Gophers report card: Significant rally against Purdue
MINNEAPOLIS — Whatever works. Minnesota, favored to win at home by 14, narrowly edged Purdue by a 39-38 final in one of the crazier games in recent Gophers memory. In doing so, Minnesota now sits alone in first place in the Big Ten West and is 3-0 in the conference. There were defensive lapses Saturday against the Boilermakers, but Minnesota recovered just in time to rally and hold off Purdue for the one-point win. Here are the Gophers’ grades from Saturday’s Homecoming victory.
Another week, another 30-plus carry game for running back David Cobb, who turned his 35 carries into 196 yards — an average of 5.5 yards per carry — and a touchdown. Cobb’s longest run of the day was 19 yards, but he had success gaining decent chunks of yardage against a Purdue defense that has struggled against the run this year. Cobb wasn’t the only Gopher to thrive on the ground. Quarterback Mitch Leidner had one of his better days running the ball, gaining 84 yards on 13 carries. Many of those carries for Leidner came after faking the handoff to Cobb, a play that worked well for Minnesota all game. Donnell Kirkwood got back into the action Saturday after going without a carry the previous game. He only ran three times, but found the end zone on one of the carries.
Leidner’s accuracy wasn’t the greatest on Saturday, as the redshirt sophomore was just 9-for-18. But he had perhaps the most success deep down the field as he’s had all season (or even his entire career). Leidner had three completions of 35 or more yards. He hit KJ Maye on a 37-yard touchdown pass, and found Donovahn Jones for a 42-yarder that could have resulted in a touchdown if Leidner hit Jones in stride. Instead, Jones had to wait and was down at the Purdue 21-yard line. Senior Isaac Fruechte caught a 45-yard pass that helped set up a Minnesota field goal. Tight end Maxx Williams had a team-high three catches, but they went for just 22 total yards. The Gophers ran a similar play as they did last weekend in which Williams began the play as a blocker before finding open space over the middle of the field and turning to catch a pass from Leidner. Saturday, that play went for 11 yards and a first down.
Minnesota’s defense struggled in all facets in the first half as Purdue gouged the Gophers for 31 points before halftime. The ground game was key for the Boilermakers early. Running back Akeem Hunt had 67 rushing yards in the first half, including a 31-yarder. Meanwhile, speedy Raheem Mostert broke off a 42-yard touchdown run as he scampered past Minnesota’s defense. Even quarterback Austin Appleby had 56 rushing yards in the first half, 25 of which came on one run. The Gophers’ run defense tightened up a bit after halftime, but Purdue still finished the game with an impressive 298 rushing yards, by far the most Minnesota had allowed all season. Hunt and Mostert both finished with over 100 yards on the ground, gaining 103 and 115, respectively. The fact that the Boilermakers averaged 8.5 yards per carry was certainly a bit worrisome.
The Gophers were doing a good job of not giving up many big pass plays this year, but Appleby connected with wide receiver Danny Anthrop for a 55-yard touchdown pass in the first half. It wasn’t a deep throw downfield, but rather a short swing pass that resulted in big yardage thanks to a handful of blockers in front of Anthrop. Minnesota struggled with that play several times Saturday but eventually made the adjustment to it after halftime. Take away that one 55-yard pass, and Appleby had just 98 more yards through the air. He finished 16-of-26 for 153 yards and three touchdowns. But he was intercepted twice on the day, both by safety Cedric Thompson. The first pick came on Purdue’s first play of the game, and the last sealed Minnesota’s win in the final minutes.
It was redemption for kicker Ryan Santoso, who drilled a 52-yard field goal late in the fourth quarter that proved to be the game winner. It was the longest field goal of the redshirt freshman’s career, and the longest by a Gophers kicker since Rhys Lloyd hit a 53-yarder back in 2003. Earlier in the game, though, Santoso missed an extra point for the first time all season. That missed PAT forced Minnesota to attempt a two-point conversion on a fake field goal with Santoso running the ball, but he was stopped short. His game-winning kick more than made up for the extra point. Meanwhile, punter Peter Mortell averaged 47.0 yards per kick on his four punts. There were no fireworks in the kick-return game this week for Jalen Myrick one week after he ran a kickoff back 100 yards for a touchdown. His longest return of the day was 27 yards.
It certainly wasn’t a pretty win, but Minnesota improved to 6-1. In doing so, they did something no Jerry Kill-led Gophers team had done yet: win after trailing at halftime. Minnesota was previously 0-22 under Kill when down at the half. The Gophers were down 11 at halftime Saturday but scored out of the break to stay in the game. The struggles of the defense were the most alarming against Purdue, but Minnesota made the big plays defensively when they counted most. Now the Gophers have a chance to improve to 7-1 when they travel to Illinois next weekend.
Follow Tyler Mason on Twitter