Gophers-WV

If there’s one thing P.J. Fleck has proved over his now five complete seasons as the University of Minnesota head football coach, it’s that his teams will show up to play in bowl games.

Making their third postseason appearance under Fleck’s watch, the Golden Gophers bullied West Virginia 18-6 in the Guaranteed Rate Bowl on Tuesday night.

And it wasn’t even that close.

Minnesota played its brand of football from start to finish. The Gophers gashed the opposing defense with the 1-2 punch of young running backs Mar’Keise Irving and Ky Thomas both going over 100 yards. Quarterback Tanner Morgan only attempted 13 passes and completed eight for 109 yards.

West Virginia didn’t look interested in playing for most of the night, a result of defensive coordinator Joe Rossi’s masterpiece of a game plan.

The Mountaineers entered the contest averaging 385.1 total yards per game and exited the Guaranteed Rate Bowl with 206 (140 passing, 66 rushing). Rossi’s front seven made West Virginia quarterback Jarret Doege rethink his December vacation in Arizona, rattling him with constant pressure which resulted in a season-high five sacks.

Doege had a woeful performance: 18-of-31 passing for 140 yards, no touchdowns and a bad interception thrown into the arms of Gophers defensive back Michael Dixon. He logged an 89.5 passer rating, the second-worst of his five seasons in college football.

The Gophers had control of the game from the opening kick. West Virginia gained a combined six yards on its first three drives, all punts, and moved the chains once in the opening quarter. Minnesota took three trips inside the red zone on its first three possessions, albeit missing out on points on the first two on a missed field-goal attempt and fumble.

However, a surprising two-yard plunge into the end zone from the fullback position by right tackle Daniel Faalele got Minnesota on the scoreboard, followed by a successful fake extra-point attempt for an 8-0 lead.

The game felt over after that.

The 12-point victory could’ve tilted more in the Gophers favor, but head coach P.J. Fleck called off the dogs and had his offense run out the game’s final two minutes instead of score from West Virginia’s 3-yard line.

It marked the Gophers’ fifth straight bowl win, the longest streak in program history. Only college football powerhouse Alabama has a longer streak with six straight bowl game victories (excluding national title appearances).

Through five seasons on the sideline, Fleck has a 35-23 record and is a perfect 3-0 in bowl games. He’s coached the Gophers to two seasons of 9+ wins -- half of the program’s total since 1906.

Here’s what we learned from the 2021 Guaranteed Rate Bowl:

PLAYER OF THE GAME

Thomas and Irving were responsible for 76.3% of the Gophers’ total yards. Thomas, who was named the game’s MVP, rushed for 144 yards on 21 carries (6.9 average), and his counterpart totaled 129 yards on 19 attempts (6.8). It was the first time two Gophers players rushed for 100+ yards in the same postseason game since Marion Barber III (37-187) and Laurence Maroney (29-105) did it in the 2004 Music City Bowl, a 20-16 win over Alabama.

None of it would’ve been possible, of course, without the dominance of the offensive line. Faalele and company moved West Virginia’s run-stoppers with ease, sometimes creating holes so large both Thomas and Irving could’ve slipped through at the same time.

DON’T FORGET ABOUT ME

The Gophers’ front seven were unstoppable. In his final game as a Golden Gopher, defensive end Esezi Otomewo led the way by taking Doege down twice -- his first career game with multiple sacks. Otomewo’s most impressive sack was on a third-and-11 with 5:30 to play in the second quarter. The Gophers rushed three, and despite West Virginia having six players to block for Doege, Otomewo spun his way to the quarterback and sat him down.

Jah Joyner, Boye Mafe and Tyler Nubin added to the effort with one sack apiece.

Even when the Gophers didn’t get to Doege, he felt phantom pressure and was always frantically making his way out of the pocket.

THAT MOMENT

The best moment of the bowl game happened with 14:19 remaining in the second quarter.

After a 23-yard run by Irving, the Gophers had the football at West Virginia’s 2-yard line. It was clearly predetermined earlier in the week if Minnesota got within a few yards of the goal line, the 6-foot-9, 380-pound Faalele would get the call in the backfield.

He did, and it was a beautiful thing.

THIS NUMBER

10 -- West Virginia had just five plays go for 10 or more yards. But really, it was four. The Mountaineers’ longest play of the game was a 15-yard connection from Doege to Reese Smith late in the second quarter. Justin Johnson Jr. also gained 15 yards on a rushing attempt, but it was on the final play of the game and wouldn’t have happened if Fleck didn’t show mercy in the closing minutes and give West Virginia the ball back.

THEY SAID IT

“At the beginning of the year, if you would’ve bet Ky Thomas would be the bowl game MVP, you probably wouldn’t be working anymore. That’s no disrespect to Ky -- when you look at our backfield with seven tailbacks with scholarships … Not many people in the country have seven scholarship tailbacks. We do. And we needed every single one.” -- head coach P.J. Fleck

“I already had to try to do that in the spring game once. Definitely not doing that again.” – Tyler Nubin on tackling Daniel Faalele

“Maybe one of the best defensive seasons that I can remember as head football coach. … We wanted to be the defense that knocks. And I thought they did that.” -- Fleck citing the famous “I am the one who knocks!” scene from “Breaking Bad

WHAT’S NEXT

The 2022 season.

Minnesota’s biggest concern on offense will be rebuilding its veteran line, as center John Michael Schmitz is the only starter returning next fall. However, there will be plenty of stability at the skill positions as wide receiver Chris Autman-Bell, running back Mohamed Ibrahim and Morgan are all returning. Kirk Ciarrocca will reunite with those three as the team’s offensive coordinator, the same role he served from 2017-19. He’ll be tasked with reminding Morgan of his ’19 self in which the signal-caller threw for 3,253 yards and 30 touchdowns.

On the flip side of the ball, four-star recruits Trey Bixby and Anthony Smith should balance out the departures of All-Big Ten second teamer Boye Mafe and Otomewo on the defensive line. Also bidding adieu is Coney Durr, a force of stability at cornerback since he arrived on campus in 2016.

Spring ball is right around the corner.

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