A busy Tuesday of bowl action on Dec. 28 concludes with Minnesota and West Virginia heading west for a meeting in the Guaranteed Rate Bowl in Phoenix. Both teams closed the season on a two-game winning streak, so there’s extra incentive to finish out the year on a high note with a postseason victory. This Big Ten-Big 12 showdown in Phoenix also takes place in a unique environment. Chase Field – home of MLB’s Arizona Diamondbacks – will serve as the host for this game.
After a 3-4 record in an abbreviated and unusual 2020 campaign, Minnesota rebounded to 8-4 this fall. The Golden Gophers gave Ohio State a scare in the season opener (45-31) but also had a puzzling loss to Bowling Green later in September. Coach P.J. Fleck’s team rebounded from the bad loss to the Falcons to win six of its final eight contests. Included in that stretch were wins over Purdue, Nebraska, and a huge victory against Wisconsin in the battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe. Both of Minnesota’s losses in Big Ten action (Illinois and Iowa) came by one score. Fleck’s squad wasn’t overly prolific on offense, but the defense showed marked improvement after an uneven 2020.
West Virginia had hopes of moving up in the pecking order of the Big 12 this year, but coach Neal Brown's team was only able to match last season’s win total (six) and needed a late rally to finish the regular season at .500. The Mountaineers lost to Maryland, Oklahoma, Texas Tech and Baylor before the midpoint of '21, yet found their way to bowl eligibility thanks to upsets against TCU and Iowa State, along with victories against Texas and Kansas in the final two weeks of the season. West Virginia's defense has ranked among the best in the Big 12 in each of the last two years, but the offense needs to take a big step forward for this program to challenge for a spot in the top 25 again.
This is the first meeting between West Virginia and Minnesota on the gridiron. The Mountaineers are 1-0 in bowl trips under Brown but have lost seven out of their last 10 as a program. The Golden Gophers are 2-0 in the postseason under Fleck. Overall, Minnesota has won its last four bowl trips.
Guaranteed Rate Bowl: Minnesota (8-4) vs. West Virginia (6-6)
Kickoff: Tuesday, Dec. 28 at 10:15 p.m. ET
Where: Chase Field (Phoenix)
Spread: Minnesota -5
When Minnesota Has the Ball
The plan of attack for Minnesota is pretty simple: Establish the run. The Golden Gophers paced the Big Ten in rushing attempts (550), leading the offense to an average of 5.4 yards per play and 26.1 points a contest. Although that production was good enough to reach eight victories, it wasn't enough for Fleck. Coordinator Mike Sanford was dismissed, and former play-caller Kirk Ciarrocca is set to return in '22. For the bowl, receivers coach Matt Simon will handle the play-calling responsibilities. That could be good news for Minnesota, as Simon directed the offense in the 2020 Outback Bowl, guiding the unit to an average of 6.6 yards per play.
Injuries took a massive toll on the Golden Gophers' backfield this season, as five running backs received major snaps. The depth dwindled with injuries to Mohamed Ibrahim, Bryce Williams and Trey Potts, but Ky Thomas (680 yards) and Mar'Keise Irving (570) are capable of handling the workload. Finding yardage on the ground is made easier with a standout offensive line leading the way, and Minnesota's front five has performed at a high level, allowing only 20 sacks and clearing lanes for runners to average 4.2 yards per carry. West Virginia's defense has been tough against the run limiting teams to 129.6 rushing yards a contest and showing an ability to be disruptive (78 tackles for a loss in '21). The Mountaineers haven't allowed many big plays on the ground, and that trend needs to continue on Tuesday night in order to defeat Minnesota.
Senior quarterback Tanner Morgan didn't come close to matching his 2019 numbers (3,253 yards and 30 TDs) with just 1,935 yards and 10 scores through 12 games this year. Even though the yardage and overall production aren’t there, Morgan's yards per attempt (8.2) rank fourth in the Big Ten, and his leadership under center has been valuable. Morgan should have some opportunities to push the ball downfield in this game. West Virginia ranks sixth in the Big 12 in pass efficiency defense, giving receivers Chris Autman-Bell, Michael Brown-Stephens, Dylan Wright, and tight end Brevyn Spann-Ford a chance to make an impact.
West Virginia's defense is giving up only 5.5 yards per play and 24.3 points a game this season. Also, this unit has thrived at limiting teams on third downs and in the red zone. Can Minnesota get its ground game on track on Tuesday night? If the Mountaineers get the Golden Gophers into long-yardage situations, that's a win for Brown's defense.
When West Virginia Has the Ball
West Virginia's offensive production has been nearly identical in each of the last two seasons. In 2020, the Mountaineers averaged 26.5 points a game and 5.4 yards per play. This year, Brown's team is averaging 26.8 points per contest and 5.5 a snap. However, after failing to score more than 27 points against a Power 5 opponent in the first half of the year, West Virginia reached that level in four of the final six contests.
Behind quarterback Jarret Doege, West Virginia attempted the most passes (416) of any team in the Big 12 this year. However, while the completion percentage was solid (65.4), the yards per attempt (7.4) rank near the bottom of the Big 12, and the offense generated only 10 plays of 40-plus yards. Doege's 2,908 passing yards are the best mark of his career in Morgantown, but he's also tossed 11 interceptions this year. West Virginia's receiving corps is paced by Winston Wright Jr. (60 catches) and Bryce Ford-Wheaton (40), with Sam James (39) and Sean Ryan (24) also in place as key cogs for Doege. Minnesota ranks fifth in the Big Ten in pass efficiency defense, so Doege may not find many big plays through the air once again.
The Mountaineers will need Doege to carry the offense on Tuesday night, as running back Leddie Brown (1,065 yards and 13 TDs) opted out of the Guaranteed Rate Bowl. Brown accounted for nearly 70 percent of West Virginia's rushing production this fall and leaves a huge void in the backfield. Backup quarterback Garrett Greene (297 rushing yards) should see some snaps to help on the ground, while Tony Mathis Jr. (256 yards) and Justin Johnson (55) will handle the bulk of the carries at running back. However, Minnesota's rush defense has been tough all year, limiting teams to just 100.2 yards a game on the ground. The Golden Gophers are giving up just 3.4 yards per carry and only two teams (Ohio State and Illinois) eclipsed 150 rushing yards in a game. Fleck's defense has only 20 sacks, but West Virginia's offensive line has allowed 33 and could be a problem spot in terms of run blocking.
Minnesota enters the bowl game giving up just 4.98 yards per play and 18.3 points a game. Considering the question marks for West Virginia up front and at running back with Brown out of the lineup, the Mountaineers will need a huge game from Doege to piece together drives in a matchup with not much room for error.
Points are expected to be at a premium in this one, so timely big plays by an offense or a turnover could swing the outcome. Minnesota is plus-four in turnover margin, while West Virginia is minus-eight. Both teams should be able to win their share of battles on defense, so whichever offense can piece together more drives or deliver a big play should come out on top. The Golden Gophers are in a better spot in terms of personnel at running back, and Morgan has weapons on the outside to test the Mountaineers' secondary. Don't expect much in the way of offensive fireworks on Tuesday night, but this one should be close into the fourth quarter.