MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — For the eighteenth time in the last 20 seasons, WVU is preparing to compete in a bowl game.
This time, the Mountaineers will play in the Guaranteed Rate Bowl on Dec. 28. They learned Sunday that they’ll face against Minnesota in Phoenix, Arizona, the first matchup between two programs who have played football for more than 250 years combined.
WVU head coach Neal Brown and Minnesota head coach P.J. Fleck both virtually addressed the media Sunday evening after learning the bowl draw. These are the biggest takeaways from those conversations:
History with Minnesota head coach P.J. Fleck
Brown and Fleck go back a ways, according to the two head coaches.
Fleck said the relationship between the two coaches began during his tenure as head coach at Western Michigan, which spanned from 2013-16.
A lot of their familiarity with one another centers around one man: WVU senior analyst Kirk Ciarrocca. He was offensive coordinator at Delaware in 2005, which was Brown’s lone season with that program. Meanwhile, Ciarrocca and Fleck were on the same staff at Rutgers in 2010. Fleck then hired him at Western Michigan and brought him along to Minnesota.
Ciarrocca has been with WVU since March.
Even though Brown and Fleck have never been on the same coaching staffs or a part of the same programs, their respect is mutually shared.
“He’s a class act, and a wonderful human being,” Fleck said of the Mountaineers’ head coach.
Brown also applauded the work Fleck has done with the Golden Gophers since taking the helm prior to the 2017 season.
“A lot of energy, he’s a great motivator,” Brown said. “Great teacher. He’s a program builder.”
Fleck is nearing the completion of his fifth season at Minnesota, while Brown is in the midst of his third at WVU.
Minnesota defense has Brown’s attention
Brown met with reporters virtually from an airport, as he’s currently out on the road recruiting. He said when he learned who his team would be playing in the bowl game, one of the first things that jumped out to him was what Fleck’s defense has done this year.
“Their defense is playing as good as anybody in the country,” Brown said.
The Gophers ended the regular season ranked second in the Big Ten in total defense, passing defense and rushing defense. They’ve also won six of their last eight contests.
“What they’ve done from a rushing defense, and a total offense [given up] number of yards, is really impressive,” Brown said.
Due to his familiarity with Fleck, Brown added that Minnesota is a team he’s kept his eye on throughout the year.
The WVU head coach did note that West Virginia has gone up against good defenses this season in league play, despite the national perception of the Big 12 on that side of the ball. He even related the Golden Gophers to the two teams that qualified for the Big 12 Championship.
“I think Minnesota is very similar to [Baylor and Oklahoma State] in that they’re able to stop the run,” Brown said.
The head coach added he has already received a quick scouting report on Minnesota, but will dive into what the Golden Gophers do and don’t do well over the coming days.
Playing with confidence
West Virginia has won two games in a row, and four out of its last six.
Minnesota has won two games in a row, and six out of its last eight.
“Both teams are coming in with confidence,” Brown said. “Yeah, I think both teams are playing some good football down the stretch.”
Brown noted that he was pleased with how his team responded to adversity this year, adding that he felt his team was able to “get off the mat” whenever they were doubted.
Fleck and Minnesota had to deal with some of the same adversity.
Brown mentioned in one of his recent press conferences that he and his team had adopted a one-game-at-a-time mentality. Fleck says that’s how he and his team are approaching things as well.
What players are going to be available for bowl game?
At this point, it’s unclear which Mountaineers will and won’t play in the Guaranteed Rate Bowl.
Brown called it a “unique time” when asked what players would be available to play in the bowl game.
“I really don’t have any insight,” he said.
Brown expects to have an update when it comes to injured players the next time he speaks with the media. But there’s always the question of opt-outs when it comes to bowl games.
The third-year head coach said Sunday that he isn’t sure which players, if any, will opt out.
“What our philosophy is on that is, we’re going to take the group that is prepared to play, that is motivated to play, and we’re going to give our guys the very best opportunity to win,” Brown said.
Tickets are on sale now for the Guaranteed Rate Bowl.