PHOENIX (AP) — West Virginia was already facing a difficult task against a Minnesota defense that's one of the best in the country. The Golden Gophers shut down the pass, smother the run, rarely give an inch.
The Mountaineers' climb became much steeper when leading rusher Leddie Brown opted to skip the Guaranteed Rate Bowl to prepare for the NFL draft.
“That’s something that everybody is having to deal with," West Virginia coach Neal Brown said of opt-outs and transfers. "What our philosophy is on that is that we’re going to take the group that’s prepared to play, that is motivated to play and we’re going to give them the very best opportunity to win.”
Minnesota (8-4) earned a spot in Tuesday night's game at Chase Field — home of the Arizona Diamondbacks — behind a stifling defense. The Gophers were fifth nationally in total defense during the regular season, allowing 284.8 yards per game. They were ninth against the pass (184.7 yards per game) and the run (100.6), holding six teams to less than 80 yards on the ground.
West Virginia (6-6) has a solid passing game led by Jarret Doege. The senior threw for 2,908 yards and 19 touchdowns with 11 interceptions. He was 24th nationally with 21.2 completions per game.
The question mark will be in the run game.
Brown ran for 1,000 yards each of the past two seasons, finishing with 1,065 and 13 touchdowns this year.
Now that he's out, the run game will revolve around Tony Mathis.
The sophomore is more shifty than the power-running Brown, but had just 59 carries for 256 yards this season playing behind Brown.
“I have unbelievable belief in Tony,” Doege said. “I have said it multiple times: He’s one of the hardest, if not the hardest worker on our football team. I have total confidence in him.”
Tanner Morgan could have called it a career after a record-breaking run at Minnesota.
Instead, the Gophers quarterback plans to come back next season.
Morgan had a superb 2019 season, setting school records with 3,253 yards passing and 30 touchdowns. He had a solid 2020 season amid the pandemic, but was up and down in 2021, taking criticism while the passing game stalled at times. He also lost his father, Ted, after a battle with brain cancer.
Morgan kept bouncing back, throwing for 1,095 yards and 11 touchdowns with eight interceptions while leading the Gophers to eight wins and a bowl game.
“Tanner’s been through everything in this world, and some people couldn’t go through what he’s been through,″ Gophers receiver Chris Autman-Bell said. “He still comes in every day and leads this team with a smile on his face. To show up every day, that’s what a leader is."
Not only has Morgan decided to return, but so did Autman-Bell, center John Michael Schmitz and running back Mohamed Ibrahim -- all for their sixth seasons. Morgan, Autman-Bell and Schmitz all initially committed to Western Michigan, where coach P.J. Fleck was before he took the job at Minnesota and joined him with the Gophers in 2017.
Fleck has started calling his soon-to-be sixth-year offensive leaders the “encore four.”
“It was definitely a tough decision, a lot of self-thought, a lot of talking to coaches and family members, just people who were in my corner,” Schmitz said. “I felt like I have a lot more to accomplish in college with individual awards and also as a team.”
Minnesota wide receivers coach and co-offensive coordinator Matt Simon will be the play-caller against West Virginia despite the rehiring of Kirk Ciarrocca as offensive coordinator.
The reason? Ciarrocca was hired from West Virginia before the bowl matchups were announced.
Ciarrocca was Fleck’s offensive coordinator at Western Michigan from 2013-16 and at Minnesota from 2017-19 . He spent 2021 with West Virginia in a noncoaching role as an offensive analyst after one season at Penn State.
Giarrocca won't coach in the bowl game after a conversation between Neal Brown and Fleck.
FACTS & FIGURES
West Virginia was 13th nationally in fourth-down conversions at 69.2%. ... Minnesota turned to a two-pronged running back attack after leading rusher Mohamed Ibrahim was injured in the opener against Ohio State and Trey Potts went down against Purdue on Oct. 3. Ky Thomas and Mar'Keise Irving combined for 1,250 yards and nine TDs. ... West Virginia has one of the nation's best kick returners in Winston Wright Jr., who averages 27.4 yards per return.
AP Sports Writer Dave Campbell in Minneapolis contributed to this story.
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