PHOENIX – It’s not every day fans get to experience college football on a Tuesday night–in a baseball stadium, no less.
West Virginia and Minnesota made history competing in football for the first time ever. The location for this historic event, you ask? Inside a baseball stadium on a Tuesday night in the 2021 Guaranteed Rate Bowl.
Minnesota, 8-4 on the season, deplaned at Sky Harbor with nothing but smiles coming off a monumental win over Wisconsin to close out the regular season while reclaiming the cherished Paul Bunyan Axe. West Virginia, 6-6, had an up and down season but finished with wins against Texas and Kansas, so momentum on their side heading into the bowl game.
Minnesota Head Coach PJ Fleck, no stranger to passion and energy, brought it early with the Golden Gopher defense forcing West Virginia to go three and out on the game’s opening drive as the Mountaineers were held to just 2 yards of offense. Fans would see more of that Minnesota defense throughout the game.
The Minnesota offense took control with the running game and aerial attack in full motion under the leadership of senior QB Tanner Morgan. It seemed their opening drive would end in a score, but Minnesota could not capitalize in enemy territory, missing a 25-yard field goal wide left.
The saving grace for Minnesota is their defense, and they skipped no beats again, holding the Mountaineers to just 4 yards on West Virginia’s second drive of the game. West Virginia would finish the first quarter with offense drives of 2 yards, 4 yards, and negative 10 yards – a testament to that solid Gopher defense.
On Minnesota’s second drive, Tanner Morgan quickly connected with Dylan Wright for a 36-yard pass. But, like their first drive, the Golden Gophers again could not score. This time, they fumbled at the West Virginia 10-yard line. No score at the end of the first quarter.
Minnesota opened up the second and finished off a 7-play, 54-yard drive with offensive linebacker Daniel Faalele barreling in for the score, followed by a 2-point conversion run by wide receiver Brock Annexstad. The crowd of 21,220, mostly Gopher fans, celebrated mightily. 8-0 Minnesota.
As for the OL score by Faalele, Fleck said after the game, “He’s 400 pounds. Once that thing gets moving forward, it’s hard to be able to stop that thing. We ran the ball with him a few years ago in the spring game. We threw it last year. And we decided to run it this time. There was no hesitation.”
Time for the Mountaineers to respond, and that is exactly what they did. After several poor offensive drives, West Virginia QB Jarret Doege leaned in hard on the passing game, utilizing wide receivers Wright, Ryan, James, and running back Tony Mathis Jr. to move the ball down the field. After several attempts and a few helpful penalties by Minnesota, Doege scrambled, searching for an open receiver. When all options were exhausted, he ran it in himself, which capped off a 12-play, 75-yard drive and put West Virginia on the board. The Mountaineers went for the 2-point conversion to tie it up, but the pass was dropped.
A fairly close match-up throughout most of the first half, until running back Ky Thomas broke away for a 50-yard rush to the West Virginia 9-yard line. This was the single longest play of the game. A play later, and Thomas would finish off the drive with a 5-yard TD rush. 15-6 Minnesota after the PAT by Kicker Matthew Trickett.
With minutes left in the half, it was time to see if West Virginia could answer going into halftime. QB Jarrett Doege went back to work with running back Tony Mathis Jr. and the Mountaineers wide receiver core. However, with 36 seconds remaining in the half and points within reach, Doege was picked off at the Minnesota 23-yard line by defensive back Jordan Howden. 15-6 Golden Gophers at the break.
Minnesota added three points on a field goal midway through the third, giving Minnesota a 12-point cushion. The Gophers then managed the clock game and relied heavily on their strong defense – they would never look back. Minnesota 18-6 over West Virginia.
After the trophy presentation, Fleck commented, “Then you look defensively, maybe one of the best defensive seasons that I can remember as a head football coach. We rallied around this knock all year, and we wanted to be the defense that knocks. And I thought they did that.”
The Golden Gophers came into the contest with one of the strongest rush defenses in the nation, and that played true in this contest. Minnesota was holding West Virginia to just 66 yards total rushing.
Outside of the Minnesota defense, it was the run game that got them the win. The Gophers finished with 249 rushing yards, with Ky Thomas and Mar’Keise Irving doing most of the damage, 144 yards, and 129 yards, respectively. PJ Fleck can now add the Guaranteed Rate Bowl win to his 2020 Outback Bowl and 2018 Quick Lane Bowl championships.
As for West Virginia, they finish the season 6-7. Head Coach Neal Brown commented, “It’s disappointing because we’ve got a really small group of guys that played their last game, and it hurts. It’s really the first time in my head coaching career to experience where you lose your last game. That’s a sad locker room.”
Stat Round-Up for Minnesota:
-QB Tanner Morgan went 8-13 for 109 yards.
-RB Ky Thomas rushed 144 yards.
-RB Mar’Keise Irving rushed 129 yards.
Stat Round-Up for West Virginia:
-QB Jarrett Doege went 18-31 for 140 yards.
-RB Tony Mathias Jr. had 13 carries for 56 yards, plus five catches for 24 yards.
-WR Sam James caught three passes for 40 yards.