Last Saturday was a disaster for the Minnesota Golden Gophers. The less said about the game against Northwestern, the better. Nothing good will come from dwelling on that game any more than our self-loathing fan base already has. But make no mistake, because of that loss, this Saturday's matchup with the Purdue Boilermakers is a must-win for Minnesota. Lose, and all remaining hope of contending in the Big Ten West is gone. Lose, and a trip to a bowl game is in doubt. Lose, and a once promising season is all but lost. With a brutal upcoming stretch that includes Michigan (4-1), Ohio State (5-0), and Iowa (5-0), Minnesota can't afford to drop a game like this.
Purdue is not quite the dumpster fire that their 1-4 record -- with losses to Marshall and Bowling Green -- would suggest. Aside from a blowout loss at home to Virginia Tech, the Boilermakers have had a chance in all of their games so far this season, including a nail-biter a week ago on the road against Michigan State. With that said, no self-respecting Big Ten team should be losing to teams out of Conference USA and the Mid-American Conference. The Gophers struggled with Kent State and Ohio, but managed to prevail on both occasions. Purdue has not been as fortunate. Their lone win came against Indiana State out of the FCS. The biggest issue? Turnovers.
Much like the Gophers, the Boilermakers have shot themselves in the foot enough times that I'm surprised there are toes left. Purdue and Minnesota are both ranked 101st in the nation in turnover margin. We're not so different after all! The Boilermakers saw two interceptions returned for touchdowns against Marshall, and then allowed a fumble return for a touchdown and a blocked punt recovered for a touchdown against Virginia Tech. And I haven't even mentioned the turnovers that have led to points on ensuing drives. Points off turnovers has been a huge thorn in the side of these Boilermakers. But guess what? The Gophers have struggled to force turnovers on defense the past three games. Unstoppable force, meet immovable object.
Matchups? Don't get me started on matchups. At the moment, there isn't a single matchup that the Gophers can afford to overlook, regardless of the opponent.
The offensive line, aside from a strong performance against Ohio, has been atrocious and inconsistent both in run blocking and pass protection. Not helping matters are a group of talented but inexperienced wide receivers that have struggled to find separation against opposing defensive backs. The team's top two tight ends have been out with injuries all season long, with no return date in sight. Then there is Mitch Leidner under center, who was replaced by freshman Demry Croft last week after an abysmal performance.
The defensive line has struggled to pressure quarterbacks through the first half of the season, tied for 108th in the nation in sacks with 6. The secondary, once touted as one of the best in the Big Ten, will be without starting safety Damarius Travis (hamstring), starting cornerback Briean Boddy-Calhoun (knee), and back-up cornerback and starting punt returner Craig James (leg). Turnovers and third down stops have also been few and far between the past several weeks for this defensive unit.
I might be somewhat overstating their deficiencies, but at this point, there aren't a lot of areas where the Golden Gophers are performing well.
So what about Purdue? What does Purdue do well? The Boilermakers aren't exceptional at a lot of things. Redshirt freshman quarterback David Blough had an impressive game against Bowling Green, but came back down to Earth against Michigan State. Freshman running back Markell Jones has been their most impressive and consistent player on offense, with 60 carries for 405 yards -- that is 6.8 yards per rush -- and 5 touchdowns, aside from when he disappeared against Bowling Green. Their defense ranks 96th in the nation in total defense, 98th in rushing defense, and 85th in passing defense. That could be the difference in this game. Virginia Tech, the team that torched their defense for 51 points, ranks 84th in the nation in total offense. Bear in mind also, Purdue's one respectable defensive performance -- aside from an impressive second half against Michigan State -- came in a blowout win over Indiana State. Will the Gophers' moribund offense come to life against a porous Boilermakers' defense or will we see the opposite?
One thing to also keep in mind: This is a road game for Minnesota, and Purdue has won 9 of the last 10 in this series when the game is in West Lafayette.
Bottom line (and the reason I scrapped the usual format): Two unexceptional teams will take the field on Saturday. The one that makes the least amount of mistakes will win. It is that simple. We'll find out who wants it more.
Is there a particular matchup you'll be watching for, aside from 'All of The Above'?