Gophers can cap 2021 season with win over West Virginia at Guaranteed Rate Bowl

Braelen Oliver #14 of the Minnesota Golden Gophers celebrates with teammates after breaking up a pass intended for Jack Coldiron #89 of the Miami (Oh) Redhawks in the first quarter of the game at Huntington Bank Stadium on September 11, 2021 in Minne ((Photo by David Berding/Getty Images))

The University of Minnesota football team is holding its final practices, making its last preparations before heading southwest to Phoenix, Ariz., for the Guaranteed Rate Bowl against West Virginia.

At his Gopher Football Weekly radio show at Tipsy Steer in Roseville, coach PJ Fleck said the team held a 7 a.m. practice Tuesday. The Gophers will fly to Phoenix on Thursday and start events before the bowl game on Dec. 28.

Fleck said not one player is opting out of the bowl game, and it was never even a conversation with his players. Boye Mafe, Daniel Faalele, Esezi Otomewo and Blaise Andries have all accepted invites to scouting bowl games after the season. Conner Olson and Sam Schlueter are also not expected to return in 2022, which means the Gophers have as many as four starting offensive linemen gone after the bowl game.


Fleck joked last week that he’s got an "Encore 4" returning for the 2022 season in Tanner Morgan, Chris Autman-Bell, Mo Ibrahim and John Michael Schmitz. All four have an extra year of eligibility due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and they’re all using it.

The decisions weren’t easy for any of them and required many conversations, but in the end they all decided coming back for one more season was the best thing for themselves and the program. Autman-Bell and Schmitz talked about their decisions on Tuesday.

"It’s awesome, I get to run it back one more time with the guys I came in with. It’s always special to think about. Glad I can do it with those guys, I wouldn’t do it with any other guys in the country," Autman-Bell said.

The Gophers top receiver will enter both the bowl game and the 2022 season feeling like he has something to prove to himself. He led Minnesota with 35 catches for 490 yards and six touchdowns, despite missing the first two games with an ankle injury suffered during fall camp.

Autman-Bell re-aggravated that injury after making one catch against Bowling Green. He said the conversations about coming back didn’t start with the coaching staff until after beating Wisconsin, and before they started bowl prep. He never felt rushed to make a decision.

He wants to be the big-play guy he’s shown he can be when healthy for a full season.

"I came back to prove it to myself. I don’t think I had the season I wanted to have this year, so I plan on having that next year," Autman-Bell said.

Schmitz had an equally difficult decision. The Guaranteed Rate Bowl will be his final game with fellow starters Faalele, Olson, Andries and Schlueter. Conversations with those closest to him, and having Morgan, Ibrahim and Autman-Bell back ultimately led to his choice to come back.

"Just seeing all the guys that came back, I felt like I have a lot more to accomplish in college. Probably the biggest reason why I came back," Schmitz said. "They were definitely excited for me. Tanner gave me a big hug right away, Mo too. They were really happy for me."


Senior defensive back Coney Durr reflected on his five years with the Gophers on Tuesday, with his final game at Minnesota a week away. He watched defensive teammates leave for the NFL this time last year, and made his decision to return for one more season.

He’ll head to the bowl game with 38 tackles, four tackles for a loss, a fumble recovery and 1.5 sacks in 12 games. He learned a lot about perseverance after tearing his ACL in the final game of his freshman season.

The highlight of his final season with the Gophers? Beating Wisconsin with his mom at the game, and being one of the first to grab Paul Bunyan’s Axe.

"It was an amazing feeling. It was the only way to go out. Just the way it went out, my mom was there, we got a picture on the field when we stormed the field. It was an amazing feeling," Durr said. :I was the first. They tried to hold me back, but I went behind the people on the sideline and kind of cheated. When Tanner took his knee, it was a 40-yard dash."

The Guaranteed Rate Bowl will be the Gophers third bowl game under Fleck, and Durr says it’s important to get a win to build for 2022 and beyond.

"We want to get a W in that win column to propel this program to the next level going into next season, and send the seniors off right. It’s definitely a huge game," Durr said.