarship running backs out, and then we relied on our two freshmen,” Fleck said. “Those guys did a tremendous job carrying toward the middle, toward the end of the year. That’s a lot of responsibility for two freshmen to have, but our offensive line did a great job leading our football team with all the experience we have up front. Five guys up front being All-Big Ten somehow, some way, is a credit to them.”
Fleck’s offensive line came in clutch this season. Minnesota has put up an average of 26.1 points a game while converting 244 first downs. The offensive line, coupled with the run and pass game from redshirt senior quarterback Tanner Morgan, has produced 360.3 yards of total offense per game for the Gophers. Morgan has won 26 games with the Gophers, good enough to nab the title of winningest quarterback in Minnesota history. Not only has he been under center a lot, but he’s also incredibly accurate. During the 30-23 win over Nebraska, Morgan threw 16-straight completions, ending the game 20-of-24 for 209 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
Fleck and co-offensive coordinator Matt Simon, who will be taking over the offensive unit during Kirk Ciarocca’s conflict of interest, have a good thing going offensively. Simon, who also works as the team’s wide receivers coach, is confident in redshirt senior Chris Autman-Bell out wide as well. Autman-Bell missed the first two games of the season with injury, but upon returning, lit up the field; he, sophomore Daniel Jackson, and redshirt sophomore Michael Brown-Stephens make up a receiving corps that has produced an average of 166.4 passing yards a game. To compare, WVU’s wide receivers string together 256.9 yards per game, objectively a stronger group than the Gophers.
Stringing those solid connections together won’t be easy for the Mountaineers. Minnesota’s defensive unit, lead by coordinator Joe Rossi, crushes drives. Minnesota has one of the best pass defenses in the Big Ten, only allowing 184.7 passing yards a game. The defensive line holds opponents to a measly 57 average snaps of offense each. That takes the cake for lowest allowed snap count in all of Power-5.
Additionally, Rossi’s group has allowed fewer than 20 points on eight opponents (Colorado 0, Bowling Green 14, Purdue 13, Maryland 16, Northwestern 14, Illinois 14, Indiana 14, and Wisconsin 13). WVU has only been held to fewer than three touchdowns of offense in five games (Oklahoma 13, Texas Tech 20, Baylor 20, Oklahoma State 3, and Kansas State 17).
MIKE linebacker Jack Gibbens is to blame (or thank) for those stats. The grad transfer joined the Gophers in 2021, and concluded his regular season with 86 tackles (51 solo) and 4.5 TFLs. In the event that WVU’s Jarret Doege gets sacked, it will most likely be at the hands of defensive linemen Boye Mafe and Thomas Rush, who combine to sack quarterbacks 11.5 times for a total loss of 84 yards.
“Their ability to stop the run, if you look over the last, I want to say, six games, what they’ve done from a rushing defense and a total offense, the number of yards, is really impressive,” Brown said.
“We’ve played several really good defenses in our league. Oklahoma State has been as good as any defense in the country. Baylor has played an extremely high level. We can go on from there, but those are the two that played in our championship game and they’re there because they can run the football and play great defense. I think Minnesota is very similar to those two programs in their ability to stop the run.”
The key for West Virginia is to mix up the notoriously unpredictable offensive play-calling in a way that makes use of the tried-and-true airspace while also utilizing Mathis Jr. in a similar way to Leddie Brown’s storied success.
“West Virginia is 6-0 when they rush for over a hundred yards,” Fleck said. “They are 0-6 when they are under a hundred. Everybody thinks they are just going to throw it all over the place, but they are going to run the football too. They are going to find unique ways to run the football.”