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Know Thy Opponent 2015: Minnesota Golden Gophers

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Purdue played Minnesota close in 2014. Can that become a win in 2015?

Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

One of the most complete games of the Hazell era came last year at Minnesota. A week after pushing Michigan State for four quarters the Boilers went to Minneapolis and got involved in a bit of a shootout with the Golden Gophers. After 17 straight points in the second quarter the Boilers led 31-20 at halftime and 38-29 late in the third quarter. After that, two plays defined the game. First, with 8:30 left and the boilers clinging to a 38-36 lead Austin Appleby fumbled before coming up short on fourth and one from the Gopher 30 yard line. It killed a possible game-clinching scoring drive.

The second play came after the Gophers had the ball. On 3rd and five from the Minnesota 35 Purdue got a critical 3rd down stop, but Taylor Richards committed an egregiously stupid personal foul over 30 yards from the play to keep the drive alive. Minnesota would get to the Purdue 35 and with 5 minutes left kick the game-winning 52-yard field goal.

It was a game where Purdue played more than well enough to win, but walked away with a loss (and the first time a Jerry Kill Minnesota team came back from double digits to win). The momentum for the rest of the season was kind of killed from that point forward, and after scoring 38 points in one game the Boilers would only score 60 total in the final four games.

It is because of that game, however, that I have hope for the 2015 season. Minnesota was a pretty good team last year, especially at home. The Boilers showed they could compete, and this is a team that Purdue absolutely could beat in Ross-Ade.

2014 Record: 8-5, 5-3 Big Ten

Bowl Result: Lost Citrus Bowl 33-17 to Missouri

Blog Representation: The Daily Gopher

Series with Purdue: Minnesota leads 35-32-3

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

Last Minnesota win: 39-38 at Minnesota on 10/18/14

Last Season for the Golden Gophers:

The longest Rose Bowl drought in the conference belongs to the Gophers and it nearly ended last season. Minnesota entered the final week of the regular season needing only a win at Wisconsin to clinch the West Division title and head to Indianapolis for a rematch with Ohio State. The Gophers even led the Badgers 14-3 after one quarter in Madison, but a late touchdown clinched the win for Wisconsin and sent them to Indy.

In the end, Minnesota kind of crumbled against a late tough schedule. They started the year 6-1 with their only loss coming at TCU, but inexplicably lost at Illinois before losing to Ohio State, Wisconsin, and Missouri. They finished the season with games against four straight ranked teams and went 1-3. It was a second straight 8-5 season, but still represented solid progress under Jerry Kill. This is a team that challenged Ohio State and was right there for the West crown, which is good. They were, however, just 1-4 against ranked opponents, somehow lost at Illinois to save Tim Beckman's job, and the only teams they beat that went to bowl games were Iowa and Nebraska. One must ask the question, then, if they are really improving and will take the next step to win the West Division or if they have made a Mason-like plateau.

Minnesota Offense

In modern college football Minnesota was about as one-dimensional as you can be without running the option last season. David Cobb ran for over 1,600 yards and had 13 touchdowns while quarterback Mitch Leidner ran for 600 yards and 10 scores. To make them even more predictable, Maxx Williams was the leading receiver with 569 yards receiving of the roughly 1,800 yards passing. Basically, they had three plays:

  • Handoff to Cobb
  • Pass to Williams
  • Leidner keeper.

I don't understand it, but those three plays were run really, really well, mostly because Minnesota had an excellent offensive line that will be among the best in the country. Josh Campion, John Christenson, and Ben Lauer all return up front and have double-digit starts in terms of experience. Second Team all-Big Ten guard Zac Epping is gone, however.

In getting back to those three plays Purdue struggled greatly with two of them. Leidner completed only 9 of 18 passes against us, but he ran for 84 yards and a touchdown. Cobb had nearly 200 yards and a score. We knew what was coming but still couldn't stop it. That is either the sign of a lousy defense or a really good offense.

Cobb is gone this year, and that leaves a number of ball-carriers to keep the ground game moving. Berkley Edwards could get more after having 140 yards and a touchdown. Jeff Jones is also a 4-star recruit coming out of a redshirt year that looks very promising. Senior Roderick Williams Jr. may also get his turn after patiently waiting.

