Measuring Up Against the Golden Gophers: WVU’s Defense vs. Minnesota’s Offense

The West Virginia Moutnaineers defense faces off against an average to below average Minnesota Golden Gopher offense that has battled through a slew of injuries to their running back group. To date, they have lost 3 running backs to season ending injuries. However, that hasn’t stopped them from running the ball more than every team but the military academies, with a whopping 67% of their plays being running plays. However, this may change tonight as the Golden Gophers fired their offensive coordinator, Mike Sanford Jr., after their last game of the season and brought on former Golden Gopher offensive coordinator and former WVU offensive analysst, Kirk Ciarrocca. While Ciarrocca will not be coaching for Minnesota tonight, it would be unexpected if he didn’t play a role in building the gameplan for the Guaranteed Rate Bowl.

With this new wrinkle thrown into the mix, it is likely that the Golden Gophers don’t run the ball at the same clip as they did all season, and that may not be a bad thing for them. Tanner Morgan is 2 seasons removed from a 3,200 yard, 30 touchdown season where he gained hype as a potential NFL QB prospect. Additionally, coming out with a playaction driven gameplan could yield big results early in the game ala WVU’s game against Baylor.

Moreover, WVU’s defense is banged up. Scottie Young, who played Spear safety for most of the season will likely be starting as WLB again. Jackie Matthews will be moving from safety, which he has excelled in, back to starting outside corner, which he struggled in at times. With all this being said, the West Virginia defense should be able to contain a Golden Gopher’s offense that has at several points this season looked toothless. For example, they scored 10 against Bowling Green and 6 against Illinois. Below are some ways the WVU defense can keep the Minnesota offense in check and help lead WVU to a bowl win.

  1. “Heavy” defensive boxes – WVU has not done this much, if at all, this season. However, all Big 12 teams play nearly exclusively with 3 wide receiver looks out of the pistol or shotgun. Minnesota likes playing its tight ends with Ko Kieft logging 539 snaps and Brevyn Spann-Ford logging 419 out of a total 824 potential snaps. For comparison, Minnesota’s receivers have combined for 653 snaps out of the slot. Note that these counts will be inflated when Minnesota runs 4 or 5 WR looks or trips formations, multiple wide receivers will be considered “slot” receivers. WVU primarly runs boxes that have 3 down lineman and 3 linebackers or 4 down lineman and 2 linebackers. However, I think it would be beneficial for the Mountaineers to implement a more standard 4-3 or 3-4 look against the Golden Gophers to help get bigger bodies in the lineup to counteract Minnesota’s heavy looks.
  2. Defensive line stunting and blitzes – WVU employs stunts primarly when they are blitzing or on obvious passing situations. However, Minnesota’s offensive line is great, with 4 out of their 5 offensive lineman receiving grades of 74 or higher per PFF and 3 of them receiving grades near or more than 80, which is considered very good. While WVU has a very good defensive line group, we’ve also seen this group be quieted down by very good offensive lines this season. In particular, against Baylor (no sacks, 1 TFL), Oklahoma State (1 sack, 2.5 TFLs), and Kansas State (1 sack, 2 TFLs), the WVU defensive line did not create as much havoc as they did against lesser offensive lines. To counteract this, WVU should sprinkle in more stunts and blitzes to create openings for their linebackers and confuse the offensive line. This should help create more opportunities for sacks, tackles for losses, and stuffs as well as help negate the advantage Minnesota has in the trenches.

Check out more analysis on the Guaranteed Rate Bowl on the Voice of Motown Podcast: