Minnesota Guaranteed Rate Bowl win

Minnesota running back Ky Thomas carries the ball against West Virginia in the Golden Gophers' 18-6 win in the Guaranteed Rate Bowl on Tuesday, Dec. 28 at Chase Field in Phoenix, Ariz.

Recently, the postseason in Arizona has not been kind to Minnesota.

The Golden Gophers’ last bowl games in the Grand Canyon State — the 2011 and 2012 Insight Bowls at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe — saw back-to-back defeats at the hands of Big 12 programs Kansas and Iowa State.

On Tuesday night in downtown Phoenix, Minnesota had a chance to change their luck in Arizona against another Big 12 squad: West Virginia. And it did so in the first ever meeting between the programs.

Behind 358 yards of offense, catalyzed by a 249-yard rushing attack courtesy of running backs Mar’Keise Irving and Ky Thomas, and a ferocious defensive effort of five sacks and six tackles-for-loss, the Golden Gophers (9-4) notched their fifth straight bowl win — the second-longest streak in the country — with an 18-6 win over the Mountaineers (6-7) at Chase Field.

“I couldn't be more proud of this football team,” Minnesota head coach P.J. Fleck said. “They've been through an awful lot, overcame a lot. It's a special, special group of young men. Nine wins is really a tremendous season for us, but when you look at how they got to nine wins and the people they are and what they overcame to get there, as Heather (Fleck) said, those are the statues.”

Irving and Thomas rushed for 144 yards and a touchdown and 129 yards, respectively, taking the reins of a running back room decimated by injuries to reigning Big Ten Running Back of the Year Mohamed Ibrahim, Trey Potts and Bryce Williams. The potent ground game proved too much for the Mountaineers’ defense, while Minnesota’s back end allowed only one West Virginia scoring drive and just 206 yards of total offense.

West Virginia missed its 1,065-yard rusher Leddie Brown, who opted out of the game, putting pressure on quarterback Jarret Doege to lead the Mountaineers’ offensive attack. While Doege found the end zone, he struggled throughout the night, recording just 140 yards and an interception.

“I thought our guys competed,” West Virginia head coach Neal Brown said. “I'm not disappointed with our effort. I thought we really fought hard to finish the year, to get an opportunity to play in the postseason. It's going to help our program moving forward, but we just weren't good enough today.”

Minnesota’s rush defense, allowing just 100.2 yards per game, continued its dominant performance to start the game, allowing zero rushing yards across the Mountaineers’ three drives in the first quarter. The Golden Gophers’ defensive line, led by All-Big Ten honoree Boye Mafe, held Doege to just six yards through 15 minutes and sacked him twice.

Even though Morgan led drives of 42 and 52 yards, Minnesota’s efforts bore no success. A 22-yard connection between Morgan and wide receiver Dylan Wright and a 12-yard rush by Thomas set up a 25-yard field goal, which kicker Matthew Trickett missed to the left.

Morgan found Wright for 36 yards on the following drive, yet Thomas’ fumble in the red zone ended the Golden Gophers’ march.

However, the squad would soon find the end zone.

“That's what I love about this team, they just moved on to the next play. Their response is incredible. There's a major difference between response and reaction. These guys are trained to respond.”

Minnesota’s third drive followed a similar narrative of big plays, as Irving took two rushes for a combined 39 yards. But this time, the squad converted, as six-foot-nine, 380-pound offensive lineman Daniel Faalele scored on a two-yard rush. Wide receiver Brock Annexstad then converted a trick play on the extra point attempt to give the Golden Gophers an eight-point lead.

“We ran the ball with him a few years ago in the spring game,” Fleck said of Faalele. “We threw it last year. And we decided to run it this time. There was no hesitation.”

Coming out of the opening frame with just six yards to Minnesota’s 123, the Mountaineers looked for a spark to revive their offense, and they found it in their quarterback. During West Virginia’s following possession, Doege accounted for 57 yards in the air and on the ground before taking it in on a one-yard rush on fourth-and-goal. The ensuing two-point conversion failed, giving Minnesota a two-point advantage.

A five-yard touchdown from Thomas late in the second quarter expanded the Golden Gophers’ lead. Thomas — whose 50 yard rush set up the score — combined with Irving for 142 yards and 9.46 yards per rush in the first half, while Minnesota safety Michael Dixon intercepted Doege to preserve a 15-6 score heading into the locker room.

While Doege showcased poise and playmaking on West Virginia’s scoring drive, the Mountaineers struggled to move the ball during the first 30 minutes, even after stopping the Golden Gophers twice in the red zone. Four of West Virginia’s drives ended after 15 yards or fewer and its second possession across midfield concluded with the pick by Doege.

“I think it was really just our mentality on defense, just really keeping everything in front of us,” defensive back Tyler Nubin said. “Being aggressive on the outside, tackling well. I think we just wanted to up the emphasis on everything that we did.”

This trend continued as the teams traded punts on the first two drives of the second half before Thomas and Irving guided Minnesota into Mountaineer territory, leading to a 49-yard field goal from Trickett.

The Golden Gophers’ defense stood tall by forcing a West Virginia turnover on downs in their territory after a sack by Nubin — the bowl’s Defensive Player of the Game — then a three-and-out after Morgan, who finished with 109 yards, threw an interception. After three more punt exchanges, Minnesota’s seven minute and 50-second drive sealed its victory.

Just two seasons ago, the Golden Gophers accomplished an 11-win season, but fell short of a Big Ten Championship appearance by one game. This year, the squad at one point sat in the driver’s seat of the Big Ten West and upset No. 14 Wisconsin. Yet Minnesota also lost to Bowling Green and Illinois.

After Tuesday night, the Golden Gophers will head back to Minneapolis with a bowl championship. Next year, they may be contenders for a Big Ten West title.

As a result, Thomas, the bowl’s Offensive Player of the Game, looks to maintain a key tenet of this year’s successful squad for 2022.

“Just the preparation,” Thomas said. “As far as all the older guys who have been through this, just learning from them. They just taught me how to prepare so that's one thing I'm going to take forward.”


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