Purdue vs. Minnesota: Final thoughts and a prediction
It’s not even October and Minnesota has already established itself as the team to beat in the Big Ten West.
The Golden Gophers are undefeated, having whooped up on 3 patsies in the non-conference season before smacking Michigan State around in East Lansing last week. Minnesota has a workable schedule on its way to what it hopes is a West title, but it’s not without challenges, including from Purdue on Saturday.
The Boilermakers, once thought to be a dark horse challenger in the West, come limping into Saturday’s game, missing as many as 6 starters due to injury, possibly including All-Big Ten quarterback Aidan O’Connell. He, like other Purdue players, will be a game-time decision in the hours before kickoff.
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Because of their hot start and Purdue’s questions, the Golden Gophers will enter the game as a near 12-point favorite.
A few final thoughts:
Will he or won’t he?
Purdue’s chances for an upset on Saturday likely hinge on the status of O’Connell, the star quarterback who is a game-time decision due to an undisclosed injury (although speculation is that he’s suffering bruised ribs). If the 6th-year senior quarterback can not go — he was injured, according to Jeff Brohm, early in the loss at Syracuse but powered through, likely riding an adrenaline high — then the Boilermakers’ chances are minimized.
Fellow 6th-year quarterback Austin Burton would get his 2nd straight start. But Purdue’s offense is changed with Burton under center, centered around more of a ball-control, run-oriented attack that likely has a lower ceiling. The Boilermakers would need to run the ball, as they did vs. FAU (188 rushing yards, including 113 from Dylan Downing), to set up the pass and keep the Gophers’ defense off-balance. But Minnesota’s rush defense is the 3rd-best nationally, allowing less than 62 yards per game.
Can the Boilermakers win that way? Yes. Is the margin for error incredibly small? Also yes.
In the 2-point win over FAU Saturday, Burton passed for 3 touchdowns and 166 yards, but he did so on 29 attempts, illustrating that many of his throws were at or behind the line of scrimmage. Purdue’s downfield attack, a hallmark of Brohm offenses, particularly with O’Connell at quarterback, was almost non-existent.
O’Connell isn’t Purdue’s only injury issue — and it should also be noted that Minnesota isn’t at full strength either, not after the season-ending injury to star wide receiver Chris Autman-Bell — as the Boilermakers also have questions about 5 other starters: Running back King Doerue, right tackle Cam Craig, wide receiver Broc Thompson, linebacker/safety/nickel Jalen Graham and cornerback Reese Taylor.
It’s unlikely the public will know more about their status until Saturday morning before the 11 a.m. local start in Minneapolis.
Minnesota will attack
Minnesota isn’t going to let its foot off the gas petal any time soon.
The Golden Gophers’ offense has been nuking opponents, not only the over-matched ones of the first 3 weeks but Michigan State last Saturday, as well. Minnesota ranks 3rd nationally in yardage, averaging 543 yards per game, putting it just behind Tennessee and Ohio State and ahead of Georgia.
The Gophers have balance, ranking No. 2 in rushing offense (at 294.5 yards per game) and 67th in passing (at 248.5). In the 34-7 win at Michigan State, Minnesota couldn’t have been much more even offensively, as veteran QB Tanner Morgan picked apart a struggling Spartan secondary for 268 yards with 3 scores while hitting on a ridiculously good 23-of-26 attempts, while the Gophers rushed for 240 yards and a score, including 103 yards from starter Mohamed Ibrahim.
Purdue — historically — has struggled against the Morgan-led RPO offense. Three years ago, Morgan hit on 21-of-22 passes for 396 yards and 4 TDs in a Minnesota victory. Last season in a driving downpour in West Lafayette, the Gophers upended Purdue 20-13.
It’s likely the Boilermakers will maintain the same defensive strategy they’ve employed this season, stacking up against the run and playing largely man defense in the secondary with a single high safety. Co-defensive coordinator Ron English’s play-calling has helped Purdue hold opponents to 115.8 yards rushing per game, 46th-best in the country, but it’s also putting a ton of stress on the Boilermakers’ cornerbacks.
Trying to figure out what to take away from Minnesota’s attack is a huge challenge.
Gophers got the number
PJ Fleck and the Golden Gophers have won 4 straight against Purdue, dating back to the Boilermakers’ last win in 2017 in Brohm’s first season in West Lafayette.
Since then, it’s been all Fleck, although the last 3 games have been decided by single scores. Minnesota won by 7 in West Lafayette in 2019, then by 3 in Minneapolis in 2020 (when a last-minute Payne Durham Purdue touchdown was wiped off the board by a phantom offensive pass interference call), and the 7-point margin last season in the Ross-Ade rain.
Those games won’t matter on Saturday, but the series trend is certainly heavily in Minnesota’s favor.
Can Purdue counter?
Purdue’s defense has been opportunistic this season, with 4 interceptions, including 2 that the Boilermakers returned for touchdowns in the first 2 weeks. A couple more interceptions were negated by defensive penalties against Syracuse, both of which were questionable, at the least.
Morgan has thrown only 1 interception this season, against 7 touchdowns, and Minnesota has lost 2 fumbles, but perhaps Purdue’s path to victory includes winning the turnover margin. If Purdue can get a bonus score, on defense or special teams, maybe it’ll stay close in the 4th quarter.
And the prediction …
Purdue might have a chance if O’Connell returns from his injury. If he’s good to go, then the Boilermakers quick-strike, big-play offense returns, even against a salty Minnesota defense.
But it’s not as if the Boilermakers have been infallible even with O’Connell. Purdue made gigantic mistakes in losses to Penn State and Syracuse, unable to close out either opponent in the final minutes, due to failures on offense and defense and a slew of mind-numbing penalties. Meanwhile, Minnesota has done nothing of the sort. The Gophers aren’t hurting themselves with penalties or turnovers and are putting heavy pressure, in almost all facets, on their opponents.
All in all, it’ll be too much for the Boilermakers to overcome, whether O’Connell goes or not.
Minnesota 34, Purdue 21