PHOENIX — While watching “Breaking Bad” for the first time last year, a particular scene caught P.J. Fleck’s attention.
The Minnesota coach had used television shows and movies — “Elf,” “Full House” and “Family Matters” among them — as motivation in the past and this one seemed a perfect fit for his defense.
In it, Walter White rises in anger during a discussion with his wife, Skyler, explaining no one was going to come knocking on their door and shoot them.
“I’m the one who knocks!” he shouts.
So does Minnesota’s defense.
Ky Thomas ran for 144 yards and a touchdown, Mar’Kiese Irving added 129 yards rushing and Minnesota shut down West Virginia to win the Guaranteed Rate Bowl 18-6 on Tuesday night.
“We wanted to be the defense that knocks and I thought we did that,” Fleck said. ”It was just kind of a theme our guys rallied around.”
Thomas and Irving became the Gophers’ 1-2 punch after Mohamed Ibrahim and Trey Potts sustained season-ending injuries. The two running backs carried most of the load offensively against West Virginia (6-7), accounting for 273 of Minnesota’s 358 total yards.
They were good, but Minnesota’s defense was flat-out dominating.
Controlling the line of scrimmage, the Gophers (9-4) overwhelmed the Mountaineers, holding them to 206 total yards to win their fifth straight bowl game, third under Fleck.
“They kind of grinded out a win and a credit to them — that’s how they did it all year,” West Virginia coach Neal Brown said. “We just weren’t good enough today.”
It wasn’t much of a surprise. Minnesota finished fourth nationally in total defense, allowing 284.8 yards per game, and was ninth against the pass and run.
West Virginia played without leading rusher Leddie Brown, who opted to skip the bowl game to prepare for the NFL, and struggled to find much of an offensive rhythm early against the swarming Gophers.
The Mountaineers finally clicked a little in the second quarter, moving 75 yards in 12 plays. Jarret Doege capped the drive by diving for the pylon on 4th-and-goal from the 1. They were moving the ball again later in the second quarter before Doege threw an interception at Minnesota’s 14-yard line.
West Virginia couldn’t get anything going against Minnesota’s defense in the second half, crossing midfield only once while being held to 79 yards.
“Everything that we’ve been doing all year, we wanted to up the emphasis,” Gophers defensive back Tyler Nubin said. “We’ve been playing great defense and we wanted to do that one more time.”
Minnesota’s offense did a little pounding of its own.
The Gophers got in their own way after getting good field position on their first two drives, missing a 33-yard field goal and losing a fumble by Thomas at West Virginia’s 6-yard line.
Then they turned to someone who could move everyone out of his way: Daniel Faalele.
The 6-foot-9, 380-pound offensive lineman lined up at fullback, took the handoff and bulled his way into the end zone for a 2-yard touchdown. Minnesota threw in a fake extra point for good measure, going up 8-0 after converting the 2-point conversion.
“He’s 400 pounds,” Fleck said. “Once that thing gets moving forward, it’s hard to stop that thing.”
Thomas put the Gophers up 15-6 at halftime, scoring on a 5-yard run two plays after bursting up the middle for a 50-yard gain.
Minnesota reached West Virginia’s 3-yard line in the final minutes, but opted to kneel out the clock instead of trying to score.
“Their offense is mainly run,” said West Virginia’s Charles Woods, who had an interception in the third quarter. “They depend on the run.”
And their defense.
NO SCREENS HERE
West Virginia had a successful screen game most of the season. Minnesota took that away, particularly early, changing the way the Mountaineers ran their offense the rest of the night.
“They played a lot of cover 2 and really took away your easy-access throws,” Brown said. “They mixed it up well, kept us off balance.”
West Virginia could have used Brown to perhaps spark its offense. Then again, the way Minnesota swarmed to the ball, it may not have mattered.
Minnesota’s defense dominated most of the year and capped it with a smothering performance to finally win the Guaranteed Rate — previously Insight — Bowl for the first time in four tries.
West Virginia will get Doege back and its two-deep offense is filled with underclassmen, though Brown will not be back. The defense also has plenty of players coming back, but will lose LB Josh Chandler-Semedo, S Sean Mahones and DT Dante Stills.
Minnesota has several key players returning for a sixth season, including Morgan, Ibrahim, WR Chris Autman-Bell and C John Michael Schmitz.
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