MINNEAPOLIS — With only four weeks left in the race, the West Division is thick with contenders for a trip to the Big Ten championship game.
Minnesota has crept into the crowd, despite losing the first two conference games, with a boost from a soft middle of the schedule. There’s just one more game to win before the Gophers can dive into a daunting yet potentially stirring finish, but they simply can’t afford to let daydreams of a December game in Indianapolis and being heavy favorites at home distract them from playing Purdue on Saturday.
"If we don’t take it one game at a time it’s not going to happen," linebacker Nick Rallis said.
The Gophers (6-2, 3-2) narrowly beat struggling Rutgers at home two weeks ago, but they sandwiched that one with convincing wins on the road over Maryland and most recently Illinois. Not having Michigan or Ohio State on the schedule this season has been a benefit to the Gophers, one they needn’t apologize for after going through a gauntlet of top-20 teams last year. The breather would be wasted if they don’t beat the Boilermakers (3-5, 1-4), though, because games at Nebraska and Wisconsin are looming the rest of the month along with a home matchup against Northwestern.
Many of the Gophers have vivid memories of a 39-38 victory over Purdue at TCF Bank Stadium in 2014, when they needed a 52-yard field goal to take the lead late in the fourth quarter after rallying from a 31-20 halftime deficit. Purdue’s skill-position speed overwhelmed Minnesota that afternoon, and that Gophers team in 2014 fared better than any other in the past 12 seasons.
"Two years ago, they came in here and had me scrambling," said Minnesota coach Tracy Claeys, who was the defensive coordinator at the time. He added: "So we’re going have to make sure we’re ready, or we won’t win."
Here are some key angles to know about the game:
AIRING IT OUT: Purdue quarterback David Blough leads the Big Ten with 2,346 yards passing, averaging close to 300 yards per game. He’s been intercepted 12 times, but the Boilermakers remain the same threat to produce long gains and score quickly like they were while dicing up Minnesota’s defense in 2014. DeAngelo Yancey has 557 yards and six touchdowns.
"Some good athletes," Claeys said. "We’re going to have to have a great job of tackling."
PIRSIG HEALING: Minnesota right tackle Jonah Pirsig, who has missed the last three games with a sprained ankle, was cleared to practice this week and could return to the lineup. Garrison Wright had switched from left tackle to fill in for Pirsig.
"He’s really excited and itching to get back in the huddle," quarterback Mitch Leidner said.
INTERIM STRUGGLE: Interim coach Gerad Parker has had a rough start for Purdue since replacing the fired Darrell Hazell. The Boilermakers lost Parker’s first two games, both to ranked opponents, by a combined score of 89-38. The bigger picture presents some hope for the 35-year-old former wide receivers coach, however. Four coaches have held the interim or acting tag in program history, and the three who filled in for more than one game all won at least three times.
"I think to have this position now and in the future, wherever it may be," Parker said, "I embrace it because this is what I’ve been called to do."
BACK HOME: Freshman Brian Lankford-Johnson, Purdue’s second-leading rusher, is a native Minnesotan who played at Cretin-Derham Hall High School in St. Paul before moving to Florida to finish his prep career. He carried the ball 18 times for 127 yards and a touchdown last month in a win at Illinois.
"He’s a talented guy that deserves and will have a great career here," Parker said, "but he’s also got to learn how to do it all the time."
THIRTY SOMETHING: Purdue has struggled under new defensive coordinator Ross Els. In the first eight games, the Boilermakers have allowed more than 30 points five times. Now they have to rebound from one of the worst performances in program history, having given up 45 second-half points to now-20th-ranked Penn State in a 62-24 rout at Ross-Ade Stadium. To be competitive against the Gophers, the Boilermakers must make some dramatic improvements.