Gophers Start Big Ten Play: Game Preview
PJ Fleck and the Golden Gophers will head out to West Lafayette, Indiana Saturday to take on the Purdon't, I mean the Purdue Boilermakers to open conference play.
This is going to be a tough game for Minnesota not only because both teams seem to be quite even, but Purdue will be out for revenge after last year's game in Minneapolis.
Minnesota clobbered the Boilermakers last season 41-10 in a game where the Gophers had 415 yards of total offense with 265 of those on the ground. And not only were the Gophers successful last year against Purdue, they have won seven of of their last nine meetings with the Boilers.
However, the Gophers have struggled against Purdue on the road compiling a 6-21 record when playing in West Lafayette. And the last time Minnesota played at Purdue resulted in a 31-17 loss. So even though the Boilermakers were pummeled last year, they have historically got the best of Minnesota when playing at home.
The Gophers may have struggled playing at Purdue in the past, but they come into the game on a bit of a hot streak. Dating back to last season, the Gophers have now won five straight and are 3-0 this season. And if they beat Purdue on Saturday it would mark the first time since 2009 that the Gophers would win its first two road games to start the season.
It would be pretty impressive if the Gophers could start conference play with a "W" on the road. I think there is still a great amount of doubt in Minnesota fans' minds as to how good this team truly is. After three impressive fourth quarter comebacks to start the year against lower-end teams, this will be the first real test to see if this team is legit or a complete flop.
Here are the Gophers keys to the game if they want to come out of Purdue with a win.
1. Use the running backs, I repeat, use the running backs!
The gophers will have three solid options at running back this Saturday with the return of Shannon Brooks (right) for the first time this season. In addition, Rodney Smith (left) and Mohamed Ibrahim (middle) will be back as well. Smith was taken out of the Georgia Southern game after suffering an oblique injury. And Ibrahim did not play at all in that game as he was recovering from a non-contact injury from practice.
But all three of these running backs will be healthy and available for Saturday's game. And it is just in time for the return of Shannon Brooks, who has rushed 35 times for 292 yards in two appearances against the Boilermakers.
On top of the that, Smith and Ibrahim also have impressive stats. Smith leads all in rushing to start the year with 210 yards on the ground. Ibrahim has over 1,200 careers yards rushing in only 12 games played.
The Gophers found success with the running game last year against the Boilermakers and they could do it again with the options they have in the backfield. Fleck should be ecstatic that he has three top-notch running backs to choose from.
2. O-Line needs to improve (No, like seriously, they need to play better)
The offensive line has been touched on many times this season as the biggest pain point for the Gophers. There seems to have been no real improvement over the course of the first three games.
The O-line has allowed 11 sacks and 24 TFL, accumulating for 111 yards lost for Minnesota in only three games. That is just plain terrible! And that came against much smaller defenses.
Fleck might have to shift some guys around up front to see if some other setup works because nothing has improved over the first three weeks. The BYE could not have come at a better time for Fleck. The week off should have allowed Minnesota to make much-needed adjustments to the line.
And they need their line to perform well since three of the Gophers' top running backs will be available to play. We want to utilize these guys to push through the Boiler defense, and without any blocking and space creation, our running game could be at a stand-still.
The offensive line needs to find a way to come together this week, make reads, make proper adjustments and ultimately make blocks, or else it could be a long game for Minnesota. If the big guys up front can find a way to drastically improve from how they performed in the first part of the season, the Gophers could be coming back to Minneapolis 4-0.
3. Utilize the Receiving Core
Not only do the Gophers have three excellent options at running back, they also have three talented wide receivers for Tanner Morgan to throw to. And all three have made unbelievable catches in the Gophers first three games.
One of those guys is Tyler Johnson, who is leading the team in receptions (17) and receiving touchdowns (3) with all three coming against Georgia Southern. But the most important one was of course the spectacular touchdown catch with 13 seconds left to give the Gophers the win. He was awarded Big Ten Offensive Player of the week for his performance in that game in which he caught 10 passes for 140 yards.
In addition to Johnson, Minnesota has Rashod Bateman, who leads the team in receiving yards (289). He made SportsCenter Top 10 for his one-handed touchdown catch in the season opener against South Dakota State. He also has 66 receptions for 993 receiving yards in 16 career games, just seven away from 1,000. For only being a sophomore, Bateman has had a large impact offensively for Minnesota.
The third top receiver the Gophers have is Chris Autman-Bell. He has six catches for 93 yards with one touchdown through three games. And holy hell, was his one touchdown catch amazing! He caught a ball in the corner of the end zone just barely getting one foot down to tie the game and force OT against Fresno State. Minnesota ended up winning that game. Talk about making an impact!
After thoroughly describing every one of these receivers, you should know by now that these receivers are extremely talented, and Minnesota has three receivers they can rely on to get open and create plays. And if the running game gets going, the field will open up allowing for these receivers to work their magic.
The Gophers cannot rely entirely on their run game so they will need to utilize these guys if they want to cruise their way to victory.
The Boilermakers come into the game 1-2, also coming off a much-needed BYE after getting demolished at home by TCU 34-13.
Purdue had more success through the air in three games this season averaging 371 pass yards and only 50 yards rushing. Elijah Sindelar was the nation's leading passer through the first two weeks, but missed the last game due to injury. His status is still questionable on whether or not he will play Saturday.
One of Sindelar's top targets so far this season has been sophomore Rondale Moore, who leads the team with 369 receiving yards.
The Gophers will definitely need to be ready to play against a solid pass rush by Purdue. And Minnesota's running backs, offensive line and receivers will need to play efficiently and effectively to lead the Gophers to victory.
Row the boat, Ski-U-Mah, Go Gophers!