For the first time in his career as a head coach, Neal Brown ended his season with a loss as his WVU football squad fell to Minnesota 18-6 in the Guaranteed Rate Bowl on Tuesday.

That loss particularly stung the third-year Mountaineer head coach for that reason, but several others as well. Brown’s seniors were sent out with a defeat after they were outplayed by the Golden Gophers, while the rest of the squad returned to Morgantown empty-handed.

“That’s a sad locker room,” Brown said. “Those guys that have given a lot to this program, and it didn’t go the way they wanted to.”

It took just two touchdowns and a field goal for the Gophers to top the Mountaineers, but a deeper look at the stat sheet shows a big gap between the two sides. Minnesota controlled the game, owning nearly two-thirds of the possession in the contest, while holding the Mountaineers to just 206 yards of total offense.

Brown was high on the WVU defense, which did keep the Mountaineers in the game, especially in its early sequences. The true issues came on offense, as neither their rushing or passing attacks truly threatened the Minnesota defense.

“Offensively, just, it was a struggle,” Brown said. “We were down some personnel, but at the end of the day we’ve got to be better.”

That season is now officially in the past for West Virginia, and by the post-game press conference, Brown had his eyes on the future. He noted a high number of returning players — big names like center Zach Frazier, wide receiver Bryce Ford-Wheaton and defensive tackle Akheem Mesidor — and said that is a cause for hope in 2022.

Running back Tony Mathis Jr., who made his first career start in the bowl, will also be back for his redshirt junior season. Mathis showed flashes this year, notching his first 100-yard rushing game in the season finale against Kansas. In the lead-up to the bowl, he called the Phoenix trip the beginning of a new phase in his career, and he led the team with 80 all-purpose yards.

After the loss, he echoed that sentiment.

“That’s just a starting point for next year, and getting everybody ready and getting back locked in,” Mathis said.

Those returners could be crucial for WVU, a team that lost by just one possession in three of its six regular season defeats. Still, those go down as losses, and in a 12-game season, those carry a lot of weight and can pile up rather quickly — as shown in 2021.

That doesn’t shake the optimism of Brown, who gave his team a vote of confidence in the locker room after the bowl.

“There are certain aspects of our program that we’ve got to get better, so we’re close, and that’s what I told our team in the locker room, and they can tell you, is we’re close in a lot of areas.” Brown said. “We’re really, really close, but we’ve got to do some things to get better to get back to where we want to be.”