Radio sideline reporter Jed Drenning provides periodic commentary on the Mountaineer football program for WVUsports.com. Be sure to follow him on Twitter @TheSignalCaller.
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – I’m sure you’ve heard by now.
Despite a football history that dates back to 1891, WVU has never faced Minnesota on the gridiron.
But don’t let that fool you. There’s always a West Virginia connection.
Pop quiz. What do a Mountaineer head coach from a century ago and a political cartoonist from the 1800s have to do with West Virginia’s opponent in the 2021 Guaranteed Rate Bowl?
Minnesota’s state nickname was born under less than flattering circumstances. In 1858, a widely circulated cartoon by Saint Paul artist R.O. Sweeney lampooned the territorial legislature’s decision to guarantee a sizeable loan to railroad interests that were intent on opening up the West. Sweeney irreverently depicted those involved as striped gophers pulling a rail car and presto! The Gopher State moniker became a thing.
By the time its first yearbook was published in 1888, the University of Minnesota had informally adopted the nickname as well. It wasn’t until 1926, though, that the school’s head football coach officially dubbed his squad the Gophers. That Minnesota coach? Clarence Spears.
Yes, the same Clarence “Doc” Spears who was just four years removed from leading West Virginia to its first ever bowl appearance and win (the 1922 East-West Classic over Gonzaga) as the head coach of the Mountaineers. Spears won 80.8% of his games at WVU, still the best rate in school history, before leaving Morgantown to take over the Minnesota program in 1925.
But admit it – when you hear Gopher the first thing that comes to mind probably isn’t a college football team, not even one that’s claimed seven national titles (most recently in 1960) and bestowed upon the game the iconic Bronko Nagurski (a Doc Spears’ recruit, by the way).
To TV aficionados, Gopher might conjure memories of the ship’s yeoman purser on the 1980s hit “The Love Boat.” To fans of the silver screen, the word probably takes you back to Bill Murray’s furry little nemesis in “Caddyshack.”
Great — now that Kenny Loggins’ song will be in my head the rest of the day. But I’m alright. Don’t nobody worry ’bout me.
All that aside, to those in Minneapolis and the Big Ten Conference at large, the word has become synonymous with a football program doing its level best to return to the glory days of its championship heritage. Coach P.J. Fleck and Co. have taken significant strides to that end, building a legitimate college football force with which to be reckoned.
Since 2017, when Fleck arrived in Dinkytown (Hey, Gopher fans – did I use that right?), Minnesota has indeed responded to his Row the Boat mantra – the never-give-up attitude, inspired by personal tragedy that Fleck infuses into all parts of his life, including his football team. Under Fleck, Minnesota, in 2019, won 11 games in a season for the first time since 1904, ascending to its highest AP ranking in nearly six decades and – despite last year’s hiccup – has managed two second-place finishes in the Big Ten West in the last three seasons. Fleck’s Gophers are for real, and they present issues on both sides of the ball.
The Minnesota defense (No. 4 nationally) has been stifling, entering this match-up in Phoenix on the crest of a six-game streak of holding the opposition to 268 yards or fewer a game. This is a disciplined unit that stops the run (No. 9 nationally) and gets eyes on the football, limiting easy access throws (seventh fewest completions of 10-plus yards allowed nationally). That’s a Minnesota strength that has helped it hold opponents to a completion rate of 55.3%, best in the Big Ten.
The Gopher offense during Fleck’s tenure has also been impressive. It’s produced a conference rushing champion (Mohamed Ibrahim last year), a conference passing champion (current starter Tanner Morgan in 2019), a first-round NFL draft pick (WR Rashod Bateman this past April) and the highest receiving yardage total in the Big Ten in the past eight years (1,318 by Tyler Johnson in 2019).
It’s been 26 years since West Virginia was part of a first-ever meeting with a member of the Big Ten (Purdue in 1995). So, with Christmas in the rear view and the Mountaineers’ inaugural showdown with the Golden Gophers on the horizon, here are some belated stocking stuffers to dig through as you get that pot of coffee brewing for the late kickoff. I take mine black.
1. WHERE’S THE BEEF?
On its first play of the season against Ohio State, the Minnesota offense lined up in a formation that declared to the world what the 2021 Gophers would be all about. Technically speaking, Minnesota offered up what would be considered an 11 personnel group (1 running back/1 tight end), but that doesn’t really tell the story.
