When the Minnesota Golden Gophers and the West Virginia Mountaineers take the field for the Guaranteed Rate Bowl on Dec. 28, it will be the first ever meeting between the two programs. I spoke with Jake Lantz (a.k.a. WVUNite) of The Smoking Musket to get the inside scoop on how West Virginia got here and what Gopher fans can expect from the Mountaineers.
The Daily Gopher: This is Year 3 of the Neal Brown era at West Virginia. How are Mountaineer fans feeling about his tenure and the future with Brown at the helm?
Jake Lantz: Fans are split. One group believes in Brown and while the season could be deemed disappointing, they aren’t willing to pass judgement three years in. They want to give the coach a full five years before judging his accomplishments. Another group is frustrated and antsy. It has been three years and the team has gone 5-7, 6-4, 6-6. There haven’t been many big wins — Virginia Tech was ranked No. 15 but finished the year 6-6 and unranked, Iowa State was No. 22 but entered Morgantown 5-2 and finished the year 7-5 and unranked. I wrote earlier in the season that I just wanted WVU Football to be fun again, because it hasn’t been very fun the past three years and fans are ready for something, anything to give them hope.
Brown certainly inherited a tough situation when he took over in 2019 but overall the team has suffered from similar issues that we saw from the previous coaching staff. During the first half of the season, several times during the first half the staff would need to call a timeout because play calls weren’t coming in on time. The offense over the past three seasons has been mediocre and stale. There aren’t a lot of explosive plays and tends to operate on such a small margin of error, any mistake is magnified. Fans are understandably frustrated that the team hasn’t made a big jump and seems to be treading water.
TDG: The Mountaineers started the season 2-4 before flipping the script and going 4-2 down the stretch — including a 38-31 upset of then No. 22-ranked Iowa State — to secure bowl eligibility. What was the key to the team’s turnaround in the back half of the season?
JL: A lot of the turnaround should be attributed to the schedule. The teams the Mountaineers faced in the second half did not rush the passer well and did not defend the run well. Those were the two major Achilles’ heels of the Mountaineers in 2021, and facing teams that didn’t do those things helped the team look better. Also, the coaching staff did a great job of entering the bye week and doing some self-reflection, understanding that this iteration of the team could only do certain things and it was better to focus on those and simplify than try to outscheme everyone every week. Certain players, like guard Doug Nestor, who started the year with a cast on his hand, got healthy. Freshman right tackle Wyatt Millum grew comfortable with the college game and understood his assignments more. The staff made a switch from Neal Brown as head coach/offensive coordinator to allowing Gerad Parker to become more of a full-time OC. Removing that responsibility from Brown trickled down and helped the team’s focus throughout.
TDG: West Virginia will be without leading rusher Leddie Brown, who opted out of the bowl game. But the Mountaineers ranked 97th nationally in rushing offense, so clearly their offense is not predicated on running the ball. What can Minnesota expect from West Virginia’s passing attack?
JL: Strangely enough, Brown wants to run the ball, but we just haven’t been a good rushing team and a lot of that can be attributed to the offensive line. The previous staff loaded up on older players in 2018 and the 2019 and 2020 teams were very young on the offensive line. Throw in a coaching and philosophical blocking change, the line has struggled. Going from a zone-gap scheme to a more power scheme has been tough but the line has started to look like they are getting better.
On the passing side, to answer your question, I really wish I knew. Quarterback Jarret Doege is a seasoned player, having thrown passes every year since 2017 and still has one more year of eligibility next year. He finished the year second in the Big 12 in passing yards (his 2,908 were a career high) and had four games where he threw three touchdowns. When Doege isn’t pressured, he is capable of deciphering and picking apart a defense, however, when Doege has been pressured, even on just a few plays, he makes really big mistakes. Despite being second in the Big 12 in passing yards, he finished second in interceptions and first in sacks. If he is pressured, he regresses pretty badly. If he is kept clean, he is really dangerous.
TDG: Statistically, the Mountaineers have a respectable defense. The Gophers are going to try to wear them down with their ground game. Is West Virginia’s defense well equipped to stop their rushing attack?
JL: If I had to choose, a team that leans on its rush game plays into what West Virginia does well on defense. It will remain to be seen if the defense can hold up for 60 minutes however. In the first half of the season, the team was very stout against the run, whereas statistically in the second half they were more susceptible to bigger runs. Even in the second half, when you look at team stats, you see that nearly every team ran for 150+ yards on the Mountaineers but more of that was two or three big runs and a lot of short runs. With Dante Stills, Ahkeem Mesidor, and Taijh Alston, the Mountaineers have three defensive linemen who are capable of eating up blocks, knifing through defenders and stalling a run game. It’s going to be a tough job for them but its the one place that the Mountaineers have been strong at all year long.
TDG: Who are two players — one on offense and the other on defense — that you expect to be difference makers in the bowl game?
JL: Offensively, the easy answer is quarterback Jarret Doege. If he has a good day, the Mountaineers are going to be competitive. If he has a tough game, the Mountaineers are going to struggle. Since you’ve said that the Gophers play a bend-but-don’t-break, work-your-way-down-the-field defense, I’m going to pivot at say Tony Mathis. Mathis has spelled running back Leddie Brown at times, gaining more carries as the year went on and showing good explosiveness on those runs. I’d posit that Mathis is a more decisive runner than Brown and more explosive, so I am excited to see what he can do with a full game’s workload. Leddie often served as a safety valve and outlet for Doege and I want to see if Mathis can also catch the ball out of the backfield.
Defensively, linebacker Josh Chandler-Semedo will be playing his last game and he’s the Mountaineers’ leading tackler with over 100 tackles. If the Gophers are going to try and run the ball, I expect him to be very active and he will need to be if West Virginia wants to limit the Gophers. Chandler-Semedo has shown a willingness to stick his nose in the mess and this seems like the type of game where he could have 12-15 tackles.
TDG: What is your final score prediction for the Guaranteed Rate Bowl?
JL: Neal Brown is 4-0 as a head coach in bowl games and seems to put a lot of effort into bowl game preparation. I think the Mountaineers will be competitive but I am worried that the Gophers’ defense will force Jarret Doege to continually pick up 6, 7, 8 yards a pass and not having any explosiveness means one mistake takes away 10 minutes of game clock. In Dante Stills’ — a legacy four-star defensive tackle for the Mountaineers who has started since he was a freshman — last game, I’m going to take the Mountaineers in a close 24-21 game.