The Minnesota Golden Gophers (4-1) were handed their first loss of the season Saturday, stumbling to a 20-10 setback against the Purdue Boilermakers (3-2).
The Gophers’ defense. After poor tackling allowed the Boilermakers to march 68 yards in 10 plays and take a 7-0 lead on their opening drive of the game, Minnesota held Purdue to three points and 121 yards of offense on their next nine possessions. The Gophers forced three turnovers in the first half, including a fumble forced by Tyler Nubin and interceptions by Nubin and Jordan Howden. Purdue quarterback Aidan O’Connell was limited to a season-low 199 passing yards and saw his streak of 13 straight games with at least one passing touchdown come to an end. Cornerbacks Terell Smith and Justin Walley kept wide receiver Charlie Jones in check, holding him to a season-low six catches for 55 yards.
Though they eventually ran out of gas late in the fourth quarter, Minnesota’s defense played well enough to win and kept their team in the game.
Daniel Jackson. The lone highlight on offense for Minnesota was the performance of wide receiver Daniel Jackson, who led the team with six receptions for 110 receiving yards.
The stripe out. When Minnesota first announced their plans for a “stripe out” game against Purdue, all I heard was how Gopher fans couldn’t be counted on to do their part. Well, I think the doubters owe Gopher fans an apology, because I think it turned out pretty well.
Tanner Morgan. As is tradition after a Gophers loss, the Twitter mob reserved the lion’s share of their vitriol for Tanner Morgan, calling for a change at quarterback. One fan described the difference between Morgan and Purdue quarterback Aidan O’Connell as “striking,” even though Morgan racked up more passing yards than O’Connell and averaged more passing yards per attempt. To be clear, Morgan did not have a great game, completing only 54% of his passes and throwing three interceptions. But he was also sacked twice and saw several of his passes dropped, including an agonizing drop in the end zone that turned into an interception.
One of the most frequent knocks I see leveled against Morgan is that he can’t “carry” the offense, even though he did exactly that against Michigan State a week ago. The Spartans dared him to beat them through the air, putting an extra defender in the box to stop the run and gambling on their defensive backs in tight man coverage. Morgan was up to the challenge, throwing for 268 passing yards and three touchdowns, forcing Michigan State to respect the pass.
The problem against Purdue was that the Boilermakers never had to respect the run. The Gophers’ offensive line was getting beat up front from the start, and Trey Potts and Bryce Williams don’t have Mohamed Ibrahim’s ability to create something out of nothing. So when suddenly all the pressure is on Morgan’s shoulder, Minnesota’s offense becomes one-dimensional, and one-dimensional offenses are predictable, which is exactly what opposing defenses want. There’s a reason P.J. Fleck talks about the need to play “complementary football” all the time. The running game needs the passing game to keep the defense honest, and vice versa.
All that to say I think Morgan was fine against Purdue. Far from perfect, but he wasn’t the reason the Gophers lost. There is plenty of blame to go around.
The Minnesota offensive line. In his postgame interview with KFAN’s Justin Gaard, Fleck said, “We got beat up front. Simple as that.” I couldn’t agree more. The Minnesota Movers were a pleasant surprise through the first four weeks of the season, holding their own despite breaking in four new starters. Well, the honeymoon is over. The Gophers lost more battles than they won at the line of scrimmage, bringing the top-ranked rushing attack in the country to a screeching halt with 47 rushing yards and 1.8 yards per carry. It certainly would have helped to have Mohamed Ibrahim in the backfield, but I think it would have been tough sledding for him, as well.
4th & 1. I am never comfortable going for it on fourth down deep in your own territory in the first half. I didn’t like it against Bowling Green last year, and I didn’t like it against Purdue on Saturday. Fleck doubled down on his decision after the game, saying that this team needs to be able to convert on fourth and short and that he’d make the same decision if he had to do it over again. I understand where he is coming from, but Minnesota was struggling up front. To me, it seemed less like a calculated risk and more like a desperate attempt to spark the offense.
Execution in the red zone. The Gophers left 10 points on the field. First, Matthew Trickett misses a 28-yard field goal attempt. Then Morgan hits Mike Brown-Stephens right in the numbers on a slant in the end zone and it bounces off his hands and into the open arms of a Purdue defender for an interception. You can’t afford to squander multiple scoring opportunities.
The Gophers could not have picked a worse time to lay an egg. There is never a good time to lose, but you’d definitely like to avoid losing in front of an enthusiastic home crowd on Homecoming after getting ranked in the Top 25 for the first time this season.
Here come the takes. Look, I get it. You’re disappointed. I’m disappointed. It was an ugly loss. It hurts Minnesota’s chances of winning the Big Ten West, with their Oct. 15 date with Illinois looking more and more like a must-win. But I wish fans would resist the urge to self-immolate after a loss. Need I remind you that the Minnesota team that lost to Bowling Green went on to win nine games? I understand that some people view that season as a disappointment and a missed opportunity, but my point is that the season didn’t end with the loss to Bowling Green. The ending to this season is yet to be written. You may think you know how it’s going to end, but then again you also probably thought Minnesota was going to beat Purdue. It’s why we play the games.
If you were dreaming of an undefeated season, my condolences. I’ve love to see one myself, but I also recognize that it’s incredibly difficult for any program to go undefeated. If you’d like to see the Gophers win the Big Ten West, that’s still very possible. Does Minnesota have issues on offense they’ll need to correct in order for that to happen? Absolutely. And I’ll be in Champaign in two weeks to see how much progress they’ve made in that regard. I’m not waving the white flag yet.