PHOENIX – The first-quarter stats from the Guaranteed Rate Bowl on Tuesday night at Chase Field were the stuff of a blowout. Total yards: Gophers 123, West Virginia 6.
Problem is, Minnesota twice marched inside the Mountaineers 6-yard line in the opening 15 minutes and had only a missed field-goal attempt and a lost fumble to show for it.
That, however, becomes less of an issue because the Gophers have a shut-down defense and employ running backs such as Ky Thomas, Mar'Keise Irving and … Daniel Faalele.
Thomas rushed for 144 yards and a touchdown, Irving carried for 129 yards, and Faalele — a 6-9, 380-pound offensive tackle and NFL draft prospect — lined up at fullback and powered his way 2 yards into the end zone for the Gophers' first score.
That added up to an 18-6 victory over the Mountaineers in front of 21,220 for the Gophers' fifth consecutive bowl triumph. Minnesota's defense limited West Virginia to 206 total yards and only quarterback Jarret Doege's 1-yard TD run on fourth down in the second quarter.
"I couldn't be prouder of this football team," Fleck said. "They've been through an awful lot, overcame a lot. … Nine wins is a really tremendous season for us."
The Gophers defense played well from the start, forcing a three-and-out by the Mountaineers, who run an up-tempo offense all game long, less than one minute into the game.
Taking over at their 43, the Gophers (9-4) drove to the Mountaineers 5, but Lance Dixon broke up Tanner Morgan's second-down pass and Dante Stills sacked Morgan for a 10-yard loss on third down. That brought in Matthew Trickett for a 33-yard field-goal attempt, but he missed wide left. On the drive, the Gophers got a 22-yard pass from Morgan to Dylan Wright on third-and-9 from the West Virginia 42.
Minnesota's defense forced its second consecutive three-and-out, with Donald Willis breaking up a third-down pass. The Gophers began their second possession at their 42.
Morgan immediately got another big hookup with Wright, this one for 36 yards to the Mountaineers 22. Again, the Gophers got nothing. On third-and-3 from the 15, Thomas rushed for 9 yards, but Taijh Alston forced a fumble that Charles Woods recovered for West Virginia at the 6.
Minnesota's defense came up big again, with Esezi Otomewo and Boye Mafe sacking Doege on back-to-back plays for losses of 7 and 8 yards, leaving the Mountaineers with third-and-25 from their 1. Two plays later, West Virginia punted, and Minnesota took over at its 46.
"We wanted to be the defense that knocks," Fleck said in a reference to a scene in the TV series "Breaking Bad," "and I thought we did that."
This time, the Gophers would score early in the second quarter, with the massive Faalele lining up at fullback and powering in for a 2-yard TD run. Some trickery on the two-point conversion attempt made it 8-0 when Brock Annexstad took a direct snap and ran it in.
"I really want to thank my 'O' line, my brothers," said Faalele, who played his final game as a Gopher. "They really helped me get in the end zone. Without them, that play wouldn't have been able to be drawn up."
Said Fleck: "He's 400 pounds. Once that thing gets moving forward, it's hard to stop that thing."
Key on the drive were Irving's 23-yard run to the 2 on the first play of the second quarter and his 16-yard gain to start the seven-play, 54-yard march. In the first quarter, the Gophers held the ball for 10:31.
West Virginia (6-7) got its offense going in the second quarter, with Doege driving Mountaineers down the field by completing four of five passes for 40 yards, then scored on a fourth-and-goal run from the 1 with 8:48 left in the second quarter. Gophers safety Jordan Howden broke up Doege's two-point conversion pass, making Minnesota's lead 8-6.
"We just weren't good enough today," West Virginia coach Neal Brown said. "… Defensively, we hung in there. … We got to be better in the special teams areas and better on offense."
The Gophers bumped their lead to 15-6 with 2:14 left in the second quarter on Thomas' 5-yard run. Thomas set up the score with his 50-yard run to the West Virginia 9 during a play on which he took a pitch, cut to his left and found a massive hole that he exploited for the big gain.
"They taught me how to prepare," Thomas, the game's offensive MVP, said of Mohamed Ibrahim and other veterans in the Gophers running backs room. "They guided me and told me how it is."
West Virginia threatened the trim the Gophers lead late in the second quarter, with Doege marching the Mountaineers to Minnesota's 39. Linebacker Braelen Oliver blasted Doege on a second-down incompletion, and another hit on third down caused the QB to flutter a pass, which Michael Dixon intercepted at the 16 with 40 seconds left.
The Gophers reached the West Virginia 46 on Irving's 24-yard run to start the third quarter, but Morgan took a sack for a 10-yard loss on a flea-flicker attempt that didn't work. Three plays later, the Gophers punted, and West Virginia started at its 12.
Jah Joyner's third-down sack of Doege forced the Mountaineers to punt, and the Gophers moved to the West Virginia 31 and got a 49-yard field goal for an 18-6 lead with 5:53 left in the third quarter. Morgan's 12-yard pass to Derik LeCaptain on third-and-18 salvaged field position for the field goal.
West Virginia reached the Minnesota 42 on it next possession, but Tyler Nubin's sack on a blitz and Coney Durr's fourth-down pass breakup turned the ball over on downs.
"It was really just our mentality on defense, keeping everything in front of us and being aggressive on the outside," said Nubin, who led the Gophers with eight tackles and was named the game's defensive MVP. "Everything we've been doing well all year, we just wanted to up the emphasis on."
West Virginia got the ball back when Morgan passed toward Mike Brown-Stephens on the sideline, but Brown-Stephens slipped on the grass and Woods intercepted the pass. Minnesota's defense held, though, forcing a punt.
The Mountaineers got the ball back with 9:13 left in the fourth quarter but went three-and-out again, with Minnesota taking over at its 38 with 7:54 to play. Behind Irving and Thomas, the Gophers marched to the West Virginia 25 and faced third-and-7. Morgan faked a handoff and kept the ball, breaking outside and sliding down at the 12 for a 13-yard gain. West Virginia took its last timeout with 2:19 left, and the Gophers went into Victory formation, draining all but 4 seconds off the clock.
"We're going to do what we have to do to win a football game," Fleck said. "… The way our defense was playing, we were going to lean on our defense in the second half."
In the end, the Gophers closed the season with a three-game win streak capped by a big victory over Wisconsin for Paul Bunyan's Axe and a third bowl triumph in Fleck's five seasons in Minnesota.
"We've got a special football team," he said, "and a lot of guys coming back."