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Know thy Opponent 2018: Minnesota Golden Gophers

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The Boilers got a big win at home last season over the Gophers.

NCAA Football: Nebraska at Minnesota Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

I find Minnesota as one of our most fascinating opponents over the next few seasons, and it is because of P.J. Fleck. Minnesota hired Fleck at the same time we got Jeff Brohm, and at the time, he was THE hot commodity on the coaching search market. A lot of our fans wanted Mike Bobinski to go after him and with good reason. He guided Western Michigan to an undefeated regular season, a big money bowl, and he won more games that year against the Big Ten (two) than Purdue (one). We may never know how close he came to rowing the boat to West Lafayette, but he was probably at least considered.

More than 18 months later we have Brohm and Fleck is in Minneapolis after Tracy Claeys was a late firing after the 2016 season. Round 1 went to Brohm, as he immediately turned Purdue around and took us to a bowl while Minnesota went 5-7. The difference was Purdue’s 31-17 win over the Gophers in West Lafayette. If Minnesota wins that game they get the bowl and we’re home at 5-7.

This year marks round 2 of Fleck vs. Brohm. Both teams have similar expectations for this season, and the Purdue-Minnesota game may mean bowl eligibility for the winner. The Boilers also have yet to win in the new TCF Bank Stadium. This makes this one of the most even games on our schedule.

2017 Record: 5-7, 2-7 Big Ten West

Bowl Result: None

Blog Representation: The Daily Gopher

Series with Purdue: Minnesota leads 37-33-3

Last Purdue win: 31-17 at Purdue on 10/7/2017

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

Head Coach: P.J. Fleck (5-7 in 2nd year at Minnesota. 35-29 in 6th year overall)

Last Season for the Gophers:

The Fleck era got off to an excellent start last season. The offense struggled in a season opening 17-7 win over Buffalo, but exploded in the next two games with a 48-14 win at Oregon State and 34-3 win over Middle Tennessee State. A three game losing streak followed against Maryland, Purdue, and Michigan State, but the Gophers got a 24-17 win over Illinois to keep bowl hopes alive at 4-3. They only won 1 of the final five games, a 54-21 win over Nebraska.

That 54 points looks great, but Emmit Carpenter’s extra point with 3:21 left in the game would be the final point Minnesota scored all season long. The downside to that is they still had two games to play. Northwestern shut them out 39-0 and Wisconsin beat them 31-0 to close the year. When their season opener against New Mexico State starts on August 30th the Gophers will not have scored a single point in 123 minutes and 21 seconds of football.

It has been a rough offseason, too. The Gophers have lost quite a few players to transfers, putting this season in some doubt.

Minnesota Offense

Does Minnesota have a quarterback? Last year the passing game was atrocious. Demry Croft and Conor Rhoda combined to throw for just 1,513 yards and 9 touchdowns against 11 interceptions. That was a good three-week line for some Purdue quarterbacks of the past, but for an entire season it was awful. The Gophers were barely above teams like Air Force, Army, navy, and Georgia Tech, who all run the triple option. As a team they completed a Big Ten worst 110 passes, so less than 10 per game.

To make matters worse, both Croft and Rhoda are gone, while Vic Viramontes decided to transfer BACK to junior college and switch positions. That leaves Tanner Morgan and Zack Annexstad, both freshmen, battling for the job. It is certainly an unenviable position.

Needless to say, Minnesota is going to look to run the ball. Rodney Smith (977 yards, 3 TDs) gives them a talented back, but Shannon Brooks (369 yards, 5 TDs) is likely out for the season with an injury. He’ll run behind a line that features Donnell Greene, Conner Olsen, and Sam Schlueter, who all have extensive starting experience. Smith has a trio of freshmen backing him up, and there is the whole “Minnesota can’t pass” thing that defenses will key on.

When Minnesota has to pass they will look to Tyler Johnson. He was the overwhelming leader on the team with 35 receptions for 677 yards and 7 of the 9 receiving touchdowns. Aside from him, only Smith, the running back, had more than 11 receptions. Phillip Howard was the no. 2 receiver with only 11 catches for 132 yards, but nine of those receptions came in three games.

Minnesota Defense

The Gophers had better hope the defense improves, but the passing game looks like a complete mess. Teams could generally run on the Gophers, and as Bill C. states, depth is a problem up front:

Depth up front could be an issue, with three of last year’s top five linemen gone, but you could say that the right pieces are back — in linebackers Thomas Barber and Kamal Martin, rush end Carter Coughlin and end Winston DeLattiboudere, the front’s top four havoc defenders (tackles for loss, passes defensed, forced fumbles) return.

Barber and Coughlin are the stars. They combined for 22 TFLs, four passes defensed (all from Barber), and four forced fumbles. Linebackers were the primary havoc source, and there’s continuity there.

Things can fall apart pretty quickly if you’ve got a void at tackle, though, and four of last year’s top five are gone. Senior Gary Moore is a building block, but some combination of Alabama transfer O.J. Smith, redshirt freshmen Malcolm Robinson and Noah Hickcox, and maybe incoming high-three-star freshman Elijah Teague will need to contribute.

In the secondary Jacob Huff returns after natching 65 tackles and three interceptions last year. He was second on the team in tackles behind Barber and led them in interceptions. Antoine Winfield Jr., Antonio Shenault, and Kiondre Thomas all return with starting experience, so the back four has that going for them. Still, the defense gave up more than 30 points six times in 12 games and when you get shutout twice it doesn’t matter what you give up.

Minnesota Special Teams

The good news is that Carpenter is back. He was 14 of 20 on field goals and a perfect 31 of 31 on extra points. With a long of 49 yards he has a fine leg. Punter Ryan Santoso is gone, however, so the Gophers need a new punter.

The punt return game was as negligible as Purdue’s, but Rodney Smith did return a kickoff for a touchdown. Do the Gophers risk having their top running back on kickoff returns? It seems unlikely.

Game Outlook

To be honest, the only team that seems like more of a mess than Minnesota is Illinois. Neither team really has a quarterback, but at least the Gophers have Brooks and Johnson as weapons. The Illini have… not much. Defensively the Gophers should be respectable, but with a passing game that does little to nothing each game they are in the unenviable position of having to be perfect in order to win.

It certainly looks like a building year for Fleck. He is used to this. His first team at Western Michigan was 1-11, then he suffered the indignity of losing to a Darrell Hazell coached team. He still turned that group around to go 8-5, and he was 29-10 over the next 39 games after losing to Hazell. Coaching in the Big Ten West is a difference animal than the MAC West, but it was still a solid turnaround.

We should expect another youth movement at key spots because the Gophers don’t really have a choice. The schedule is manageable with home games against New Mexico State, Fresno State, and Miami (OH) to start. If they get those can they win three conference games for a bowl? Illinois, Nebraska, Indiana, Maryland, and even Purdue give them a chance.

Way-too-Early Prediction

Last year’s game came down to the wire, as Purdue took a two-point lead before a weather delay, gave up a lengthy field goal drive, then recovered to scored and pick-six Rhoda to seal a 14-point win. The Boilers scored 15 points in the final two minutes to steal the win, and it made a huge difference on the season. This year I think the Boilers can keep moving forward. I think we finally get a win at TCF Bank. Purdue 34, Minnesota 20