Rapid Reaction: Minnesota's ground game, stout defense lead Gophers to Guaranteed Rate Bowl win
Final Score: West Virginia 6, Minnesota 18
Brief Recap: Minnesota had a chance to engineer a blowout early on against West Virginia. To start the game, the Gophers had 2 drives deep into Mountaineer territory in the first quarter. Unfortunately, a missed field goal and a turnover kept the Gophers off the board.
Those missed opportunities kept the score close in the first half, even as Minnesota maintained control of the game. West Virginia was unable to stop the ground game of Minnesota from the jump while the Gophers defensive line dialed up pressure time and time again. Still, the 2 sides traded touchdowns midway through the 2nd quarter to keep the action close.
Then, inside of 4 minutes to go before halftime, Ky Thomas took over and made quick work out of one drive for Minnesota. He carried the ball 3 times in 4 plays – including a 50-yard gash – and scored a touchdown to put the Gophers up 15-6.
In the 2nd half, neither team was able to generate a lot of points. The Gophers did tack on a field goal in the 3rd quarter to make it 18-6 before applying more pressure in the 4th quarter. In the end, Minnesota did not need another score, driving inside West Virginia’s 10-yard line on the final drive of the game before running the clock down.
Key Player: The two-headed rushing attack of Ky Thomas and Mar’Keise Irving led the way for Minnesota, but a lot of that rushing attack rests on the work of the big guys along the offensive line for the Gophers. They paved the way for a pair of 100-yard rushers. According to Andy Greder with the Pioneer Press, it is the first time Minnesota had a pair of 100-yard rushers in a bowl game since the 2004 season.
Irving finished the night with 129 yards on 19 carries. However, the bigger story was Thomas who rushed for 144 yards on 21 carries and a touchdown. Both players set new career-high marks in the win.
Key Moment: Clinging to an 8-6 lead with the first half winding down, Minnesota mounted a 4-play drive that last just 2:17. Remarkably, the Gophers did not need to throw a pass with the ground game covering all 61 yards capped off by Thomas’ short touchdown. That drive and score made it 15-6.
The quick touchdown left more than enough time for West Virginia to mount a drive and potential cut into the lead. An interception by Michael Dixon snuffed out that drive before halftime and preserved the lead. Minnesota’s defense truly kept control of the action all game long and only surrendered a couple of serious drives, but Dixon’s interception made sure West Virginia did not get any closer heading toward the 2nd half.
Key Stat: 38:29, time of possession for the Gophers. Though the score did not manifest a blowout, the full story of the game can be seen in the time of possession and total yards allowed by Minnesota. The Gophers were able to maintain control of the game through their efficient ground game and the pressure of the defensive line. West Virginia never had an answer and was held below 200 total yards of offense while going 4-for-13 on 3rd downs in the game.
What it means for Minnesota: Now wrapping up his 5th season with the program, PJ Fleck truly looks like the right man to be leading the Gophers. Fleck has now produced 3 winning seasons, 2 seasons of 9+ wins, and is 3-0 in bowl games at Minnesota. His 3rd bowl win with the program ties him with Glen Mason for the most in program history. Going back to the 2015 season, Minnesota is on a 5-game bowl winning streak.