Gophers win in Phoenix, take Guaranteed Rate Bowl 18-6 over West Virginia

The win marks the tenth Bowl Game win in team history

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Ethan Fine

Defensive Player of the Game Tyler Nubin, Coach P.J. Fleck and Offensive Player of the Game Ky Thomas hoist the Guaranteed Rate Trophy following the Gophers’ victory against the West Virginia Mountaineers in the Guaranteed Rate Bowl on Tuesday, Dec. 28 at Chase Field in Phoenix, Ariz. The Gophers won 18-6.

by Matthew Kennedy, Sports Reporter

The Minnesota Gophers have defeated the West Virginia Mountaineers 18-6 at Chase Field in Phoenix, Ariz. The Gophers are now 3-0 in bowl games under head coach P.J. Fleck and have won five straight bowl games since 2015.

Minnesota started out the game with two trips to the red zone thanks to Tanner Morgan having one of his best passing quarters this season, going 6-8 for 82 yards. Yet, the Gophers came out with nothing on the scoreboard.

Their first trip ended with a missed Matthew Trickett 33-yard field goal. The second ended with a Ky Thomas fumble. A head-scratching start offensively for interim Offensive Coordinator Matt Simon who is usually the wide receivers coach. Simon took over for the recently canned Mike Sanford Jr. who was replaced by Kirk Ciarrocca, the Gophers former offensive coordinator in 2019.

On the half, Thomas totaled 87 yards. Fifty of those came on an explosion up the middle that set himself up with a touchdown run to set the game at 15-6 at halftime. Thomas was named the Offensive MVP of the game and finished the night with 144 yards and a touchdown.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been around a unit that is so selfless,” Fleck said about the running back room. “Kenni Burns deserves a lot of credit, you can’t imagine the things he’s gone through to prepare these younger guys to be able to play.”

Minnesota’s defense was even more stout than usual. West Virginia in the first quarter did not attain a first down and nearly got a safety after back-to-back sacks by Esezi Otomewo and Boye Mafe. Otomewo added another sack before the half ended. No plays over 15 yards were allowed all game by the Gophers. Tyler Nubin finished with the Defensive MVP award after netting a team-high 8 total tackles along with a sack and a pass breakup.

“This is maybe one of the best defensive seasons I’ve seen as a head coach,” Fleck said “We wanted to be the defense that knocks, and I thought they did that”.

In the second quarter the Gophers pulled out some tricks out of Fleck’s magic hat. After Mar’Keise ‘Bucko’ Irving set up a goal-line opportunity, 6 foot 9, 380 pound Australian offensive tackle Daniel Faalele ran in a touchdown on his last game in a Gopher uniform. Next, holder Brock Annexstad kept the extra point snap into the end zone for a two-point conversion to make the game 8-0.

On the next possession, West Virginia was able to find the endzone on a one-yard scramble by Jarret Doege but was unable to convert on the two-point conversion to tie the game. Near the end of the half, the Mountaineers would drive again on the Gophers deep in their territory, but a Michael Dixon Gophers interception halted that effort.

A glaring issue all game was the field conditions on the transformed football gridiron at Chase Field, which normally serves as a baseball diamond for the Arizona Diamondbacks. Morgan lost seven yards while dropping back to pass by slipping on the grass. That diminished Minnesota’s touchdown hopes on the opening drive of the half but the Gophers still managed to score three points from a Trickett 49-yard field goal.

The turf monster once again thwarted the Gophers on their next drive as Michael Brown-Stephens slipped near the sideline going for a catch as the Mountaineers intercepted Morgan. Not a great showing for the Diamondbacks greenskeepers.

Thomas along with Irving would continue to run out the clock. The two mauled the Mountaineers in rushing yards 252-51. The final score was 18-6 and the Gophers would finish the year 9-4.

After losing Mohamed Ibrahim in Week One and Trey Potts in Week Five, Minnesota had to lean on two freshman running backs for the rest of the year. A testament to their resiliency, both players eclipsed 100 yards in the Guaranteed Rate Bowl.

“Nine wins is a really tremendous season for us,” said Fleck. “If you look at how much they’ve had to overcome to get there…those are the trophies of these men growing up.”