The No. 21-ranked Minnesota Golden Gophers (4-0) welcome the Purdue Boilermakers (2-2) to Huntington Bank Stadium on Saturday, Oct. 1, at 11 a.m.
Can Purdue score on offense?
By now, with head coach Jeff Brohm in his sixth year at Purdue, Gopher fans should be more than familiar with the Boilermakers’ style of offense. Brohm’s teams have had prolific passing games dating back to his days at Western Kentucky, relying on a combination of play fakes, motions, and formations to disguise route concepts designed to get their playmakers the ball in space.
Minnesota defensive coordinator Joe Rossi’s approach against Brohm’s Boilermakers has been to concede that they are going to pile up passing yards. So Rossi has schemed to keep everything in front of his defenders and limit Purdue’s ability to break explosive plays. His logic is that if the Boilermakers are going to score, they’re going to have to nickel and dime their way down the field, which in Rossi’s mind creates more opportunities for his defense to make a play.
Last year’s 20-13 win over Purdue is a great example of how to execute that game plan. The Boilermakers finished the game with 371 passing yards but only scored one touchdown. They made four trips into the red zone but twice settled for field goals and missed a third attempt.
The big question mark heading into Saturday is whether Purdue starting quarterback Aidan O’Connell will be available. He suffered a rib injury in the first quarter of their Week 3 loss to Syracuse, but finished the game. O’Connell then sat out the Florida Atlantic game the following week and is questionable this week. In his absence, former UCLA transfer Austin Burton was solid, finishing 21-of-29 for 166 passing yards and three touchdowns.
No matter who is under center, all eyes will be on wide receiver Charlie Jones. The Iowa transfer is having a breakout year, hauling in 41 receptions for 533 receiving yards and seven touchdowns through the first four games. He has yet to be held out of the end zone in a game this season. But the Boilermakers also like to spread the wealth, especially to tight end Payne Durham and wide receivers T.J. Sheffield and Tyrone Tracy (another former Hawkeye).
The knock against Brohm’s offenses year in and year has always been their inability to run the ball with any sort of consistency, and this year’s team is no different. Purdue ranks 92nd nationally in rushing offense, averaging 134.2 yards per game. They’ve also been without the services of starting running back King Doerue, who missed their last two games with a calf injury.
Please tell me the Gophers will be able to score
This is a very middle-of-the-road Purdue defense. The Boilermakers currently rank 46th in run defense (116 rushing yards allowed per game), 45th in pass defense (203.2 passing yards allowed per game), and 61st in scoring defense (23.2 points allowed per game).
Up front, Purdue operates out of a base 3-4 defense and has a veteran defensive line led by three redshirt senior starters. Behind them is a linebacker corps with three upperclassmen among the four starters. They’ve had decent success in stopping the run thus far, holding Penn State to 98 rushing yards and limiting Syracuse’s All-American running back Sean Tucker to 42 rushing yards on 18 carries. But they’ve also been prone to poor tackling.
In the secondary, Purdue relies on another group of veteran starters but is missing safety Jalen Graham, who is perhaps their best defender. He has been sidelined due to injury for their last two games and is questionable to return this week. Against Florida Atlantic, defensive coordinator Ron English frequently put his defensive backs on an island in man coverage and they struggled, allowing one wide receiver in particular to catch nine receptions for 90 yards and three scores. The Boilermakers’ defensive front has also struggled to generate much of a pass rush. They’ve racked up seven sacks in four games, but four of those came against FCS Indiana State.
Michigan State’s defensive front is superior to Purdue’s and they opted to put an extra defender in the box to stop the run, trusting their defensive backs in tight man coverage and daring quarterback Tanner Morgan to beat them through the air. That proved to be a fatal mistake on their part and they were forced to pivot from single-high safety coverage to two-high, but that only allowed the Gophers to get the ground game rolling. We’ll see if Purdue takes a similar approach, but obviously shutting down this dynamic Minnesota offense is easier said than done.
But who will score more points on Saturday?
Jeff Brohm is 1-4 against P.J. Fleck, having lost four straight to Minnesota. The Boilermakers haven’t won in Minneapolis since 2007 and are 0-6 at Huntington Bank Stadium. Purdue has struggled against FBS opponents this season, dropping one-score games to Penn State and Syracuse and needing a late turnover to squeak past Florida Atlantic by a two-point margin. This doesn’t seem like a good matchup for the Boilermakers, especially if O’Connell is out. This Purdue team is also very undisciplined, averaging 7.5 penalties per game. Minnesota 31, Purdue 10.