Bowl Week continues as Minnesota takes on West Virginia. Here’s your Guaranteed Rate Bowl preview:
Minnesota: 8-4, 2nd in the Big Ten West
West Virginia: 6-6, 5th in the Big 12
When West Virginia Runs:
The Mountaineers’ run game took a huge hit when Leddie Brown announced that he would be skipping the bowl game to prepare for the NFL Draft. Brown is a 1,000-yard rusher and scored 13 of the team’s 18 rushing touchdowns this season. A’varius Sparrow, who carried three times for four yards this year, is the only other running back on the roster with a touchdown. (Backup quarterback Garrett Greene, who plays a handful of snaps per game, has the other four). No other player has hit 300 rushing yards for West Virginia this season. Tony Mathis, who came on late in the season, will likely see the majority of carries.
The news doesn’t get any better when you look at Minnesota’s defense. The Gophers finished ninth in FBS and second in the Big Ten in run defense. Their yards-allowed average per game is just a shade over 100, and that’s after creeping upward all season. All of the starters from that defense are planning to play in the bowl game, so the Mountaineers certainly have their work cut out for them.
When West Virginia Passes:
In an interview with 247sports, West Virginia beat writer Chris Anderson of EeR Sports said this about WVU quarterback Jarrett Doege:
“Doege is a guy that will throw the ball 25 times in a game. He’ll have 18 good throws. Four great throws. And then three throws that are so horrific that fans who are watching the game completely forget about the other 22.”
While Doege passed for 2,908 yards and 19 touchdowns this year, he did throw 11 interceptions. He was also sacked 30 times, for a total of 221 yards. When Doege has time to throw, the Mountaineers’ offense does spread the ball around. Six players had at least 20 catches this season, and five of them totaled at least 300 yards. Winston Wright, Jr. and Sam James led the team in touchdowns with five apiece; Bryce Ford-Wheaton and Sean Ryan each chipped in three more.
As for Minnesota, Boye Mafe and Thomas Rush can cause major problems for a sack-prone offense. Mafe finished his senior season with 6 sacks; Rush, five and a half. Junior Tyler Nubin had a strong season in the backfield, and freshman Justin Walley showed tremendous potential in the Gophers’ last four or five games. Doege’s tendency toward inaccuracy under pressure is something Minnesota’s fourth-ranked defense should be able to exploit.
When Minnesota Passes
While senior quarterback Tanner Morgan improved on his numbers from 2020, he wasn’t able to match what he did as a sophomore. Not even close. The good news is that 2019 offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarocca has returned to the team after two seasons with Penn State. How much of the offense he can and will change before the Guaranteed Rate Bowl remains to be seen.
The two biggest problems for Minnesota’s offense this year were interceptions and injuries to running backs. Morgan threw just 10 touchdowns and eight interceptions, compared to 30 scores and seven picks in 2019. (To be fair, the quarterback doesn’t have to throw very often when you have a running game like the Gophers’).
Chris Autman-Bell led Minnesota in touchdown catches with six, despite missing several games with a nagging injury from training camp. Sophomores Daniel Jackson and Mike Brown-Stephens stepped up in his absence, along with transfer Dylan Wright from Texas A&M. Tight end Brevyn Spann-Ford got more involved in the offense this year as well, catching 23 passes.
West Virginia’s defense is in the middle of the FBS pack in terms of passing yards allowed and interceptions. They are tied for 11th in red-zone defense. With Minnesota tied for 27th in red-zone offense, that’s a battle to watch.
Advantage: It’s hard to say how much the playbook has changed in the last four weeks. We don’t expect the Gophers to start airing it out, anyway. The key will be Morgan avoiding turnovers. Call it even.
When Minnesota Runs
Lastly, in the Guaranteed Rate Bowl Preview, we look at the Gopher running game. By all rights, Minnesota should have struggled tremendously in the run game this season. Game One, star Mohamed Ibrahim– injured and done for the year, replaced by Treyson Potts. Game Five, Potts is injured, done for the year. Bryce Williams replaces him. Cam Wiley, who probably expected to see more playing time than he has, enters the transfer portal. 12 days later, Williams is injured. The only remaining running backs on the roster are redshirt freshman Ky Thomas and true freshman Mar’Keise Irving, each of whom has seen just a handful of collegiate carries.
They finished the season with 680 and 570 yards respectively, combining for nine touchdowns.
Obviously, the offensive line deserves credit here also. Having five seniors up front, one of whom (Daniel Fa’alele) is 6’9″ and 380 pounds, is a luxury.
However, West Virginia’s run defense is very much above-average. The Mountaineers finished the season ranked 34th in FBS, allowing an average of 129.3 yards per game. Incidentally, Minnesota finished 33rd in rushing offense with an average of 193.8 yards per game. In other words, something has to give.
Advantage: Minnesota, with the caveat that the Gophers have not faced many good run defenses this season. They beat the best in FBS, Wisconsin, by playing what was probably their best passing game of the season, and benefiting from multiple Badger mistakes.
Minnesota, by all rights, should be in a more prestigious bowl game. Wisconsin, whom they beat, is in the Las Vegas Bowl; Penn State, who finished with one fewer win, somehow got the Outback Bowl on New Year’s Day. It’s not uncommon to see teams in that position show up flat, for lack of a better word. We don’t see P.J. Fleck allowing that to happen. The Gophers are the stronger team and will win this game.
And that is your Guaranteed Rate Bowl Preview! The game is on ESPN, Tuesday the 28th, at 10:15 EST. Enjoy!