We’ll never know for certain whether Minnesota was ready to play football against Purdue on Saturday. Coach P.J. Fleck insisted the Gophers were, the evidence suggested otherwise.
But who knows what was in the Gophers’ hearts before, during or after their 20-10 loss to Purdue at Huntington Bank Stadium? We can only report what was in front of us, and what we saw was a 4-0 Minnesota team hot off thrashing Michigan State on the road and ranked No. 21 in the Associated Press poll for the first time this season spit the bit against a 9½-point underdog.
Even with 2020 Big Ten running back of the year Mo Ibrahim (ankle) pulled after warmups, Minnesota had its chances. Certainly enough to win.
Hitting the nail precisely on the head, Fleck summed it up during his postgame news conference: “Just too many mistakes,” he said.
Some of those mistakes were inconspicuous to most; Fleck spoke of a missed check-down, for instance. But the blatant mistakes were enough to make the difference.
Purdue scored a touchdown on its first possession, a 68-yard drive that ended with a 1-yard scoring run by Dylan Downing, his only carry of the game, but only after Minnesota’s Terrell Smith was called for (a soft) pass interference penalty on third-and-goal from the 3-yard line.
Facing fourth-and-2 from their own 29 on their next drive, the Gophers were stuffed for no gain on a wildcat play. Purdue managed only four yards on the ensuing possession but took their free three points on a 43-yard field goal by Mitchell Fineran. Ten-zip.
“I’d do it again,” Fleck said. “It cost us three points but we’ve got to be able to make first downs.”
For the rest of the half, it was more of the same. Gophers place-kicker Matthew Trickett missed a 28-yard field goal, and Michael Brown-Stephens missed a 3-yard touchdown pass that Tanner Morgan put on his hands. It bounced to a Purdue defender for an interception.
On Purdue’s next drive, the Gophers had the Boilermakers stopped for a fourth-and-7 at their own 23 but U defender Braelen Oliver hit receiver Tyrone Tracy Jr. well out of bounds and was charged with a personal foul. Purdue used its extra four plays and 15 yards to move to the 50 before punting with 1:23 left in the half.
Still, Purdue appeared ready to run out of gas in the third quarter, giving up the tying touchdown on Minnesota’s first drive of the half. Momentum appeared to be in the Gophers’ hands, but it was Purdue that responded in the final quarter. For whatever reason, the Gophers had nothing left.
That was conspicuously apparent when Purdue’s Devin Mockobee, on first-and-10 from his own 30-yard line, ran 68 yards. Not a single Gophers defender touched him until Oliver and Justin Walley corralled him at Minnesota’s 2-yard line with 2 minutes left.
Suddenly it was over.
“It’s not just about us not playing well,” Fleck said. “They forced us to not play well.”
Purdue might, in fact, be better than its 2-2 record and 28-26 escape of Florida Atlantic at home last week would indicate — the Boilermakers were beating No. 11 Penn State in the season opener before giving up a late touchdown in a 35-31 loss — but it didn’t play particularly well on Saturday. With a better effort, the Gophers could have won that game and been 5-0 overall, 2-0 headed into their bye week.
But they didn’t, and they aren’t.
“Just too many mistakes,” Fleck reiterated, “whether it’s a dropped pass, missed tackle, not in the right gap (and) us as coaches — a play call — that’s what you’ve got to look at.”
They have time to stew over it now, off until going to Illinois on Oct. 15. That won’t be easy. The Illini have usurped the Gophers’ claim on Best of the West after Saturday’s convincing, 34-10 victory at Wisconsin.
“The external (noise is) sitting there going, ‘They haven’t been tested. They haven’t been tested. They haven’t had any adversity,’ ” Fleck said. “Well, there it is. Here it is, and this team is training to handle the adversity.”
Maybe that will come in handy later in the season, but everyone knows it’s better to be undefeated.