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Minnesota Football vs. West Virginia: The Elite, The Meh & The Ugly

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The Gophers improved to 3-0 in bowl games under P.J. Fleck

Guaranteed Rate Bowl - West Virginia v Minnesota Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The Minnesota Golden Gophers (9-4) capped their season with an 18-6 win over the West Virginia Mountaineers (6-7) Tuesday night in the Guaranteed Rate Bowl. It was a bittersweet night as the Gophers bid farewell to a number of seniors who have been impact players throughout their careers at Minnesota, but there were plenty of highlights for the maroon and gold.

The Elite

Daniel Faalele’s first career touchdown. The cherry on top was that a West Virginia player saw Faalele lined up at fullback and immediately panicked, calling a timeout. But whatever the Mountaineers discussed during the break was for naught, as Minnesota came out of the timeout in the same formation and ran the same play, allowing Faalele to rumble into the end zone.

The Gophers’ ground game. It was the end of an era for the Minnesota Movers on Tuesday night, as Conner Olson, Sam Schlueter, Blaise Andries, and Faalele all played their final games in maroon and gold. But it was a fitting end, as the offensive line paved the way for Ky Thomas and Mar’Keise “Bucky” Irving to rush for a combined 273 rushing yards, each averaging more than six yards per carry. The Gophers didn’t even pass much in the second half, opting instead to let the ground game go to work and chew up the clock, suffocating West Virginia.

Joe Rossi’s defense. Speaking of suffocating, the Mountaineers’ offense didn’t have much room to breathe all night, especially quarterback Jarret Doege. Minnesota had a season-high five sacks, along with six tackles for loss, six pass break-ups, a forced fumble, and an interception. The seniors came to play, as Esezi Otomewo and Boye Mafe combined for three sacks and Coney Durr broke up back-to-back passes down field in the third quarter to create a turnover on downs.

Career firsts for Michael Dixon, Jah Joyner, and Tyler Nubin. Safety Michael Dixon recorded his first career interception right before halftime, thwarting an attempt by West Virginia to get points on the board before the break. In the second half, defensive end Jah Joyner and safety Tyler Nubin each recorded their first career sack. Nubin collected Defensive MVP honors at game’s end after leading the team with eight tackles, one sack, and a pass break-up.

Minnesota is 3-0 in bowl games under P.J. Fleck. The Gophers won their fifth straight bowl game as a program and improved to 3-0 in bowl games with Fleck at the helm. Minnesota finished the season with at least nine wins for the second time in the past three years. This is the 10th nine-win season in program history, and its second under Fleck.

The Meh

The passing game. It was difficult for the Gophers to gain much traction in the passing game Tuesday night, literally in some cases as the poor field conditions at one point led to Tanner Morgan slipping and falling for a phantom sack. So I’m not going to get too bent out of shape that Morgan’s line was a pedestrian 8-of-13 for 109 passing yards and one interception. And even that interception was aided by the wet turf, with Mike Brown-Stephens slipping and falling to the ground as the ball came his direction only to end up in the arms of a West Virginia defender.

Special teams. I continue to be flummoxed by the inconsistency in the kicking game. On the Gophers’ opening drive of the game, Matthew Trickett missed a chip shot field goal attempt from 25 yards out. But then in the third quarter, he nailed a 49-yard attempt. Make it make sense.

The Ugly

The playing conditions at Chase Field. If you had told me in advance that the playing conditions would be a problem in a domed stadium in Arizona, I would have been very confused. But the operations staff at Chase Field outdid themselves Tuesday night, opening up the retractable roof during a pregame downpour so that a paratrooper could parachute in and fireworks could be launched at the conclusion of the national anthem. The rain soaked for the field for 20 minutes, which impacted play throughout the game for both teams. It was completely avoidable.