In an era of college football where quarterbacks are throwing the football at historic rates, this year’s Guaranteed Rate Bowl could buck those passing trends — and for both teams competing, it starts on the other side of the football.
Minnesota (8-4, 6-3 Big Ten) will head to Phoenix, Arizona boasting one of the best defenses in the nation.
“They get off the field on defense,” said Darren Wolfson with KSTP. “Statistically speaking, from a defensive standpoint, they are, in terms of yards given up, one of the best defenses in the country.”
The Golden Gophers ended the regular season ranking in the top 10 in the country in scoring defense, rush defense, pass defense, total defense, and first down defense. They were among the five best units in the country in two of those areas.
“This defense is one of the best, not in the Big Ten, in the country. So yes, this is a favorable matchup,” Wolfson said when asked about the Golden Gophers’ ability to stop the run and disrupt the opposition’s passing game.
Redshirt senior lineman Boye Mafe, who leads the Minnesota defense with nine tackles-for-loss and six sacks, earned all-conference honors this season.
Senior linebackers Jack Gibbens (86) and Mariano Sori-Marin (82) are the only players on P.J. Fleck‘s defense to record more than 44 tackles.
Fleck’s team also boasts an above-average rushing attack, which is impressive considering that five Minnesota tailbacks suffered injuries this year, according to the head coach earlier this month.
Despite the injuries, Minnesota has three players that have rushed for over 500 yards this year. That includes freshman Ky Thomas, who rushed for a team-leading 680 yards and five touchdowns this year.
“They do a lot of things well. They run the ball incredibly well, they’re one of the best rushing offenses in the Big Ten,” said Wolfson. “They sustain drives.”
Thomas will be the feature back during the bowl game.
Chris Autman-Bell is the top target on the outside for quarterback Tanner Morgan. Autman-Bell caught 35 passes for 490 yards and six touchdowns this year. He’s the only Minnesota pass catcher with more than two receiving touchdowns.
The Golden Gophers’ offensive line is not only one of the most experienced in the country, but it’s a talented group as well. Four of the five starting linemen earned All-Big Ten honors by both the coaches and conference media.
The coaches selected right tackle Daniel Faalele to the first team All-Big Ten squad. Guard John Michael Schmitz earned second team All-Big Ten honors, while Blaise Andries and Conner Olson were selected to the third team all-conference squad.
“Across the board, you go left tackle to right tackle, it’s guys with 30-plus starts,” said Wolfson. “When talking about Daniel Faalele, a right tackle, he’s a top 100 pick.”
Matt Simon will be calling plays for Minnesota on offense in the bowl game. Former West Virginia Senior Analyst Kirk Ciarrocca, who has signed on to become the next offensive coordinator for the Golden Gophers, will not coach in game.
Wolfson described Minnesota’s starting group as very experienced and talented. It’s also a group that has won.
This year’s Golden Gophers seniors have enjoyed three winning seasons, and two bowl victories.
Minnesota enters the bowl game having won six out of their last eight games. The Golden Gophers didn’t allow more than 27 points in any game over that stretch, and only allowed more than 14 points three times.
Minnesota and West Virginia (6-6, 4-5 Big 12) will battle at Chase Field in the Guaranteed Rate Bowl on Dec. 28 at 10:15 p.m. ET. The game can be seen on ESPN.
Catch the full interview with KSTP’s Darren Wolfson on Tuesday’s live edition of the Mountaineer GameDay Bowl Special, which airs at 7 p.m. ET on West Virginia Nexstar stations and on AT&T SportsNet Pittsburgh.