First of all, that tight end was 6-foot-6, 265 pound Ko Kieft — rated by Pro Football Focus as the highest graded run blocking tight end (83.8) in the Big Ten. Secondly, Minnesota availed itself of not one, but two additional offensive linemen for this unbalanced alignment.
All told, the seven linemen the Gophers deployed on that snap (including 6-foot-9, 380-pound Australian colossus Daniel Faalele at right tackle) tipped the scales at a collective 2,285 pounds. That’s a whole lot of meat on the rack. From a relative mass standpoint, imagine lining up an average-sized male grizzly (600 pounds), a fully grown mountain zebra (600 pounds), a Harley-Davidson Sportster 1200 (491.4 pounds), a healthy, silverback gorilla (374 pounds) an adult, red kangaroo (190 pounds) and a partridge (1.1 [pounds) in a pear tree side-by-side with tight splits and handing the ball off behind them.
By the way, extra eggnog for those who noticed the Aussie tackle is literally the size of two kangaroos and has 6 pounds on the silverback.
Minnesota boasts perhaps the deepest offensive line in the nation, a unit that features nine different players who have started a game. The 230 combined starts by the Golden Gophers’ OL are the most in college football. Even more impressively, all five of Minnesota’s regular starters along the offensive line garnered some form of All-Big Ten recognition this season.
2. AGAINST THE CLOCK
The Gophers’ well-oiled offensive line has been a constant source of strength, allowing them to become the only FBS team this season to feature five different players with a 100-yard rushing performance. Minnesota actually ran the football on 67.4% of its snaps, the fourth-highest rate in the nation. Only the option-heavy, usual suspects (Air Force, Army and Navy) ran the ball at a greater clip. This plodding style of play contributed heavily to the Gophers leading the Big Ten in time of possession (35:10 per game – No. 4 in the country).
By working the clock, Minnesota has kept opposing offenses off the field, setting coordinator Joe Rossi’s defense up for success. In fact, the Gopher defense has faced just 57 snaps per game, the fewest among Power 5 teams.
3. SAME BUT DIFFERENT
Neal Brown notices some similarities between Minnesota and the Baylor squad that won the Big 12. He’s pointed out that, offensively, both are teams that lean heavily on the outside zone running scheme while including some RPO elements and taking some shots down the field. Defensively, both utilize four-man fronts and are productive in doing so.
From a matchup perspective, there might also be something to glean from Minnesota’s game against Purdue. The Boilermakers offense does bear a few loose resemblances to West Virginia’s. Purdue is a well-coached and creative offensive football team that does a good job of using space. When it gets in rhythm, it’s effective throwing the football with a battle-tested senior quarterback pitching to a deep crop of receivers – but also like WVU, it can struggle to get the ground game where it wants it when facing better defenses.
Against the Gophers, Purdue threw the football 52 times for 371 yards, running 86 plays (the most Minnesota has faced in five years under Fleck). Despite mustering just 77 rushing yards, the Boilermakers controlled the flow of the game through the air and even tipped the time of possession in their favor, 33:22 to 26:38 (one of just two teams to win that battle versus the Gophers this year).
Throw in the coaches’ video and you’ll see evidence of Purdue’s production against this Minnesota defense. Out of a Pro-I set early in the game, quarterback Aidan O’Connell play fakes to the tailback then gets his eyes downfield. The Gophers are running Cover 6 – a staple in Rossi’s playbook. In effect, it’s a combination coverage that deploys Cover 4 (a safety and a corner, each playing deep quarters) to the wide side of the field and Cover 2 (a deep, half-field safety and a rolled-up corner) to the boundary.
Tight end Garrett Miller pushes up the seam to the sticks then plants a foot in the ground and offsets back toward the ball. This entices Gopher safety Jordan Howden to match off with the route and cover Miller, creating a void in the deep quarter of the field behind him. That void is quickly filled by Purdue wideout David Bell.
Bell explodes vertical on the snap for 10 yards before breaking on a post and gaining inside leverage on cornerback Terell Smith. O’Connell times his throw perfectly with a delivery just inside the hash and Bell makes the grab for a 32-yard pickup, a simple concept executed well to exploit a hole in Minnesota’s coverage. Might Jarret Doege (who tied for the most 30-plus yard completions in the Big 12) and a talented WVU receiving corps be able to do the same?
4. RED ZONE ALERT!
For all the things Purdue did well against Minnesota, the Boilermakers ultimately committed two unforgivable sins that cost them the game, 20-13. They lost the turnover battle (minus two), and they left too many points on the table in the red zone.
