5 things to know about Minnesota's Guaranteed Rate Bowl opponent: West Virginia
With a bowl game now on tap after back-to-back wins to close out the regular season, Minnesota has a chance to hit 9 wins in a season for the second time under coach PJ Fleck. In the 50 years prior to Fleck’s arrival, Minnesota had only done that twice. It’ll face West Virginia on Dec. 28 in the Guaranteed Rate Bowl.
The Mountaineers went 6-6 on the year, finishing 6th in the Big 12 with a league record of 4-5. Here are a few things to know about coach Neal Brown’s third Mountaineer squad.
It depends on the situation
West Virginia’s résumé is something of a smörgåsbord. It holds wins over a then-ranked Virginia Tech squad, a then-ranked Iowa State, and over a talent-rich Texas team fighting for bowl eligibility. But the Mountaineers also lost to Maryland and Texas Tech and nearly blew bowl eligibility for themselves on the road against lowly Kansas.
When the swings are drastic like that, you tend to look to the turnover department. West Virginia, on its season, was minus-8 on turnovers. Sure enough, in the program’s 6 wins it was plus-1 (8 takeaways, 7 giveaways) and in 6 losses it was minus-9 (3 takeaways, 12 giveaways). Quarterback Jarrett Doege’s 11 interceptions were the second-most by a Big 12 quarterback this season.
Without a full-blown star at receiver or running back, the Mountaineers had to sustain drives for points. (They ranked 100th nationally in yards per point.) Defensively, though they didn’t turn a ton of fumbles, their multi-turnover games typically coincided with playing from the front. That would speak to a team that’s awfully limited if it has to play outside its comfort zone.
Keep track of Brown
West Virginia’s comfort zone is balance. Brown’s offense leaned more pass, but this isn’t the old Dana Holgorsen, throw-it-40-times-a-game offense. When tailback Leddie Brown had at least 19 carries, the Mountaineers were 5-1. Brown enters the bowl game sitting on 1,065 yards and 13 touchdowns, marks that rank 7th and 3rd among league runners. He’s had the second-highest workload for a West Virginia tailback in the last decade and the most carries in a season since 2015.
The line numbers look healthy—35th nationally in stuff rate, 31st in power success rate—but 65% of Brown’s attempts came when the game was within 7 points either way. West Virginia was easy to knock off-schedule, but when they’re in rhythm, Brown is a weapon.
The name to know on defense
Josh Chandler-Semedo is everywhere.
A season after posting 64 tackles, 4 tackles for loss, a forced fumble, a pass breakup, and an interception, Chandler-Semedo became an iron man in the middle of the West Virginia defense. He posted 104 tackles (one of only 3 Big 12 defenders to reach 100), 5.5 tackles for loss, 3 pass breakups, 2 interceptions, and 2 forced fumbles.
Slight slippage on defense, but still tough
West Virginia was tough as nails a season ago. That 2020 defense yielded only 3.5 yards per run (23rd nationally), was among the best in the country at limiting big plays, and created pressure on passing downs. This year’s defense is a little more forgiving against the run (3.9 yards, 53rd), a little more susceptible to explosive plays, and a little less havoc-inducing on passing plays.
But, they’ve stiffened when it counts: the red zone. The Mountaineers have given up points—any points—on just 73.3% of red zone trips this season, a mark that ranks 12th nationally. The big one here is they just don’t give up touchdowns. Only 42% of opponent red zone trips this season have ended with 6 points, the 6th-best mark in football. Extend the threshold to the 40, and opponents are averaging just 3.2 points per scoring opportunity against West Virginia this season (20th nationally).
The Mountaineers have also gotten better on third down, too. After opposing offenses posted a 39.3% conversion rate on 3rd down a season ago, the number has fallen to 34.8% this season, 27th-best among FBS teams. In high-leverage situations in-game, the Mountaineers have done well this season.
Playing for history
This is the first meeting all-time between these two programs. So, the winner will probably get bragging rights—however much weight that might carry—for some time. Didn’t say it was illustrious history. The game kicks off at 10:15 p.m. ET on Dec. 28 on ESPN.