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Know thy Opponent 2017: Minnesota Golden Gophers

Purdue gets a look at what might have been.

NCAA Football: Minnesota at Purdue Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

It wasn’t long ago that Purdue was running roughshod over Minnesota. The two programs are often very similar in that they should be middle of the pack Big Ten teams that occasionally challenge for the conference title. Drew Brees made Glen Mason’s Gophers his personal whipping boy. Joe Tiller had a mastery over Minnesota. Now that we are in the same division, when Purdue and Minnesota play it is one of those games that feels like a tipping point for bowl eligibility.

The gophers have won four straight over Purdue, however. Three years ago Purdue nearly got a breakthrough win for the Hazell era in Minneapolis, but lost 39-38 after a dumb penalty set up a long field goal for the win. The last meeting in West Lafayette was an atrocity as the Gophers won 41-13 and it wasn’t even that close. Last year a completely done Purdue team went to Minneapolis with an interim coach, led at halftime, and had the ball down a single score late before a turnover led to a clinching touchdown.

Minnesota is one of those teams we should be able to compete with every year. Now both teams are under a new head coach and this game is at home. If Purdue is going to surprise people and somehow get to 6 wins, this could be one of those wins.

Minnesota Golden Gophers

2016 Record: 9-4, 5-4

Bowl Result: Beat Washington State 17-12 in Holiday Bowl

Blog Representation: The Daily Gopher

Series with Purdue: Minnesota leads 37-32-3

Last Purdue win: 45-17 at Purdue on 10/8/2011

Last Minnesota win: 44-31 at Minnesota on 11/5/2016

Head Coach: P.J. Fleck (1st year at Minnesota, 30-22 overall)

Last Season for the Golden Gophers:

Last year was one of near misses for Minnesota. A 9-4 record was great, their best season since going 10-3 in 2003. They were close to a lot more, however. They lost by 3 in overtime at Penn State in a game they nearly won. They were leading 23-20 with less than a minute left on a late field goal, but gave up the game-tying kick with two seconds left. They lost at home to Iowa by 7, at Nebraska by 7, and at Wisconsin by 14. They were also closer to a lot worse. They survived Rutgers and Purdue, both at home. Oregon State nearly beat them in the season opener. Still, 9-4 is a really good year. Unfortunately, Tracy Claeys was let go even after a bowl win because of… well… this.

Regardless of how it went down, P.J. Fleck is now the main man in Minneapolis. We’re very familiar with him, as he may or may not have been a candidate for our own vacancy. Now we get to watch from afar if hiring Fleck would have been right in West Lafayette. I always thought he was a high risk, high reward guy. He could recruit well and potentially be a great pick, or he could be the next MAC flameout. I am very happy with coach Brohm and what he is doing, but I am still curious to see how Fleck does in Minneapolis.

He can’t be that great if he managed to lose to Darrell Hazell (and yes, it happened in Purdue’s 2014 season opener).

Minnesota Offense

Minnesota needs a new quarterback after Mitch Leidner graduated. Despite playing the entire season he threw just 8 touchdowns against 12 interceptions. The Gophers relied heavily on a running game led by Rodney Smith (1,158 yards and 16 touchdowns), Shannon Brooks (650 yards, 5 TDs), and Leidner (366 yards, 10 TDs). Leidner may be gone, but the ground game will be fine with Brooks and Smith both as juniors. The offensive line returns four starters and averages 6’5” 325 across the front. That’s a big boy line and damn near Wisconsin-esque. They are going to have the push up front needed for an excellent ground game with Brooks and Smith more than capable of carrying the mail. It could almost be like Mason’s Marion Barber-Laurence Maroney backfield.

The major question is at quarterback and receiver. Conor Rhoda is the only QB with any experience and he is battling Demry Croft for the starting job. Even then, Minnesota threw for only 2,257 yards last season in 13 games. The team also lost Drew Wolitarsky (66-860-5) as its top receiver. There was pretty much no passing game outside of him. Rashad Still (18-349-0) is a big receiver at 6’5”, but someone else has to develop or they will be extremely one-dimensional. Brandon Lingen, a TE that missed 10 games last year, will help.

Minnesota Defense

Overall the Minnesota defense was pretty good last year. Opponents only scored 22.1 points per game against them and the run defense was good at 117 yards per game. Numbers-wise, the defense was just good enough to win close games with a one-dimensional offense that wasn’t explosive, but did enough. There is nothing to complain about, especially when Minnesota won nine games last year and Purdue won nine games in four years. Up front Steven Richardson is one of the better defensive tackles in the Big Ten. He had seven sacks last season and is a disruptive force in the middle. Andrew Stetler was also decent at defensive end, but needs to get to the quarterback more. Overall, Minnesota had 37 sacks last year.

At linebacker 7.5 of those sacks came from Blake Cashman, who had 45 tackles and 10.5 for loss. He can be quite disruptive, while Jonathan Celestin had 80 tackles and 2.5 sacks. That gives the Gophers a solid four to build their front seven around. In the secondary Antoine Winfield Jr. and Duke McGhee are two solid safeties. McGhee had 54 tackles and an interception while Winfield had 52 tackles and an 82 yard interception return. The Gophers need to develop a pair of new corners, however. Here is what the SB Nation preview had to say about the secondary:

Depth issues are a funny thing — you never know in advance if they’re going to bite you. If some sophomore ends and a couple of young defensive backs come through, Minnesota’s starting 11 could have all the activity up front and steadiness in the back that Smith requires. But the Gophers could also be a couple of poorly placed injuries away from a build toward 2018.

Minnesota Special Teams

Emmit Carpenter was virtually automatic on field goals last season. He was 22 of 24 with a long of 53. That 53 yarder came against Purdue, where he also hit a 52 yarder. He finished the season by hitting the last 12 kicks he attempts. Ryan Santoso is also a good punter at almost 41 yards per kick.

Kickoff and punt returns will suffer with the loss of Jalen Myrick. He was great at both, but has graduated and moved on.

Game Outlook

This game feels like another turning point game and a chance for Purdue to really show progress. Most people agree Purdue will lose to Lousville and Michigan before this and probably beat Ohio. That means this can be like the Missouri game: a shot for Purdue to come out and show that Jeff Brohm really knows what he is doing by getting a win. If Brohm can get the Missouri game and this one Purdue fans will be ecstatic headed into the second half to the season with Rutgers, Illinois, and Indiana sitting on the schedule.

It is still not an automatic win, however. Fleck is a good coach, but there are a lot of questions facing Minnesota. They really are a bit of a wild card that could go anywhere from 9-3 to 4-8. Still, if a broken down Purdue under and interim coach can give them a game last year surely a competent staff under Brohm can be competitive at home.

Way Too Early Prediction

If Purdue has any kind of a run defense it will help a lot there. Remember Shannon Brooks breaking tackles and generally running amok two years ago? Yeah. That has to stop. Purdue has a shot here, and I think it can get a confidence boosting close home win. Purdue 31, Minnesota 28