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Know Thy Opponent 2019: Minnesota Golden Gophers

Last season’s game in Minneapolis was one of the worst of the Brohm era.

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

Fair or not, over the next few seasons Purdue and Minnesota are going to get compared closely with each other. Both teams got their current head coaches at the same time, and since Purdue had fired Darrell Hazell earlier that Minnesota got rid of Tracy Claeys, PJ Fleck was long talked about as a candidate to come to West Lafayette. Of course, for many years the teams have been roughly equal in the Big Ten pecking order. Minnesota has been steadily in the middle, but bottomed out with their own 1-11 year in 2007. The Beckman/Hazell crater has been passed for both schools, however, and now they are each trying to compete for a wide open Big Ten West title.

Through two years the Brohm/Fleck “rivalry” is virtually dead even. Purdue’s win in West Lafayette in 2017 sent us to a bowl game and kept Minnesota home. Last season Purdue had possibly its worst game under Brohm in an ugly defeat up in Minneapolis. Both teams have 13 defeats under their current coaches, and both figure to be relatively even going into 2019.

2018 Record: 7-6, 3-6 Big Ten West

Bowl Result: Beat Georgia Tech 34-10 in QuickLane Bowl

Blog Representation: The Daily Gopher

Series with Purdue: Minnesota leads 38-33-3

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

Last Minnesota win: 41-10 at Minnesota on 11/10/2018

Head Coach: PJ Fleck (12-13 in 3rdyear at Minnesota, 42-35 in 8thyear overall)

Last Season for the Golden Gophers

It wasn’t the greatest year for Minnesota, but the Gophers returned to a bowl game and had some very positive signs along the way. An early 21-14 win over Fresno State turned out to be really good as the Bulldogs finished the year 12-2. The 42-13 loss at Maryland started a four game losing streak and they gave up 53 points at Nebraska. Losing 55-31 at Illinois is about as ugly as it gets, but they recovered to beat Purdue 41-10 a week later.

I am still not sure what happened in that game for us. Purdue struggled all afternoon to get its offense going but was only down 13-3 at halftime. The second half was a disaster with four straight Minnesota touchdowns, including one on a 40-yard fumble return by Blake Cashman. A defense that couldn’t stop Illinois a week earlier suddenly became a brick wall and the Boilers didn’t find the end zone until there were five minutes left. Pretty much everything that could go wrong for Purdue did go wrong.

The Gophers turned things around with that game. They won back the Axe from Wisconsin for the first time in a decade and went on to dominate Georgia Tech in their bowl game. Closing the year by winning 3 of 4 was a great boost into this season, where they could be a fringe top 25 team. They open the year with home games against South Dakota State and Georgia Southern sandwiched around a tough road trip to Fresno State before coming to Purdue.

Minnesota Offense

Minnesota got it done mostly on the ground last season, rushing for nearly 2,500 yards as a team and adding 23 touchdowns. The passing game was fairly average, but it worked best with Mohamed Ibrahim was paving the way. He finished the season with 1,176 yards and 9 TDs. Bryce Williams added another 520 yards and 4 TDs, while Seth Green was a short yardage specialist with 8 TDs. These guys weren’t even the top backs, as Shannon Brooks and Rodney Smith, two guys who have tormented Purdue in the past, return from injuries that cost them most of last season.

At quarterback Zack Annexstad and Tanner Morgan split duties last year to mixed results. Morgan got the start against us and was 10 of 18 for 139 yards and a touchdown against an interception. The truth is that he did not need to do a lot because the running game was so efficient and the Purdue offense was doing very little. He will be protected by an offensive line that returns Conner Olson and Blaise Andries. They also add 6’9”, 400 pound tackle Daneil Faalele, whose name I can only assume means “Runt of the Litter”

Minnesota also has one of the best receivers in the conference in Tyler Johnson. He had 78 reception last season for 1,169 yards and 12 touchdowns. With the 6’2” Rashod Bateman (51-704-6) the Gophers have a great 1-2 receiving punch if they can settle on a quarterback. This has the potential to be a really, really good offense that will wear teams down with the running game and then have two very good outside receivers to use as playmakers.

Minnesota Defense

The Minnesota defense has a lot of potential and it begins in the middle with linebackers Thomas Barber and Kamal Martin. Both players are seniors and have a wealth of experience. Barber had 81 tackles, 1.5 sacks, and an interception last season. Martin had 59 tackls and broke up a pair of passes. Thomas Rush is expected to take over at the third spot for the departed Blake Cashman.

Carter Coughlin was an all-Big Ten defensive end last season and was a menace with 9.5 sacks, 15 tackles for loss, and four forced fumbles. He is expected to play a bit of a hybrid rush end role like Purdue has had in recent seasons. The tackles spots have had a lot of turnover, while Winston DeLattiboudere is a three-year starter that returns at the other end position.

In the defensive backfield Minnesota has the talented, but oft-injured Antoine Winfield Jr. He has missed half of each of the last two years with injuries, but sealed last year’s Fresno State win with a huge interception and started all 12 games in 2016. Jordan Howden and Benny Sapp III will battle to join him at safety, while both corner spots are up for grabs. Chris Williamson has the most experience there.

Minnesota Special Teams

Minnesota needs to find a new kicker, but punter Jacob Herbers had a good debut last season with an average of 41.2 yards per punt. Michael Tarbutt is a transfer in from Connecticut and he will battle a couple of walk-ons to start at kicker.

In the return game a healthy Winfield would be a big boost. In limited action last season he had a 76 yard punt return for a score and Demetrius Douglas was a good kickoff return man last season as a redshirt freshman.

Game Outlook

Minnesota has won five of the last six against us and seven of the last 10. A large reason for that is Hazell and Hope, but when both teams have been relatively close in the Big Ten over that time it can be a big deal. Purdue lost in Minneapolis in 2009 and finished 5-7, missing a bowl. Minnesota lost in West Lafayette in 2017 and finished 5-7.

I expect this to be another tight game with the potential to be a shootout. The Gophers are going to have a very strong running game this year. It will be almost Wisconsin-esque because of the stable of backs they have, and with two good receivers on the outside they don’t need a ton from the quarterback position. They merely need consistency.

Can Purdue at least slow down the run? Will Elijah Sindelar have a great game against a questionable secondary? This is one of those early season games where the winner takes the role of “Big Ten West Dark Horse”.

Way-too-Early Prediction

I think we’ll see points. By this point we will have answers about Purdue’s biggest questions on the offensive line. That can lead to a couple of good offenses trading drives a bit like Missouri last year. Since we’re at home I’ll go ahead and pick us, but I would pick the Gophers in Minneapolis. Purdue 38, Minnesota 35