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Minnesota Football vs. Purdue: The Elite, The Meh, and The Ugly

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The Gophers survived a shootout with the Boilermakers

NCAA Football: Purdue at Minnesota Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

In their final Friday night game of the season — thank God — the Minnesota Golden Gophers spoiled the season debut of All-American wide receiver Rondale Moore and improved to 2-3 on the season with a 34-31 win over the Purdue Boilermakers.

The Elite

Tanner Morgan. One week after one of the worst games of his career — and amid calls from a subset of fans who hoped to see back-up Zack Annexstad take some snaps under center — the Gophers’ signal caller took command of the offense, finishing 15-of-22 for 264 passing yards. He snapped his streak of 18 consecutive games with a passing touchdown, but he dropped dimes to Chris Autman-Bell and Rashod Bateman in the vertical passing game. He wasn’t perfect, but Morgan was poised in the pocket and delivered big throws when they were needed most.

Chris Autman-Bell. Offensive co-coordinator Mike Sanford Jr. mentioned earlier this week that Autman-Bell can make plays when given the opportunity and his words proved prescient on Friday night, as the redshirt junior wide receiver came up big against the Boilermakers and recorded five receptions for 129 receiving yards. His biggest catch of the night came on 4th & 8 from the Purdue 34, as Morgan took a shot downfield and Autman-Bell made an incredible catch to complete the connection. Minnesota scored on the very next play.

Mohamed Ibrahim. The Big Ten’s leading rusher was pulled from the game late at the behest of the team’s trainer for precautionary reasons, but not before rushing for 102 yards and three touchdowns. Ibrahim raised his season total to 817 rushing yards and is now only five scores from breaking the school record for rushing touchdowns in a single season.

Big plays from unusual suspects. Linebacker Mariano Sori-Marin led the team with nine tackles. Converted wide receiver Phil Howard, starting at cornerback in place of Benjamin St.-Juste, had eight solo tackles on the night and made several stops in space. Senior slot cornerback Justus Harris broke up what would have been a Rondale Moore touchdown catch before halftime, which led to a blocked field goal. And finally, linebacker Josh Aune, who lost to Moore in a foot race to the end zone earlier in the game, redeemed himself with the game-ending interception.

Purdue has never won a game at TCF Bank Stadium. The Boilermakers dropped to 0-5 in road games against Minnesota since the Gophers opened their on-campus digs in 2009.

The Meh

Special teams. I don’t know what the deal is with Michael Lantz. He missed the season opener due to COVID, only handled kickoffs against Maryland, took over PATs against Illinois but then did not get the nod to attempt the field goal against Iowa, and was in street clothes for the Purdue game. Whatever the situation is, walk-on kicker Brock Walker has struggled in his stead, missing his second PAT of the season on Friday night. And the kickoff specialist Dragan Kesich also had a kickoff go out of bounds. But Minnesota did at least get credit for a blocked field goal.

The Ugly

Defending the pass. Without their top pass rusher (Boye Mafe), two of their defensive tackles (Keonte Schad and Rashad Cheney), and one of their starting cornerbacks (Benjamin St.-Juste) and having lost safety Jordan Howden to injury in the second half, the Gophers were virtually helpless to stop the Boilermakers through the air. Purdue quarterback Jack Plummer, seeing his first action this season, was 35-of-42 for 367 passing yards and three touchdowns. Minnesota was able to pressure him at times, but failed to register a sack. Moore and David Bell shredded the Gophers’ secondary with a combined 23 receptions for 220 receiving yards.

Mike Sanford Jr.’s fourth quarter play-calling. Much like what happened in the fourth quarter against Maryland, the Gophers’ offense went from firing on all cylinders to being brought to a screeching halt due to uninspired play-calling. Leading 34-31 with 8:31 left in the fourth quarter, Minnesota proceeded to gain nine yards on three runs before getting stuffed on 4th & 1 when a missed assignment led to Seth Green being dropped in the backfield. On their next drive, Cam Wiley gained two yards on two carries before Sanford dialed up a crossing route for Rashod Bateman behind the sticks that lost a yard. Minnesota played with an edge all game — Sanford included — until that fourth quarter. Conservative play-calling has been killer.

Minnesota was without 22 players, according to P.J. Fleck. It was reported prior to the game by Yahoo Sports’ Pete Thamel that Minnesota would be without 20 players due to a combination of positive COVID-19 tests, contact tracing, and injuries. Fleck later told the Big Ten Network’s Olivia Dekker the total number of unavailable players was 22. He admitted afterwards that the game was “close” to being cancelled. This will be a situation to watch moving forward.

Officiating. I’m not about to go nuclear like the Purdue fans who spent Friday night rage Tweeting about P.J. Fleck for not committing seppuku and vacating the win in his postgame press conference, but the officiating was poor from the get-go, when the refs thought Cam Wiley fumbled the opening kickoff while laying flat on the ground. There was the phantom DPI call on Tyler Nubin on 3rd & 7 at the Minnesota 11, which gifted Purdue a fresh set of downs and then a touchdown on the next play to cut the Gophers’ lead to 34-31 midway through the fourth quarter. And then of course there was the controversial OPI call against Purdue tight end Payne Durham in the closing minute that cost the Boilermakers a go-ahead touchdown. Purdue missed two field goals, gave up 34 points to a team missing 22 players, and threw an interception when they still had a chance to win or tie, but sure, one questionable call was the difference in the game.