The past two weeks have been encouraging. The Boilers went on the road and earned a double-digit win as a double-digit underdog (albeit against Illinois, who shouldn't be a double-digit favorite against anyone right now). They then returned home and despite trailing by multiple scores for most of the game, fought hard against a really good Michigan State team.
We still have to remember that Purdue is a developing football team. There is a strong possibility of a step back with this game. Even though we have seen improvement, teams have truly not turned a corner until they have proven they can play with consistency. We haven't seen that yet. In fact, we haven't seen it in years from several Purdue teams.
The Boilers can still win on Saturday in Minneapolis. The Golden Gophers are a good team, but they are hardly an unstoppable juggernaut. They have shown the consistency that we desire to have as Purdue fans by beating the teams they should have beaten. Eastern Illinois, Middle Tennessee State, San Jose State, Michigan, and Northwestern are a fairly middling slate of teams. The one truly great team Minnesota played, TCU, won 30-7 over the Gophers.
So what can we expect on Saturday? Well, that depends on what Purdue does. An improving team that can find consistency goes out and at least challenges for a win. A team taking a step back gets blown out like our last two trips to Minneapolis.
Who to Watch on Offense:
David Cobb - Running Back - Minnesota is very much a run-oriented team, and it is absolutely crucial that Purdue finds a way to slow them down on the ground. Just like two week ago when I said that we needed to run on Illinois, we need to prepare to stop the run, first, second, third, and fourth. The Gophers are 30th in the nation at 212 yards per game on the ground, but 124th nationally in passing at 119.8 yards.
Cobb is the impetus of that running game. Of the 1,272 yards rushing Minnesota has, Cobb has 819 yards. He only has four touchdowns, but he keeps the Minnesota ground game moving at a 5.3 yard per carry average. He also plays a role in their very limited passing game with seven receptions for 93 yards.
Mitch Leidner - Quarterback - I knew the Minnesota passing game was limited, but I didn't know how limited until I was able to see the stats. Through six games the Gophers have 54 completed passes, of which Leidner has 50. Backup quarterback Chris Streveler has the other four completions, but Streveler also is second on the team in rushing with 217 yards rushing (161 of which came in his start vs. San Jose). That is only nine completions per game as a team.
There are some one-dimensional teams out there, but it is amazing to see how limited the Gophers are. Leidner has only 682 yards passing and 3 TDs against 5 interceptions. Over half of their yards from scrimmage belong to Cobb either on the ground or with his receptions. Leidner is a threat to run with 77 yards and 5 TDs, but he has closed many drives inside the five like Danny Etling and Austin Appleby, who each have three TDs themselves.
The Purdue secondary has been gashed the last two weeks, but a third straight tough game would be deeply troubling. Minnesota just cannot pass the ball with any consistency. Leidner only has 91 attempts on the season in five games. That's less than 20 per game (he missed the San Jose State game). Greg Hudson has an easy task this week: Stack eight in the box, key on Cobb, and dare Leidner to throw. So far he hasn't done it well at all.
Maxx Williams - Tight End - Purdue has struggled greatly against teams that have only one functional receiver. MyCole Pruitt for Southern Illinois and Tony Lippett for Michigan State were both the first option for their respective teams, but Purdue was awful against them. Williams, the tight end that we always struggle to cover over the middle on third and long, is the same as Lippett and Pruitt. He is has 12 catches for 225 yards and three TDs. If Minnesota is throwing, they are throwing to him. Donovahn Jones (8-121-1) is the secondary target, but again, there is almost no passing game to speak of here. If the Purdue secondary can't dominate then there is something seriously wrong.
Who to Watch on Defense:
Damien Wilson - Linebacker - Wilson is one of the better linebackers in the Big Ten and leads the conference (along with Landon Feichter) in tackles with 66. He is active all over the field (1.5 sacks,1 interception, a fumble recovery, 2 passes defensed). Wilson is the reigning Defensive Player of the Week in the Big Ten after getting 15 tackles against Northwestern. He keys a defense that gives up only 122.3 yards per game on the ground and 3.6 yards per carry.
Jalen Myrick - Defensive Back - Myrick is dangerous both on defense and special teams. He has an interception returned for a touchdown and last week he returned a kickoff 100 yards for a TD. Given Purdue's struggles on kickoff returns, this could be a major concern.
Cam Botticelli - Defensive Line - The senior defensive lineman only has two sacks, but has been solid up front. He is now in his third year starting and is a solid anchor for a decent defensive line that doesn't get to the quarterback a lot, but is decent against the run.
Who to Watch on Special Teams:
Myrick - Again, Purdue has been awful at containment on kickoffs, and Myrick is dangerous. He only has two returns, but after going for 100 yards and a score last week he will likely get more of a look this week.
Craig James - Punt Returner - James is averaging over 10 yards per return and has a long of 32, so he is about as dangerous as Frankie Williams.
Peter Mortell - Punter - Mortell is one of the best punters in the country at over 45 yards per kick. He has also pinned 11 of his 33 kicks inside the 20.
This is not a good offensive team we're facing. Minnesota has gotten it don with its defense and running game through six games, but the passing game is negligible. Purdue absolutely needs to key on Cobb for every single play that Minnesota has the ball. He is the lynchpin of their entire offense. There is almost no versatility there and Leidner has not proven that he can be effective at throwing the ball.
Purdue has a chance if Appleby can limit his mistakes and continue to get production out of an offense that is gaining confidence. I think that is the biggest difference I have seen is the confidence that Appleby brings to the offense. Iowa has a good defense, but Michigan State's is far better. Etling struggled against Iowa, but Appleby was connecting on short passes and directing the offense very well against the Spartans.
The offense is averaging 34.5 points per game under Appleby when he starts, which is more than enough to beat Minnesota. Almost a third of Minnesota's points (52 of 162) have come off of turnovers. That shows me that a clean game will limit their punchless offense even more.
Keys to the Game for Purdue:
- Key on Cobb
- No, seriously, Cobb is their only consistent offensive threat.
- Dare Leidner to throw the ball
- Continue playing with confidence on offense
- Limit mistakes and turnovers