Football, Sports, WVU Sports

WVU to face stellar Minnesota defense; head coaches optimistic Guaranteed Rate Bowl will still happen

MORGANTOWN — Heading into Tuesday’s Guaranteed Rate Bowl against Minnesota in Phoenix, WVU knows enough about the stellar defensive season the Golden Gophers have had.

In the national rankings, it’s easy to see the consistency at quick glance — Minnesota is 9th in points allowed per game (18.3), 9th in rushing allowed (100.2), 9th in passing yards allowed (184.7) and 4th in total defense (284.8).

Coming in the top 10 in every major defensive category means the Mountaineers offense will have its hands full, beginning at 10:15 p.m. at Chase Field.

“They have a great defense, really fundamentally sound,” WVU sophomore center Zach Frazier said. “We have to find ways to run the ball and make the run game work, pass when we can and hold up in protection.”

The Mountaineers (6-6) will be without star running back Leddie Brown, who opted out to focus on his professional future. The reins will be given to Tony Mathis, who is coming off a 100-yard game at Kansas in the regular season finale on Nov. 27.

Like WVU, Minnesota (8-4) went 4-2 in its final six games, including withing two straight to end the regular season. During that stretch, the Golden Gophers were carried by their defense while the offense needed to overcome major injuries in the running game.

“They’re really good,” WVU head coach Neal Brown said. “If you look at their last six games, nobody has had more than 300 yards against them, and I don’t remember the last time I played an opponent that had gone on a stretch like that. A group that has not only been successful, but they have a lot of experience, as well.”

Jack Gibbens, a graduate transfer from Abilene Christian, leads the team in tackles with 86. He has led a major transformation for Minnesota’s defense from 2020 to 2021. Head coach P.J. Fleck brought in several other transfers to help rebuild his unit.

“There’s a couple of transfers, but most of those guys grew up through the system,” Brown said. “I think their defensive coordinator (Joe Rossi) has done a really good job of it. Their fundamentals are really, really good. They don’t do a ton defensively until you get to 3rd down, but fundamentally, they’re really sound, and you can tell they put an emphasis on tackling. They tackle really well at all three levels.”

WVU quarterback Jarret Doege echoed Brown, believing what the Golden Gophers do defensively isn’t complicated, they just do what they do really well.

“They don’t do a whole lot, which makes them good at what they do,” Doege said. “They play a lot of basic coverage and they’re still just really good at it.”

Status of bowl

With the rise in bowl cancellations and team opt-outs, there are questions surrounded every bowl game remaining the rest of the way.

According to Brown and Fleck, the game is still a full-go as of Monday night for the Guaranteed Rate Bowl, but it’s cautious optimism.

“It’s fluid, it’s fluid,” Brown said, mentioning the Mountaineers haven’t had any positive tests. “I’m careful to say, ‘I don’t anticipate.’ I’m cautiously optimistic, how ’bout that?”

Fleck was a little more up front.

“So far, so good,” he said. “We’ve had zero cases as of the last time we’ve talked (to team medical personnel). That’s a credit to our medical team.”

So far, the Military Bowl, Fenway Bowl and Hawaii Bowl were canceled because of COVID outbreaks on respective participating teams. Texas A&M was forced to opt out of the Gator Bowl against Wake Forest but was replaced by Rutgers. Miami had the same issue for the Sun Bowl, but officials are looking to replace the Hurricanes to face Washington State.

On Monday, Boise State was forced to opt out of the Arizona Bowl against Central Michigan.