Gopher Defense Sturdy Enough in Sloppy Victory @ Purdue

Photo: @GopherFootball – Twitter

Rain was threatening in West Lafayette for much of the morning on Saturday. But the forecast didn’t call for the downpour that took over this game for much of the second half. It’s hard to tell if the sudden change in weather screwed with either team’s game plan but the Minnesota Gophers handled it better than the Purdue Boilermakers, claiming a 20-13 victory at Ross-Ade Stadium.

Tanner Morgan

The Gophers got their first Big Ten win of the season and moved to 1-1 in conference play, 3-2 overall. That means we’ll see Tanner Morgan as the starting quarterback when play resumes vs Nebraska two weeks from now. But that doesn’t mean his play impressed those watching. The coaching staff, again, wasn’t willing to let Tanner sink or swim their chances of winning. He could have sealed it, late, but Fleck chose to trust his defense instead. It paid off, but more on that momentarily.

Mike Sanford and PJ Fleck did make an obvious effort, however, to push the ball down the field in bigger bunches, something they’ve been dreadful at all season. It worked, at times, but Morgan struggled with his long-ball accuracy again. Michael Brown-Stephens made two nice catches for Monster gains on Saturday but had to make pretty major adjustments to both while they were in the air.

After the game, I asked Tanner about his performance. You could tell in his answer that he expects more. He’ll celebrate the win and what he did well, as he should. Winning DI power five football games is hard. But the Gophers will need more out of their Senior QB if 2021 is going to end in success.

Wildcat in the clutch

With the game hanging in the balance late and the rain coming down at its hardest of the day, Fleck decided to run his wildcat on the last Gophers drive of the game. It was smart. Purdue knew they were going to run the clock out. So, why not force them to respect two rushers?

Cole Kramer played the Wildcat QB position and used a few different running backs to pound the rock for ten-straight plays. They ate up 4:37 of game time and pushed the ball to Purdue’s 20-yard line, before eventually settling for a Matthew Trickett field goal and a 7-point (20-13) lead.

Now let’s get back to the coaching staff’s trust in Tanner Morgan. A Gophers’ first down on that last 3rd-and-5 (from the Boilermakers’ 20-yd-line with 2 minutes to play) could have sealed the game. Instead, Purdue finally figured the Wildcat out and got the ball back with 1:46 remaining and a chance to tie. It wouldn’t matter. After giving up a couple chunk plays, the defense came through again and Tyler Nubin ended it on this interception. So, correct call by Fleck, right?

I’m not so sure. No matter how well your defense is playing, the Minnesota Gophers’ offensive playbook needs to have something in it for Tanner Morgan in that situation. If the look isn’t open, he can throw it away and Trickett kicks the same field goal with a bit more time on the clock. Nothing hurt. If you can’t trust your Senior QB in that situation then when can you?

Defense

Speaking of the defense, they were the story of this game and the brightest side for this Minnesota Gophers team heading into a bye week. Purdue hasn’t had the high-powered and big scoring offense that we’ve seen from them in the past but they still have a solid quarterback and some deadly weapons at receiver.

Their biggest threat, David Bell, had to clear concussion protocol after a jarring hit last week. Not only was he able to suit up. Bell added another 6 catches and 120 yards onto his season totals, which now sit at 27 catches for 439 yards. But, he wasn’t able to get in the end zone, which was a theme for the defense on Saturday.

The Boilermakers posted 154 more total yards than the Gophers on Saturday (434 vs 290) but only posted 13 points. Purdue QB, Aiden O’Connell, threw 52 times and completed 34 of them (65%). Still, he was only able to average 10 yards per completion. PJ Fleck said after the game that he doesn’t like to use the football defensive mannerism of “bend but don’t break”, yet that’s exactly what his defense was in West Lafayette today.

And it worked out perfectly.

Now what?

Now, the Minnesota Gophers will rest for a couple weeks and pick play back up vs Nebraska on October 16 at Huntington Bank Stadium. The Huskers host Northwestern tonight on Big Ten Network and then Michigan next week on ABC.

To win that game, Fleck’s squad will have to play better offensively than what we’ve seen the last couple times out and a lot of this season. To do that, Tanner Morgan will have to be more consistent.

If the defense can keep the offense in games, like they have the last two weeks, then anything is possible for this season. That’s if the offense can wake up.

Eric Strack | Minnesota Sports Fan