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The ground game to be the difference in the Guaranteed Rate Bowl

On Tuesday, West Virginia will look to close out a strong second half, with a victory over Minnesota in the Guaranteed Rate Bowl, and it will come down to which team can find the most success running the ball.

At the halfway point of West Virginia’s (6-6) season, all hope seemed to be lost. The Mountaineers had started 2-6, and lost their first three conference games before the bye week hit. The Mountaineers did a complete turnaround in the second half, winning four of their final six games and earning the right to play in the Guaranteed Rate Bowl against Minnesota.

The Gophers (8-4) had a similar path to Phoenix, Arizona, as their season started out 2-2, including a loss to Bowling Green. The Gophers proceeded to win six of their next eight games.

In the final four games West Virginia won, the difference was quarterback Jarret Doege. Doege averaged 272 yards in West Virginia’s final four wins, while averaging less than one interception in those games. In the two losses down the stretch, Doege averaged 189 yards passing and threw three interceptions in two games.

West Virginia will be without running back Leddie Brown who decided not to play in the bowl game, while facing the ninth rated run defense in the country. Offensive coordinator Gerad Parker said he does not want his offense to try and do too much while on offense.

“It’s certainly a factor in the game,” Parker said on the possible lack of possessions. “I think our guys know they’ve got to focus on us and how we got to play and be who we are.”

Not only does Minnesota’s play style limit the number of possessions a team gets, but they are still playing really good defense at the same time. In their last six games, Minnesota has now allowed more than 300 total yards in their previous six games.

West Virginia will try to eclipse that mark, with an unfamiliar face in the backfield. Running back Tony Mathis who played behind Brown all year will be the lead back out of the West Virginia backfield. Mathis rushed for 118 yards in West Virginia’s final game of the regular season, and head coach Neal Brown is excited for the opportunity for Mathis and has all the faith in the world he can deliver.

“It’s a great opportunity, he’s played good football. If you go back, he’s kind of gotten better and better since the bye week, he’s had some big moments,” Brown said. “He’s ready, I think it’s a great opportunity for him.”

Defensively, West Virginia will be going against an experienced offense, and an offense that likes to run the ball. The Gophers quarterback is senior Tanner Morgan. Morgan has been the starting quarterback since the 2018 season. Minnesota also has three running backs who finished with over 500 yards rushing and all of them had at least four touchdowns come on the ground.

“We know they’re going to try and pound the ball,” defensive lineman Akheem Messidor said of Minnesota’s offensive game plan.

Most of Minnesota’s success on the ground has come from their offensive line. The Gophers front five have dominated their opponents this year, and all five starters on their line were named to their all-conference teams, including two being named to the All-Big Ten First Team.

West Virginia defensive coordinator Jordan Lesley said their offensive line is one of, if not the best his defense has faced all season.

“Really really good, but different,” Lesley said on comparing Minnesota’s offensive line to the other team’s West Virginia has faced. “They’re obviously extremely big. They probably work as well as a unit as anybody as we’ve played for what they do. It always makes it tough when they’re experienced, they’re big and [they’re] strong.”

West Virginia is averaging 126.2 rush yards per game, while Minnesota is only allowing 100.2 rushing yards per game.

This is West Virginia’s second straight season of making it to a bowl game. The Mountaineers defeated Army 24-21 last season, but before that West Virginia had not won a bowl game since winning the Cactus Bowl in the same stadium this year’s bowl game will be played following the 2015 season.

West Virginia and Minnesota will kickoff at 10:15 p.m. EST from Chase Field in Phoenix, Arizona.

Photo by Ethan Bock

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