MINNEAPOLIS — It’s a stat that Minnesota’s players certainly weren’t aware of. Neither was head coach Jerry Kill.
Under Kill, the Gophers were 0-22 when trailing at halftime, like they were Saturday to visiting Purdue. What happened in the second half at TCF Bank Stadium was as good a testament as anything as to just how far this program has come in Kill’s four seasons.
Despite an 11-point deficit, Minnesota rallied to beat the pesky Boilermakers by a 39-38 final in what was one of the craziest Gophers games in recent memory. In doing so, Minnesota improved to 6-1 overall and sits alone in first place in the Big Ten West.
"You’ve got to find a way to win sometimes. I think our kids in the second half, a sign of a good group of kids is how you fight back," Kill said. "As I told them when I walked into that locker room (at halftime), I said, ‘Hey men, this is going to define who you are. Can you fight back from adversity? Can you fight back from some tough things? You’re going to do it your whole life. We’re going to find out what kind of team we are.’"
On paper, this was a game Minnesota was expected to win rather easily. The oddsmakers had the Gophers as 14-point favorites, and a quick touchdown just 20 seconds into the game after a Cedric Thompson interception sure appeared to put Minnesota on the path toward an easy win.
It turned out to be anything but.
The Gophers defense was uncharacteristically out of sorts in the first half against Purdue, which put up 31 points by halftime — more points than Minnesota had allowed in a game all season. Earlier this week, the Gophers’ defensive players talked about their goal of allowing 17 points or less per game, something they achieved in wins against Michigan and Northwestern.
Midway through the second quarter, Purdue crossed that 17-point threshold when Raheem Mostert sprinted 42 yards for a touchdown and a 21-20 Boilermakers lead. The Gophers defense had been so good all year at not allowing big plays; they’d given up just six plays of 30 or more yards all season entering Saturday.
The Boilermakers had no problem gashing Minnesota’s defense for big yards in the first half. Whether it was a swing pass that stumped the Gophers or the speed of Mostert and fellow running back Akeem Hunt, Purdue had Minnesota off balance for two quarters.
But something changed after halftime — something that might not have happened in recent years.
"My first year, once we were down, it’s over," said Thompson. "Going into half with us being down, we had no worries at all. We said we were going to fight back and go out there and win this game, and that’s exactly what we did. That’s why I love my team. We fight back no matter if it’s 100 points or 10 points."
In most cases, an 11-point halftime deficit wouldn’t seem so daunting. But it was a bit startling Saturday given how tough of a time Minnesota’s defense had in stopping Purdue’s offense. The Boilermakers outgained the Gophers 304-180 in the first half, while quarterback Austin Appleby was 12 for 16 for 135 yards and three touchdowns. Purdue also rushed for 169 yards, led by 67 from Hunt.
Yet, for as bad as the first two quarters were, the Gophers defense made the big plays when it needed to after halftime.
Minnesota forced Purdue to go three-and-out after the Gophers scored right after halftime, the first punt of the game for the Boilermakers. After another three-and-out for Purdue in the third quarter, Minnesota quarterback Mitch Leidner connected with KJ Maye for a 37-yard score that brought the Gophers to within 38-36.
The fourth quarter brought a few more big stops for Minnesota’s defense. Safety Damarius Travis made a tackle on Appleby to stop the Boilermakers quarterback on a fourth-down try. That helped set up the go-ahead field goal by Gophers redshirt freshman Ryan Santoso, whose 52-yard boot gave Minnesota a 39-38 lead with 4:59 to play.
Lightning had struck a few times in the first half for Purdue’s offense as the Boilermakers used big plays against the Gophers’ defense. Thompson made sure he wasn’t about to let that happen. The senior safety intercepted his second pass of the game, this time on an athletic diving catch with 2:31 remaining.
Earlier in the fourth quarter, there was a question as to whether Thompson would be able to keep playing. He took a big hit on a block that drew a flag. After laying on the ground momentarily, he was checked out by trainers on the sideline.
Luckily for Minnesota, he was good to return to the game, and he saved the day for the Gophers.
"This was one of the first times we’ve been down more than seven points where we knew we had to fight back," Thompson said. "I think that shows a lot about our team and all the work we did over the summer and during the spring. No matter what happens, if we fight back, we can execute, no matter who we play. I think that was a big win for our team as a family."