In a game played in the state with the Painted Desert, expect the shades of gray to make the difference — those shades in between statistics and intangibles.
On the surface, and based on reputation, the Guaranteed Rate Bowl Tuesday night in Phoenix seems like a fairly easy matchup to diagnose. Minnesota’s big, rugged and stereotypical Big Ten attack versus West Virginia’s speed, quickness and reliance on the pass befitting a team from the Big 12.
Again, at surface level, the statistics support those conclusions. No team outside of the service academies — Army, Navy, Air Force — rely on the run game more than Minnesota, while 66.7% of West Virginia’s yards on offense have come through the air.
The Golden Gophers (8-4) are mammoth up front, sporting five offensive linemen weighing in at 310 pounds or more, while the Mountaineers are smaller but agile along the defensive line, with its starters all checking in at 280 pounds or less.
But I’ve got a feeling about this one. It’s an inclination that’s only strengthened as I’ve dived deeper and deeper into the numbers.
West Virginia is currently a 5-point underdog. The Golden Gophers sport the country’s fourth-best total defense (284.8 yards per game). WVU, meanwhile, enters ranked 77th in total offense (385.3), 97th in rushing offense (128.4), and the last time it lined up against a top-five total defense (Oklahoma State), it mustered just three points. At home.
Added to all of that, senior running back Leddie Brown, the unquestioned workhorse of the West Virginia offense over the past two seasons, won’t play after opting out.
So how in the world can the Mountaineers score enough points to win?
Well, the good news for WVU is I don’t think it’s going to take many. That’s partly because West Virginia, despite its Big 12 home, does some things that should make taking on a prototypical Big Ten team a little easier.
While West Virginia is reliant on its passing game, it hasn’t exactly been in a hurry while doing so. The Mountaineers rank 15th nationally in time of possession (32:08 per game), which is comparable to Minnesota, which is even more methodical at 35:10, good enough for fourth best.
Yes, Minnesota’s defensive numbers are impressive. As West Virginia coach Neal Brown and offensive coordinator Gerad Parker pointed out, it’s a unit that has given up less than 300 yards in six straight games entering the bowl game.
Yet, while Minnesota’s streak started with Maryland, a team ranked 35th nationally in total offense, the last five came against offenses ranked 85th or worse, and four outside the top 110 — Northwestern 116th, Illinois 111th, Iowa 123rd, Indiana 124th and Wisconsin 85th.
Those games are in addition to early-season matchups against Colorado (129th out of 130 in total offense) and Bowling Green (117th), the latter of which defeated Minnesota 14-10.
That’s certainly not to say the Golden Gophers aren’t good defensively. They certainly are. And West Virginia’s definitely had its stretches of offensive futility.
But fresh off a performance in which both Leddie Brown and Tony Mathis, who will start the bowl game, both went over 100 yards on the ground in a win at Kansas, and after a second half in which Jarret Doege, outside of the aforementioned loss to Oklahoma State, arguably played his best stretch of games in his career, maybe the Mountaineers are better off offensively than the numbers say.
Say what you want about Neal Brown, but he has a track record of getting his teams ready for bowl games and enters with a career 4-0 record. PJ Fleck, meanwhile is 3-2, but has won both appearances at Minnesota.
These games often come down to which team cares more, and in this case I believe both of these teams do, which should make for a fantastic game. Leddie Brown so far is the only Mountaineer to opt out, and Neal Brown said he expected it to stay that way.
That leaves six possible defensive players — Alonzo Addae, Scottie Young, Sean Mahone, Josh Chandler-Semedo, Dante Stills and Taijh Alston — that are or could be playing their final game for West Virginia. It’s a national stage against a marquee opponent with more opportunity to impress pro scouts. Think any of those guys aren’t coming in motivated?
Then there’s Mathis, who will make his first start after three years in the program. He was sidelined by injury early after an impressive summer and fall camp and has a chance to put a stranglehold on the position going into next season.
How about Doege? Think he hasn’t heard the buzz surrounding incoming freshman Nicco Marchiol? Or the hoopla over backup Garrett Greene all season? Doege has yet to make a decision on next season, but regardless of whether or not he comes back, if he leaves to test pro waters or transfers, is it not of the utmost importance to put an impressive game on film to end the 2021 season?
WVU’s offensive line should return intact next season. It’s a unit that’s taken significant strides in the last six weeks. That cohesion should only get better after extra practices, right?
There are just no stats to quantify those kinds of things, and that’s what makes bowl games so special.
So, I agree with the numbers in pointing to a low-scoring slugfest. In fact, limited possessions, ball-hogging offenses and teams reliant on defense should ensure it.
I see it as the first to 20 points wins. And if it’s a race, I’ll side with West Virginia’s speed.
Prediction: West Virginia 20, Minnesota 17.