The Boilermakers moved the ball effortlessly between the 20s but managed just one touchdown in four red zone trips, twice settling for field goals and missing a third. You can’t afford to be so inefficient against a team that limits your opportunities to the extent which Minnesota does.
The Gophers allowed the second-fewest red zone trips (26) in the country this year. When you do get down in the scoring area against this crew, you better make it count.
In that respect, WVU’s offense has peaked at the perfect time, enjoying a 73% touchdown rate in the red zone over the second half of the season (though they’ll be without the services of Leddie Brown whose 11 rushing scores in the red zone were the most by a Mountaineer since 2011). This late-season trend by West Virginia contrasts a Gopher offense that – from a red zone standpoint – has been heading in the other direction. Minnesota has reached the end zone on just 52% of its trips inside the 20-yard line during that same span.
This is particularly surprising for an offense that runs the ball as effectively as the Gophers. When the field shrinks in the red zone, brutish teams that are built to push you around typically flourish. It’s been well chronicled that Minnesota has overcome attrition at running back all season. The Gophers have cycled through four different starters – but this might be where the absence of Ibrahim (lost for the year in the season opener) hits them the hardest. Last year, he led the Big Ten with 14 red zone TDs on the ground.
The 2021 Minnesota offense has been supremely physical but about as daring as a sweater vest. Despite the production in the running game, a maddening combination of predictability and inconsistency prompted Fleck to jettison coordinator Mike Sanford when the regular season ended. So, what wrinkles might the Gophers, with a different play caller, have in store for a WVU defense that has played excellent situational football all year (No. 1 in the Big 12 in red zone touchdown defense and No. 2 in the league in third-down defense)?
5. TANNER HOT, TANNER COLD
Tanner Morgan’s 26 career victories have established him as the winningest quarterback in Gopher history. Morgan is a streaky passer. When he’s on, he’s hotter than roofing tar in July. He’s authored three of the four best completion percentage outings in school annals, including a 21-for-22 masterpiece against Purdue and an 18-for-20 showing against Penn State, both coming two years ago. In Minnesota’s win over Nebraska, in October, he connected on a school record 16 straight completions.
But Morgan’s not always so flawless. Bowling Green was a more than 30-point underdog against Minnesota in Week 4 and, in large part owing to Morgan’s inexplicable struggles (5-for-13, 59 yards, 2 interceptions and a fumble), Minnesota’s homecoming was spoiled by the Falcons, 14-10. As a 14½-point favorite against Illinois, Morgan connected on barely half of his throws, managing just 180 yards and tossing a pair of picks as the Gophers were shut out for more than 55 minutes in a bewildering, 14-6 upset loss. In last month’s 27-22 setback against Iowa, Morgan failed to complete 50% of his throws for a second straight year against the Hawkeyes.
Can Dante Stills, Akheem Mesidor and Taijh Alston breech that massive Gophers offensive line and spearhead a WVU defensive charge that induces Tanner Morgan’s dark side?
* * *
Since getting torched for scoring passes of 70, 61 and 56 yards in the opener against Ohio State, the Minnesota defense has bottled things up – allowing just one completion of 50-plus yards in the last 11 games. Can the Mountaineers wedge a few of those old cracks in the Gopher secondary back open? An explosive play or two for a fast start could serve West Virginia well. Really well. Under Fleck, Minnesota is just 2-17 when trailing after the first quarter but 32-6 when leading or tied after one quarter.
‘Tis the season to dig into your bag of tricks. Can Neal Brown‘s Mountaineers edge out Minnesota in the gadget play department? Who bites on the misdirection? Who stays home? With the Golden Gophers hellbent on rowing the boat, West Virginia better make those waters plenty choppy.
History has taught us that bowl season ushers in not only a stage for heroics but a platform for the unpredictable. Might WVU steal a possession from these clock-chewing Gophers with a key turnover or some special teams trickery?
Minnesota is a salty football team that was just a few plays away from a 10-2 season. Is there a Mickey Walczak, Phil Brady or Darwin Cook on this Mountaineer roster itching to engrave his name into West Virginia bowl lore? It was, after all, in this same venue in the desert that the legend of David Sills V was born six years ago next week. Will another hero emerge Tuesday night?
If not, West Virginia could be heading right into the danger zone.
Didn’t Kenny Loggins warn us about that too?
I’ll see you at the 50.