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Know Thy Opponent 2014: Minnesota Golden Gophers

Minnesota was a surprise contender in the Big Ten in 2013 and hopes to build on that momentum.

Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Minnesota and Purdue seem to have similar football trajectories. Both schools should aspire to always be in the middle of the conference and consistently a threat to reach a bowl game, but actually winning the conference would take something special. It is no wonder, then, that the two have combined for one conference title in almost 50 years. Purdue,  Minnesota, and Indiana all shared the title in 1967, but the Hoosiers and Golden Gophers are still waiting to top the Big Ten again. The Gophers also hold the longest drought in the league of having not gone to Pasadena, as their trip in 1962 was their last trip west.

Much of the same is expected of the Gophers this year. Minnesota had an unexpected few weeks of contention last season and finished strong, but will they be able to keep it together? History says no so far. If Purdue is to pull off an unexpected road win this might be a candidate.

2013 Record: 8-5, 4-4 Big Ten

Bowl Result: Lost Houston Bowl 21-17 to Syracuse

Blog Representation: The Daily Gopher

Series with Purdue: Minnesota leads 34-32-3

Last Purdue win: 45-17 at Purdue on 10/8/11

Last Minnesota win: 44-28 at Minnesota on 10/27/12

Last Season for the Golden Gophers:

Last year's Minnesota season was almost a Glen Mason special. The Gophers played a relatively toothless non-conference schedule of UNLV, New Mexico State, Western Illinois, and San Jose State. That was enough for a 4-0 start, but consecutive losses to Iowa and Michigan killed the momentum. Wins over Northwestern, Nebraska, Indiana, and Penn State surprisingly gave Minnesota control of its own destiny for Pasadena heading into the final two games of the year.

An improved Minnesota lost hard fought games to Wisconsin and Michigan State, but the season was still regarded as a great success compared to consecutive 3-9 seasons in 2010 and 2011. There was enough success to think that the Gophers have turned a corner, and with a few breaks they can contend this year. A road trip to TCU in September is not easy, while the closing kick of Ohio State, at Nebraska, and at Wisconsin is brutal.

Minnesota Offense

The quarterback position is up for grabs after it looked like Philip Nelson was going to take control for the long run. His first home start was against Purdue in 2012 where he threw three TD passes in a 44-28 win that was not even that close. Last season he started nine games but struggled greatly down the stretch before deciding to transfer to Rutgers. Once there, he got into a fight, gave a guy a fractured skull, and has since been kicked off the team. He is now facing a possible 25-year prison sentence.

That leaves sophomore Mitch Leidner the starter for now. Leidner played in a handful of games last season and had 619 yards and three TDs against an interception but was sacked 13 times. He was mobile, at least, with 477 rushing yards and seven touchdowns.

The comparisons to Mason's years are not limited to the record, either. This si going to be a run first team centered around senior running back David Cobb. Cobb had 1,202 rushing yards and seven scores last year as the Gophers excelled at moving the ball on the ground. Minnesota did not even have 2,000 yards passing, but Cobb, Leidner, and Nelson effectively ran the ball all season. Jeff Jones, a 4-star freshman, also figures to factor into the rotation.

When Purdue heads to Minnesota defending the pass should, should be simple. Maxx Williams is the top returning receiver with only 25 catches and 417. He is a tight end, however, so we need to be wary of 3rd and 17 when he is running uncovered over the middle. Drew Wolitarsky, Donovahn Jones, and Isaac Fruechte are all tall receivers that can present a matchup challenge, but only if Minnesota chooses to pass. They also have a 6'10" (yes, that is right) freshman tight end listed, so maybe we should talk to A.J. Hammons or Isaac Haas about defending him.

What's going to keep Minnesota going is a big, experienced offensive line that should get a strong push against the run. The left tackle needs to be replaced, but Zac Epping, Josh Campion, and Caleb Bak each have over 23 starts. Senior Tommy Olson is an experienced starter at center too. A total of seven players have started at least eight games.

Minnesota Defense

Purdue should be very concerned because it has long struggled to stop good rushing teams and our offense was beyond awful last season. That offense will face a defense that was pretty good and was led by surprising standout Theiren Cockran. Cockran was one of the best interior linemen in the Big Ten with 7.5 sacks last year and was a true disruptive force. Part of the reason he was so good is that defenses had to pay attention to Ra'Shede Hageman, who was the No. 37 overall pick in the draft by Atlanta.

Minnesota only returns one starting linebacker in Damien Wilson, but there is at least some experience in De'Vondre Campbell and Jephte Matilus. In terms of star rankings the defensive unit as a whol is not much different from our own, and our defense would be loads better if we had an offense that could stay on the field for longer than three plays at a time.

The secondary was full of decent tacklers, but wasn't particularly good at picking passes off. Cedric Thompson and Antonio Johnson give Minnesota a pair of safeties that patrol the middle of the field well, but they combined for only an interception apiece. As a team Minnesota only picked off six passes, but Eric Murray allows them to have 75% of their entire secondary back. That bodes well according to the SB Nation Minnesota preview:

The secondary was not without attrition; Brock Vereen was a fourth-round pick by the Chicago Bears last weekend, and corner Martezz Shabazz was an inordinately active reserve, logging 2.5 tackles for loss and five break-ups while making just 15.5 tackles overall. With them go a good portion of Minnesota's bigger plays from last year.

But it's hard to worry too much about this unit. Eric Murray is another active athlete at cornerback, Boddy-Calhoun is back, and last year's three primary safeties are all back. Minnesota ranked 47th in Passing S&P+ despite a subpar pass rush; with a better rush, the Gophers could move into the Passing S&P+ top 40.

Minnesota Special Teams

Minnesota has to find a new kicker, but Peter Mortell is a candidate to replace Cody Webster as the best punter in the Big Ten. He averaged 43.3 yards per kick last season and put 21 punts inside the 20. Marcus Jones also adds some pop as a ridiculously dangerous punt and kick returner. He had a touchdown each way and averaged over 10 yards per punt return.

Game Outlook

As I have stated before, I think Purdue can go to a bowl game in 2014, but a lot of things have to break right. We have a very long way to go to get back to rue contention in the Big Ten, but compared to Michigan State, Nebraska, and Wisconsin, Minnesota is a much easier opponent that we at least have a chance at beating.

Still, it is going to take a lot. We know Minnesota is going to run the ball, but we have known that about Wisconsin forever and haven't even been able to slow them down. Minnesota's 2014 ground game could be as relentless as Wisconsin in terms of pounding the ball on teams until you stop them. Right now, I don't know that we can.

Then you have their defense. It is not fantastic, but it was surprisingly good last season in holding six of their last seven opponents to 23 points or less with the exception being Indiana's blitzkrieg. They want to drag you down into a game of field position and running clock because of their persistent ground game, and neither of those things favor Purdue.

I feel like this game is by old school rules; we're going to have to be able to run the ball and stop the run. They have multiple options to run it and a quarterback that is effective at running it himself and Purdue was pretty much the worst rushing team in the country a year ago. A big game from our defensive line against a quarterback prone to taking sacks would be very nice, but ultimately, Purdue has to find a way to score enough. Prediction: Minnesota 24, Purdue 13