The bowl game doesn’t matter. That is what fans will tell you and that is what everyone wants you to believe. Players opt out of the game and no one really cares since this isn’t a New Years Six or Playoff game, but Neal Brown won’t offer up that narrative and PJ Fleck, head coach of the Minnesota Gopher, certainly isn’t offering up that statement.
“This is a bowl game. It’s supposed to be a reward. And we try to treat it as such. We want it to be a good experience for them, and it’s a deserving experience for them. We try to do everything we possibly can from an entertainment, from a gear, to a meal standpoint, to treat it like a reward” - Neal Brown
“I feel like it is another good opportunity to play in another game with this team. What we emphasized this week is to leave it out there and go out with a bang with these seniors. They put a lot of work into this,” said Minnesota senior defensive back Jordan Howden.
For the Mountaineers, this game offers a glimpse of what they might be able to expect for the upcoming 2022 season. Running back Leddie Brown has already opted of the game to begin to preparing for the NFL Draft and that leaves the running game in the hands of redshirt sophomore Tony Mathis. Mathis, who saw action against Long Island and a few touches against Virginia Tech, saw an increased workload in the second half of the season. Following the bye week, the coaches chose to begin to spell Leddie Brown, saw touches in every game of the second half before finally exploding for 22 carries and 118 yards against Kansas Jayhawks.
Against the Minnesota Gophers, Mathis will be the man, at least for one game. The bowl game offers the Mountaineers a glimpse into what they may be able to expect in 2022 with their run game, without Leddie Brown.
Mathis isn’t the only player looking for a chance, quarterback Jarret Doege is also on t hat road. Last year, against the Army Black Knights, Doege had a half of football that was quite forgettable. He threw an interception that could not be explained by pressure or bad footwork or another excuse and fumbled while being sacked. He was pulled at half and backup quarterback Austin Kendall was inserted and helped engineer a come from behind win. That was last year and it was Doege’s first ever bowl experience, where Arizona represents a chance to restart the narrative for the quarterback.
Players aren’t the only one looking for a restart. Head coach Neal Brown has to be aware that fans are not happy three years into “The Climb”. A 6-6 record this season and a 17-17 record after three years isn’t what many envisioned, and yet a bowl win offers the solace of a record above .500 both this season and as the head coach of West Virginia.
West Virginia saw 12 players walk on their final home game, including wide receiver Sean Ryan, linebacker Josh Chandler-Semedo, safety Sean Mahones and defensive tackle Dante Stills. Honoring those seniors is one of the goals for the team.
“Number 1 is to win the game. Number 2 is make it an enjoyable, memorable experience,” Brown said when asked about his goals for the game. “The third thing is to salute our senior class as they leave the program, [and] make sure we honor them in the right way. And the fourth thing is to build momentum for the next season.”
Life after those seniors starts on Tuesday at the bowl game. Several players are playing their last game but their replacements are on the roster and this game gives a chance to view those players through a lens of what might happen in 2022.