MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (WV News) — A great deal has been written about Minnesota’s powerful running game and how West Virginia will have to combat it. On the flip side, all the attention has been on the absence of Mountaineer running back Leddie Brown, but at this point he’s not important. What is critical is how WVU plans to move the ball with the personnel it has available.
The extended break between the end of the regular season and most bowl games gives each team a chance to put in more tweaks, or change things up and break tendencies more than they can from week-to-week in October or November. Again, though, there’s a line. Changes can’t be randomly implemented, or get away from what teams do best. With that in mind, what might the Mountaineers do?
One area to watch is WVU’s screen game. The Mountaineers have shown numerous blocking schemes, receiver patterns and designs in trying to develop safe passes and methods of getting the ball to playmakers. Expect more of that in this game, with the hope from here that sure-handed Sean Ryan is a featured part of that action. By far West Virginia’s most sure-handed pass catcher, this could be his time to shine.
Minnesota arrived in Phoenix on Dec. 23, and conducted several practices leading up to the game on the 28th. WVU did not arrive until the afternoon of the 25th, and had just a couple of practices in Arizona after having conducted most of its heavy work in Morgantown, broken up by some days off, including a trip to a ski resort for some tubing.
“It’s a vacation destination, and we wanted to treat our players to that,” Minnesota head coach PJ Fleck said of the decision to come to the bowl site early. “We want to give them as normal of a week as possible, and we traveled here on what is (our normal Monday day off).”
It’s a toss-up as to which approach is better. Will Minnesota get a bit stale, or enjoy the break? Will WVU still be invigorated, and play with the verve it showed against Army last year in the Liberty Bowl?
West Virginia’s players seemed happy with the schedule when discussing it a couple of days prior to the contest, so if nothing else they seemed to be in a good frame of mine concerning their preparation scheduled.
Minnesota is 6-1 all-time in games played on Tuesday, while WVU is 5-3-1. The majority of those contests occurred decades ago. The Golden Gophers own a pair of wins over Hamiline in 1893 and 1902, while WVU has a win and a tie against Fordham in 1928 and 1929.
Minnesota’s defense is good, and has the ability to make life tough for the Mountaineer offense. However, the numbers it has put up are a bit misleading, as they are partly due to the Gophers’ deliberate offense.
Running the ball on 550 of its 793 offensive snaps, Minnesota had 104 more plays that its opponents, and dominated time of possession by more than 10 minutes per contest. That contributed heavily to their total yards allowed number of just 284 per game.
Again, this isn’t to downgrade UM’s defense, but the Gophers averaged only 360 yards per game themselves. Yards per play, and drive extension — the latter something of a strength for WVU this year — will be more important metrics to watch.
Also, WVU might be a bit more comfortable in dealing with low yardage outputs on rushing plays. UM held foes to 3.4 yards per carry, which is viewed as a strength, while WVU managed six wins with exactly that average per carry.
With the dome at Chase Field closed, weather won’t be a factor in the contest, but it will affect the few Mountaineer fans who will make it in for the game. Temperatures in the seventies a few days before the contest will give way to highs of around 60, and some rare showers, on the 27th and 28th.
Among players who started the season on the roster, West Virginia will be absent 89 games of starting experience.
The history of the Guaranteed Rate Bowl is all over the map in terms of both physical location and naming rights. West Virginia is making its third appearance in the bowl, and is 1-1 to date. Minnesota is making its fourth appearance, previously appearing in 2006, 2008 and 2009 when it was called the Insight Bowl. The four appearances tie Kansas State for the most in the bowl’s history. The Golden Gophers are 0-3 all-time in the bowl and are looking to be the first Big Ten team to win it since Michigan State in 2012.