The Minnesota Golden Gophers (1-3) host the Purdue Boilermakers (2-1) at TCF Bank Stadium on Friday night at 6:30 p.m. CT. The game will be televised on the Big Ten Network.
How have the Boilermakers fared so far this season?
Purdue opened the season 2-0 with narrow wins over Iowa and Illinois before having their Week 3 game cancelled due to the COVID-19 outbreak at Wisconsin. The Boilermakers returned to action on Saturday for a battle of Big Ten undefeateds in a 27-20 loss to Northwestern.
Can Purdue score on offense?
Head coach Jeff Brohm’s air attack is led by redshirt junior quarterback Aidan O’Connell, a former walk-on. O’Connell ranks third in the Big Ten in passing yards (916) and is tied for fourth in passing touchdowns (7), but he is also second in pass attempts (136) despite playing in one fewer game than all but one other Big Ten team. That is in large part a product of the Boilermakers’ lack of a consistent ground game, but more on that in a minute.
With All-American wide receiver Rondale Moore sidelined, the knock against O’Connell has been that he locks in on one target. Sound familiar, Gopher fans? Granted, that one target happens to be David Bell, one of the best receivers in the Big Ten. Bell has been as good as advertised, hauling in 31 receptions for 321 receiving yards and four touchdowns. He has received some support from sophomore Milton Wright, but beyond that, Purdue has yet to tap much further into their talented receiving corps. Redshirt sophomore tight end Payne Durham is the next most reliable target, with nine receptions for 97 receiving yards.
The Boilermakers have struggled to gain much traction on the ground, which is understandable considering two of their three games have been against Iowa and Northwestern, both of whom are stout against the run. But Purdue also failed to take advantage of the same woeful Illinois defense that Minnesota gashed for 325 rushing yards. The Boilermakers are a one-man show at running back with redshirt junior Zander Horvath, who is literally the only running back on the roster with a rushing yard to his name this season. At 6’3”, 230 lbs., Horvath is a bronco who frequently needs to be gang tackled and even then is capable of dragging multiple defenders for extra yards. He is also a safety valve in the passing game for O’Connell, ranking third on the team in receptions.
The offensive line, which returned four starters from last season, has been a factor in the Boilermakers’ struggles in the run game. Their inconsistent play has also stretched into pass protection, as Purdue is allowing an average of three sacks per game.
Please tell me the Gophers will be able to score
Credit where credit is due: The Boilermakers are much improved on defense compared to last season. New defensive coordinator Bob Diaco was brought in to replace Nick Holt in spite of a dubious track record, and he inherited a defense that returned eight starters from a unit that ranked 99th nationally in rushing defense (192.5 rushing yards allowed per game), 94th in pass defense (243.8 passing yards allowed per game), and 86th in scoring defense (30.6 points allowed per game). The Purdue pass defense still leaves much to be desired, but the Boilermakers rank 54th in rushing defense and 39th in scoring defense this season.
It starts up front for the Boilermakers. Sophomore George Karlaftis is an elite defensive end, though he suffered an ankle injury against Illinois and dressed but did not play against Northwestern. Even without Karlaftis, the Purdue defensive front had an impressive showing against the Wildcats, who boast one of the top rushing attacks in the Big Ten. The Boilermakers limited them to 80 rushing yards and two yards per carry. Redshirt senior defensive tackle Lorenzo Neal was a big problem, and he and the rest of the defensive line freed up linebackers Derrick Barnes and DaMarcus Mitchell to wreak havoc in the backfield.
Against the pass, Purdue has not been able to generate much pressure. Karlaftis is responsible for two of their three team sacks and his absence was certainly felt in the Northwestern game. The M.O. of their secondary has been to play soft zone, keep opposing receivers in front of them, and limit big plays through the air, but that left them susceptible in the short and intermediate passing game against the Wildcats, who nickel and dimed their way down the field. Their linebackers, especially, have not provided much help on underneath routes.
Where the Purdue defense has stood tall this season is in the red zone. Opposing teams have made 17 trips into the red zone, and the Boilermakers have only allowed eight touchdowns and three field goals on those drives. Purdue ranks 5th nationally in red zone defense.
But who will score more points on Saturday?
Could Minnesota’s run defense (or lack thereof) be the cure for what ails Purdue’s run offense? Even if the Gophers somehow manage to keep Zander Horvath from bulldozing his way to a big game on the ground, Minnesota is shorthanded in the secondary, with starting cornerback Benjamin St.-Juste sidelined with COVID-19. Expect Coney Durr to shadow David Bell as much as possible, but when your reinforcements at cornerback are converted wide receiver Phillip Howard and DPI aficionado Terell Smith, you’re in trouble against an offense that likes to sling it as much as Purdue does. I believe the Boilermakers will record their first ever win at TCF Bank Stadium on Friday night. Purdue 35, Minnesota 20.