Let's be clear: I'm not saying the Gophers WILL beat Purdue. I'm just saying the matchup with the Boilermakers could not be more favorable, especially defensively. If Wisconsin was the worst possible matchup for the Gophers defense (insert joke here about "isn't ANY offense the worst possible matchup for the Gophers?"), then Purdue is the best matchup we'll see all year.
If you haven't heard, they're really banged up. Their starting QB Robert Marve, starting TB Ralph Bolden, and starting WR Keith Smith (preseason 1st team all-Big Ten this year) are all out for the season with knee injuries, and I'd argue no trio of guys are as valuable to their team as those three are to Purdue. Danny Hope is doing some good things and looks to be building a solid program, but he's still building depth, and it's showing right now.
Honestly, there's not much point in looking at the Boilers offensive stats to date, because with those three guys now out, the only game that really matters as a barometer for what to expect is from the last game against the Wildcats. You know, the game last week where Purdue did something we couldn't- beat Northwestern. And they did it despite only 279 yards of total offense. With redshirt freshmen QB Rob Henry and an underwhelming group of wideouts, Purdue took their bye week to find a system better suited to their talent, and what they found was the ol' spread read-option offense. Henry flourished, amassing a team high 16 carries for 132 yards and a score, and helped the Boilers to 232 rushing yards at 5.5 yards per carry.Now I know what you're thinking: we have the worst rushing defense in the Big Ten! How the hell does this help Minnesota? Because most of it (at least from what I read as I did not see the game) came from running the spread option. And the spread option run is the one rushing offense we've actually been, well, maybe not good against, but not horrible in stopping. We've seen it twice this year- once in the opener against MTSU and the other two weeks ago from Northwestern. In those two games our young defense showed excellent pursuit to the edges, and contained the QB option run and pitch pretty well. Between the tackles? Yeah not so much, and that's certainly where Purdue can hurt the defense Saturday (the spread attack of Northern Illinois did the bulk of their damage with handoffs to tailback. USD did theirs with things like QB boots and playaction).
However, there's one big difference between the spread option offenses for Northwestern and MTSU and the one currently employed by Purdue: NU and MTSU can pass. Last Saturday, Purdue could not. Persa, as you may remember, shredded us by completing 76% of his passes for 309 yards and 2 scores. MTSU backup QB Logan Kilgore was a very efficient 13-18 for 172 yards and a TD. But with Marve out, Purdue really struggled to throw the ball against Northwestern. Henry was 6-18 for just 47 yards and a pick. Yep, that's ugly. I don't know what's worse: Henry's passing or the Gophers pass defense. It'd be like JWow vs Snooky in a spelling contest. Or Don Draper vs Brett Favre in a Husband of the Year contest. It's the complete opposite of an immovable object meets an unstoppable force. It's not that something has to give, it's more like something has to NOT give in this one, and for me, it's the key matchup in the entire game.
Henry will be at home, and he won't find a more welcoming defense all season to throw on. With the way our defense has played, and the way Cosgrove has...I can't say coached. Anti-coached? Non-coached? Dis-coached? Some english major or grammar police help me out here...well the way Cosgrove hasn't done much of anything, it's entirely possibly a raw, redshirt frosh like Henry could like Joe Montana against Minnesota. But, he could also look like he did last week, and struggle to complete passes or make the passing game a threat.
If that's the case, the Gophers can move eight or nine guys into the box to stop the run. And as Rosie O'Donnell-ugly as our defense has been, I'm confident that they can at least slow the Purdue ground game if there's no passing game as a threat. Of course, all of this also assumes Cosgrove understands even a basic, elementary defensive philosophy such as this, which I realize is a stretch. But let's just pretend for a minute that a defensive coordinator of a Big Ten team will realize this and make it happen.
So that's the story when Purdue has the ball. What about when that juggernaut Gopher rushing attack, the one Jermo yesterday so astutely pointed out is averaging a mere .1 yard per carry better than last year, gets the football? I'd like to think my plea from earlier in the week to open up the offense and throw the ball more will be heard, but I'm not getting my hopes up. OC Jeff Horton has shown no signs of abandoning the run-first, control-the-clock-and-hope-to-God-we-keep-our-defense-off-the-field strategy he's employed all year, and as much as it SHOULD change this week against Purdue, I just don't have much hope it will.
And of course, this is the PERFECT week for it to happen! Purdue's rush defense has been pretty solid, ranking 6th in the Big Ten allowing just 135 yards per game at 3.5 ypc. That's a run defense that should be able to limit our run game because, you know, everyone else so why not the Boilers too? But they're ninth (or 3rd worst) in the Big Ten in passing defense (allowing 222 yards per game) and Pass Defense Efficiency (136.4- I have no idea what that number means, just that there's only two schools with a higher number), and 10th in Opposing QB's completion at 69.8%.
The one wrinkle in this potential passing bliss? Purdue All-American DE Ryan Kerrigan. He leads the conference in sacks with 5.5 (Minnesota as a TEAM has 3), and leads a Boilermaker defense that leads the conference with 17. So while this might be the worst pass defense Minnesota will see the rest of the year, it very well might be the best pass rush too. One area the Gopher o-line has improved is keeping Adam Weber clean and comfortable in the pocket, and they'll have their work cut out for them to keep that going Saturday.
Still, the Gophers are the only team in the Big Ten with three receivers in the top 15 in catches, yards, and TD's. This team CAN throw, and throw successfully. There are some favorable matchups on both sides of the ball, and if Minnesota can capitalize on them (i.e. if the coaches can allow them to), this is a game the Gophers can win. And it's one they need to, because this is the best shot they'll have at win #2 the rest of the season.