Where Minnesota might struggle is the passing game, as they lost what little they had when Williams left for the NFL. KJ Maye and Drew Wolitarsky are really it as far as experience, and both had less than 300 yards receiving in 2014. Leidner only had 11 touchdown passes against eight interceptions though, so this isn't a team that exactly lit it up through the air. in fact, they were 121st nationally in passing.

Minnesota Defense

The Minnesota defense was pretty solid last season, finishing 34th nationally with just 24.2 points against per game. In fact, their worst day by far was against Purdue, which is shocking when you consider we weren't that great of an offense. Purdue put up 38 points and 451 yards against them. Even TCU, playing in Texas, had only 30 points and 427 yards, and that is a team that arguably could have played for the national title.

Minnesota got it done without a huge pass rush. Theiren Cockran had four sacks to lead the team and he returns along with nose tackle Steven Richardson. All of the linebackers are back except leading tackler Damien Wilson, who had 91 tackles and four sacks. This was a unit that didn't put up huge statistical numbers, but got the job done and let a clock-killing ground game on the offensive side of the ball do the rest.

The pass defense should also be decent, as Bill C. explains:

The Gophers were deep, aggressive, and mostly effective (less so late in the year), and the depth should pay off. Two members of the havoc club are gone (safety Cedric Thompson, corner Derrick Wells), but six other return, including one of the most active trios of corners in the nation in Eric Murray, Briean Boddy-Calhoun, and Jalen Myrick (combined: five tackles for loss, seven interceptions, 23 break-ups).

He goes on to say that the unit faded for no reason last season, but then again, I can't see any reason that Purdue had such a good day up there.

Minnesota Special Teams

The main guys are both back. Peter Mortell was one of the best punter's in America at 45.1 yards per punt. Ryan Santoso was a solid 45 of 46 on PATs (his one miss was against Purdue) and 12 of 18 on field goals. What is frustrating is that he was only 3 of 8 from 40+, but hit a 50-yarder to beat us.

Here is another very interesting special teams tidbit from the big SB Nation preview:

Few teams tilted the field as well as Minnesota. The Gophers ranked 15th in field position margin (plus-5.4 yards per possession). Granted, thanks to good run defenses and great return men, this was a field position conference -- 15th overall meant fourth in the Big Ten behind No. 4 Ohio State, No. 5 Nebraska, and No. 9 Michigan State -- but it was still a strength.

And while the run played a role, Minnesota ranked 12th overall in special teams efficiency. Kicker Ryan Santoso was automatic inside of 40 yards (as a freshman) and knocked more than half of his kickoffs for touchbacks, Peter Mortell averaged more than 45 yards per punt, Craig James was a good punt return man (also as a freshman), and Jalen Myrick was an outstanding kick returner.

Game Outlook

Among all the losses of the last few seasons (and there have been a lot of them) losing at Minnesota was probably among the most frustrating. Basically, Purdue lost on a fumbled snap in Minnesota territory (but not deep enough to kick a field goal into a stiff wind) and because a defender made a bone-headed penalty. It was your classic Purdue loss where the boilers were the better team for 50-55 minutes, but lost it in the end.

A lot is being Minnesota as a contender to win the West Division this year, but this is still a team that lost to Illinois when Illinois was practically a dead team walking. Yes, they are much better under Kill than they were, but they are not unbeatable.

When you look at Purdue's schedule there are not a lot of easy wins. If the goal is a bowl game (as it should be every year) the Boilers will have to, at minimum, go 2-2 in the non-conference season. That means four conference wins, and beating Illinois and Indiana at home need to be two of them. This is another game that I feel like Purdue can win. Minnesota did not blow out a lot of teams last year. They were in close games and we did play them well in their house. Because of that, I like our chances.

Prediction

Purdue probably should have won last year and this can be a big turnaround game for the program. I think it becomes the first home Big Ten win of Darrell Hazell's tenure. Purdue 27, Minnesota 24