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Know Thy Opponent 2021: Minnesota Golden Gophers

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Purdue looks to overcome stolen valor.

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

For a long time Purdue and Minnesota have been very similar programs. Much of it has been tied to having coaching changes at the exact same time. Glen Mason and Joe Tiller were both brought in at the same time and Tiller always enjoyed pushing Mason’s teams around. Tim Brewster and Danny Hope had a lot of crossover, as did Jerry Kill and Darrell Hazell. Like Mason and Tiller, Jeff Brohm and P.J. Fleck both came in at the same time. With the programs each having a similar level of success over the past two decades, they are naturally going to be compared to each other.

So far, Fleck has the edge. The Gophers enter this season having won seven of the last eight against Purdue. The one win was a thrilling storm-delayed game in West Lafayette that Ja’Whaun Bentley sealed on a pick-six. Minnesota won in a blowout in Minneapolis in 2018, then the weird stuff started happening. The Gophers won in 2019 by a touchdown in a game that wasn’t as close as the final score indicates, but it is more well known as the game where the entire 2019 season turned as Elijah Sindelar and Rondale Moore were lost for the year on the same play. Then there is last year. Once again, Purdue’s season was derailed, only this time by an absolutely egregious pass interference call.

Of course, Purdue had plenty of other chances in the game. The Boilers missed a field goal, had one blocked before halftime, and still threw an interception while in field goal range after the horrendous call. It is a game Purdue absolutely should have won (and really, it did win), but it didn’t, much like the Rutgers and Nebraska games that followed.

The Gophers are a few steps above Illinois and are a step or two above Purdue at the moment. Still, this is a game Purdue can win this coming season. Purdue should be 3-1 entering this game, and that makes this game a hinge point between fighting for a bowl game and maybe something more.

Minnesota Golden Gophers

2020 Record: 3-4

Bowl Result: None

Blog Representation: The Daily Gopher

Series with Purdue: Minnesota leads 40-33-3 (really 39-34-3)

Last Purdue win: 31-17 at Purdue on 10/7/2017 (really 38-34 at Minnesota on 11/20/2020)

Last Minnesota win: “officially” 34-31 at Minnesota on 11/20/2020, otherwise 38-31 at Purdue on 9/28/2019

Head Coach: PJ Fleck (26-19 in 5th season at Minnesota, 56-41 overall)

Last Season for the Golden Gophers

Minnesota ended up losing a pair of its games from the schedule due to COVID. They were able to reschedule their annual game with Wisconsin during the “Champions Week”, but it was otherwise a step back with only wins over Purdue, Nebraska, and Illinois. A pair of the losses were in overtime. They lost 45-44 at Minnesota on a missed extra point and 20-17 at Wisconsin. This was definitely a step back after the 11-2 season in 2019 was the best year in decades for the Gophers.

That one season showed that Fleck can definitely build something. He has come a very long way since actually losing a game to Darrell Hazell in 2014. He has improved Minnesota’s recruiting and when they have momentum, they do well. The 9-0 start in 2019 was slow, with narrow wins over South Dakota State, Fresno State, and Georgia Southern, but once they got to the Big Ten they really started rolling. This is probably the second or third best team in the West right now behind Wisconsin, and they enter this year looking to recapture the 2019 momentum.

Minnesota Offense

Gone is Rashod Bateman, who was one of the best receivers in the Big Ten the last few seasons. He saw limited action in only five games last year, but had 60 catches for 1.219 yards and 11 TDs in 2019. Purdue had no answer for him in its game. Chris Autman-Bell (22-430-1) moves into the role as the top receiver, but this is a team that averaged less than 200 yards through the air a season ago.

They do have a very experienced quarterback in Tanner Morgan. He was a bit down last season with 1,374 yards and 7 TDs against 5 interceptions, but in 2019 he was really good with 3,253 yards and 30 TDs against just seven interceptions. He is a senior with more than 6,000 yards passing in his career and 46 touchdowns against 18 interceptions. It is safe to say they are set at the position and they easily have the most experienced QB we will face in the first half of the season.

Then there is the running game. It has been pretty good behind a strong offensive line, and senior running back Mohamed Ibrahim might be the best in the Big Ten. In just seven games last season he still rushed for 1,076 yards and 15 touchdowns. Against Purdue he had 102 yards and three touchdowns last year. He missed the 2019 game against us, but in 2018 he had 155 yards. Why he did not go the NFL I don’t know, but he will be the focal point of their offense.

It is safe to call the Gophers a run first team. When you have a guy like Ibrahim you use him. They do have enough of a passing game to be dangerous and they can absolutely eat up the clock with a late lead because of their strong ground game. This is not a game where Purdue wants to be trailing entering the fourth quarter, especially given last year’s issues with getting stops.

Minnesota Defense

Overall the Gophers gave up more than 30 points per game a season ago, but with the proliferation of offense across college football that is not a surprise. They struggled against the run at 200+ yards given up per game. Purdue had some success on the ground with Zander Horvath averaging 6+ yards per carry (on only 10 touches) and Rondale Moore got the final touchdown of his Purdue career on a rush.

Senior linebacker Mariano Sori-Marin is back after leading the team with 54 tackles, 3 pass breakups, and a forced fumble. They also get back leading pass rusher Boye Mafe (4.5 sacks) and defensive back in Tyler Nubin (41 tackles and an interception). Josh Aune, the linebacker who sealed last year’s “win” with an interception is also back.

This is a defense long on experience. The top nine tacklers return and there is a lot of experience left over from the 2019 team that started slow, but got better as the year went on. As a comparison, Purdue and Minnesota played Auburn in consecutive bowl games. Purdue got absolutely smoked to the tune of 63 points and probably would have given up 100 if the Tigers felt like it. Minnesota held them to 24 in a 31-24 win.

The Gophers have the experience to have a pretty good defensive unit. They were plus 1 in the turnover ratio and Purdue famously did not get a single turnover in the last three games. Purdue, with a ton of transfers, has to hope something comes together in the first four games before this one. It makes for an interesting game.

Minnesota Special Teams

Brock Walker is the incumbent at kicker after hitting 2 of 3 field goals a year ago, but only had a long of 29. As a team the Gophers attempted only six field goals with a long of 38. Walker did not attempt a field goal against Purdue, but he did miss an extra point.

In the punting game the Gophers were almost as bad as Purdue. Mark Crawford averaged under 38 yards per punt. This is even while being their designated Australian punter, as seemingly every team in college football, including Purdue, now has.

The return game really had nothing of note.

Game Outlook

As mentioned above, this game feels like the hinge point between a good season where the Boilers scrape into a bowl and a great season of 8-9 wins. It is the type of game that, as long as Purdue beats Oregon State, Illinois, and UConn, can build confidence. Purdue has not started 4-1 since going 5-0 in the first five games of 2007. That’s a long, LONG time. With a real chance to get to 4-1 it feels like Purdue absolutely needs to take full advantage.

Should Purdue get to 4-1 it opens up so much. At that point only the game at Ohio State feels totally out of reach. Assuming Purdue takes care of business against Oregon State, UConn, and Illinois this could be one of the most important games of the Jeff Brohm era, and one that can be a springboard for not only the rest of 2021, but for 2022 and beyond.

Way-too-early Prediction

I hope Purdue plays pissed off in this one. Last year’s game was stolen from them. The last two games have been close affairs where both teams were in the 30s and I can see it happening again. I think Purdue comes out on top by what last year’s score should have been. Purdue 38, Minnesota 34