Mountaineers Prepare for Unfamiliar Foe in Guaranteed Rate Bowl

We continue our 2021 Bowl Season coverage by looking in at WVU. This year, the West Virginia Mountaineers prepare for an unfamiliar foe.
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Mountaineers Prepare for Unfamiliar Foe in Guaranteed Rate Bowl

It’s that time of year. The Early Signing Period is behind us. So, too, is the regular season. Now, fans celebrate the holidays as bowl season gets underway. Often, bowl season pits teams who rarely face off against each other. Indeed, the West Virginia Mountaineers prepare for an unfamiliar foe in the Guaranteed Rate Bowl when they take on the Minnesota Golden Gophers. In fact, the Guaranteed Rate Bowl represents the very first meeting between these two programs. The game gets underway on Tuesday, December 28, at 10:15 p.m. (EST). The teams face off at Chase Field in Phoenix, and ESPN will televise the game.

Meeting the Unfamiliar Head On

What can West Virginia fans expect out of Minnesota? The answer begins with an “it depends.” Looking at the Golden Gophers’ season results offers a mixed bag. On the one hand, Minnesota brought two different 30-point victories home to fans. However, both of those wins came against inferior competition in Colorado (which finished 4-8) and Northwestern (3-9). Otherwise, they’ve played in a string of close games. Indeed, seven of its 12 games were decided by 10 or fewer points.

Oddly, the Golden Gophers suffered an early-season 14-10 loss to Bowling Green State. That Falcons team finished the season 4-8. They also had trouble putting Miami (Ohio) down, squeaking out a 31-26 win. On the other hand, Minnesota also ended its season with a 23-13 win over a ranked Wisconsin team.

Most Golden Gophers games, regardless of a win or loss, featured the same look. Minnesota relies heavily on its run game and a stifling defense to control the clock and win football games. On the season, theGolden Gophers average 195 rushing yards a game. Even in their four losses, they still averaged 165 yards. They were held under 100 rushing yards twice and went 1-1 in those games. In their three other losses, they rushed for 180 yards or more. As a result, they’re not as simple to beat as, say, just stopping the run game.

Forcing the Golden Gophers to Air it Out

That said, stopping the run certainly does not hurt. Indeed, Minnesota struggled most in games where it had to rely more heavily on their passing game. Signal-caller Tanner Morgan completed less than 60% of his passes and threw 10 touchdowns to eight interceptions. In games in which Morgan threw 25 or more times, the Golden Gophers are 0-3. In their other loss (to Bowling Green), Morgan threw just 13 times but two of those tosses were interceptions.

Indeed, a proven recipe to put Minnesota against the ropes is to do just enough to force them to throw the ball more than a couple dozen times. That does not necessarily mean stopping the run game completely. Disrupting it, however, and causing them to look to the air to move the ball and control the clock drastically increases the odds.

Slowing the run down, though, requires a defense to prepare for multiple running backs. Borrowing from the Wisconsin blueprint, Head Coach P.J. Fleck employs several running backs in the course of a game. Indeed, three Minnesota running backs accumulated over 100 carries each. Ky Thomas leads the group with 680 yards on 145 carries. Both Mar’Keise Irving and Treyson Potts follow just behind with over 110 carries each.

To date, no Minnesota player has yet declared that he would not play in the bowl game.

West Virginia Must Play to Its Strengths

There are two things that the Mountaineers did exactly six times this season: win and run for over 100 yards. The 100-yard rushing games just so happen to coincide perfectly with West Virginia’s six wins. The blueprint, then, is easy, right? Rush for 100 yards against Minnesota, and the Mountaineers should win.

That is easier said than done, of course. Minnesota surrenders an average of 100 yards a game. But opponents have only met or exceeded that mark in six of the Golden Gophers’ 12 games. There does not, for their part, seem to be a difference in terms of wins and losses in those games. Indeed, Minnesota won four of the six games the defense surrendered over 100 rushing yards but also won four of the six games that it held opponents under the century mark.

The second obstacle standing in the Mountaineers’ way is this: their leading rusher for the past two seasons, Leddie Brown, elected to forego the bowl game. That represents a big hit to the game plan. That said, Tony Mathis ran for nearly 120 yards in WVU’s final game of the season. Granted, that came against Kansas, but that game can certainly help Mathis build the momentum and confidence needed to carry the load going forward. Both Mathis and true freshman Justin Johnson have shown flashes in the backfield. Their time is now. If they can step up, West Virginia will stay in this fight.

Preparing for the Unfamiliar

As the Mountaineers prepare for their unfamiliar foe, they need to keep to their strengths. Defensively, they play well enough against the run to keep Minnesota’s output respectable. They’ve shown enough poise on the defensive line to force plenty of three-and-outs, even against some of the best running teams in the Big 12. Minnesota represents a different challenge, but it is one they can meet by playing multiples, particularly up front.

In the secondary, West Virginia shows inconsistency, especially as they play through the depth issues that injuries and the transfer portal have dealt them. That said, the secondary has grown increasingly opportunistic over the course of the season. Facing a fairly inaccurate quarterback on the other side should help them here.

If the Mountaineers can force Minnesota to throw by stuffing the run and controlling the clock themselves–both things they have proven capable of–then West Virginia could win this first meeting against the unfamiliar Golden Gophers. It will be a challenge. But Head Coach Neal Brown has proven particularly effective in bowl games with a 4-0 record over his first six seasons.

We continue our 2021 Bowl Season coverage by looking in at WVU. This year, the West Virginia Mountaineers prepare for an unfamiliar foe.

Photo courtesy of the Guaranteed Rate Bowl.