A week ago, coach P.J. Fleck had just let go of defensive coordinator Robb Smith, a day after the Gophers gave up 646 yards in a 55-31 loss at Illinois. And coming to town was Purdue, boasting an offense that was averaging nearly 26 points and 485 yards per game. The math wasn’t favoring Minnesota.
So, of course, the Gophers went out and whipped the Boilermakers 41-10.
“Defensively, it was exactly what we needed to do,” Fleck said Monday, reflecting on Saturday’s victory that moved his team one win away from bowl eligibility. “It brings it back to the Fresno State game where I thought we played really well. Everybody was on the same page.”
The Gophers, with interim coordinator Joe Rossi leading the defense for the first time, held Purdue to 233 total yards and kept the Boilermakers out of the end zone until 5:38 remained in the fourth quarter.
It was the fewest yards the Gophers have allowed since giving up 199 to Miami (Ohio) on Sept. 15, and it also drew parallels to the 21-14 victory over Fresno State on Sept. 8. In that game against a team that cracked the Associated Press Top 25 last week, the Gophers survived on a big play at the end, Antoine Winfield Jr.’s interception in the end zone.
Saturday, it was linebacker Blake Cashman supplying the big plays. The senior from Eden Prairie had nine tackles and a half-sack and forced a fumble that he returned 40 yards for a touchdown. The plays came at critical times, too. The half-sack on third down forced Purdue to kick a field goal in the first quarter.
Cashman’s fourth-and-1 stop of Purdue quarterback David Blough for no gain from the Boilermakers 34-yard line led to a field goal that boosted Minnesota’s lead to 13-3 in the second quarter. And his fumble return after he swiped the ball from Blough made it 20-3 early in the third quarter.
Those looked like stats that would earn Big Ten defensive player of the week honors for Cashman, right?
Evidently not. The Big Ten gave that honor to Penn State defensive tackle Robert Windsor, who had two sacks and six tackles in a 22-10 win over Wisconsin. Cashman was considered for the honor, but it’s interesting that the conference 13 times this year has named weekly co-honorees in its four categories: offensive player, defensive player, special teams player and freshman.
Not this week, though.
Fleck had a look of surprise upon learning that Cashman hadn’t been honored. The coach, however, can look take solace in the overall defensive effort.
“We tackled well. We rallied to the ball,” Fleck said. “We played for each other and played what I think our style of defense should always look like.”
• The Nov. 24 game at Wisconsin will begin at 2:30 p.m. and air on either ESPN or ESPN2.
• Fleck said defensive tackle O.J. Smith and defensive back Antonio Shenault remain day-to-day because of head injuries. Smith has missed the past five games and Shenault the past three.
• Fleck resisted inserting true freshman offensive guard Curtis Dunlap Jr. late in the Purdue game in case he needs him the next two games. Dunlap has played in two games, and if he plays in no more than two more, he will preserve a year of eligibility. “If somebody goes down the first play against Northwestern, he’s gotta finish the season as the starter,” Fleck said. “I don’t want to get to the last game and say, ‘OK, that’s your fifth.’ ”
• Senior running back Rodney Smith, who was lost for the season against Fresno State because of a knee injury, plans to participate in the senior walk with his classmates before Saturday’s Senior Day game against Northwestern. Smith and the Gophers still plan to seek medical waiver from the NCAA, so Smith can play in 2019.