SCOTTSDALE, ARIZ. – Good morning from Arizona, and Happy Guaranteed Rate Bowl Day for all who celebrate.
The 2021 football season closes tonight for the Gophers, who face West Virginia at Chase Field in downtown Phoenix. Minnesota (8-4) will try to cap the season with its third consecutive victory and extend its bowl winning streak to five games. The Mountaineers (6-6) will try to win their second consecutive bowl game and reverse a trend of seven losses in their past 10 bowl appearances.
If you plan to watch the game, brew another pot of coffee because it's a 9:15 p.m. Central start on ESPN.
COVID-19 has been a dark cloud hanging over bowl season, with four games already canceled. As of Sunday, the Gophers and Mountaineers had reported zero cases of the virus. Let's hope that continues and full rosters are available.
Here are a few things I'm looking forward to in tonight's game:
The Gophers offensive line and tight end Ko Kieft: Quite simply, this group has been the driving force for Minnesota's offense, and four of the five starters on the line and Kieft will play their last collegiate game. Left tackle Sam Schlueter and left guard Conner Olson are completing their sixth seasons, and right guard Blaise Andries and right tackle Daniel Faalele are leaving to start their pro careers. Only center John Michael Schmitz is returning for 2022, and he'll be a key piece for the Gophers. A strong rushing performance, plus about a half-dozen pancake blocks from Kieft, would be a fitting finish.
The bowl debuts of Ky Thomas and Mar'Keise Irving: Thomas, a redshirt freshman, and Irving, a true freshman, came to the rescue of a running back group that saw Mohamed Ibrahim, Trey Potts and Bryce Williams lost for the season because of injuries. The thunder and lightning pair of Thomas and Irving has combined for 1,250 rushing yards and nine touchdowns.
A completely healthy Chris Autman-Bell: The high ankle sprain from training camp bothered Autman-Bell for much of the season and forced him to miss the first two games and most of another. He finished the season strong, with three TD receptions in the final two games, including the go-ahead TD catch in the 23-13 win over Wisconsin. With a month off to heal since the regular-season finale, Autman-Bell should be even better.
The Tanner Morgan-Matt Simon pairing: Simon, the Gophers wide receivers coach, will serve as offensive coordinator for this game after Mike Sanford Jr. was let go. Simon pinch-hit for Kirk Ciarrocca in the Outback Bowl following the 2019 season, and the Gophers produced 494 yards of offense in the 31-24 victory over Auburn. Morgan passed for 278 yards and two TDs, with the Gophers averaging 9.3 yards per pass attempt. Ciarrocca, rehired as offensive coordinator, won't coach in this game per an agreement between Gophers coach P.J. Fleck and West Virginia coach Neal Brown. Ciarrocca worked as an offensive analyst for the Mountaineers this season.
Boye Mafe vs. Jarret Doege: Mafe, the Gophers' leader in sacks and tackles for loss, could have some sack opportunities against Doege, who's a solid passer but has minus-140 rushing yards, a result of the Mountaineers allowing 33 sacks this season. Mafe is playing in his final game for the Gophers after announcing Monday that he's leaving for the NFL.
Jack Gibbens' finale: The transfer from Abilene Christian fit in seamlessly for the Gophers, leading the team in tackles and earning All-Big Ten honorable mention. He closed the regular season on a high note with 10 tackles in the win over Wisconsin.
Coney Durr's finale: The cornerback from Louisiana has been with the Gophers since 2016 and missed most of the 2017 season after tearing an anterior cruciate knee ligament in the 2016 Holiday Bowl. Durr persevered to become a four-year starter and a valued leader in the secondary, helping mentor standout freshman Justin Walley.