When Joe Rossi took over as interim defensive coordinator for the Gophers earlier in the week, he said that sometimes a new voice could bring positive results.
It looks as if that voice came through loud and clear for the Gophers defense, which played its best football of the season in a 41-10 romp over Purdue on a snowy Saturday in front of an announced crowd of 31,068 at TCF Bank Stadium.
The Gophers held the high-scoring Boilermakers to 233 yards, and linebacker Blake Cashman forced and returned a fumble 40 yards for a touchdown as Minnesota (5-5, 2-5 Big Ten) moved within a victory of gaining bowl eligibility. The Gophers held Purdue to 0-for-12 on third-down situations.
“That’s the key statistic, everybody. We got them off the field,’’ coach P.J. Fleck said. “We wanted to be simple, sound and fast.’’
This turnaround came a week after the Gophers gave up 646 yards in a 55-31 loss at Illinois that prompted Fleck to fire defensive coordinator Robb Smith.
Purdue (5-5, 4-3) entered the game averaging 35.8 points and 485.2 yards in Big Ten play, but the Gophers limited the Boilermakers to 131 through three quarters, including minus-2 on the ground. They also sacked quarterback David Blough three times and held him to 142 passing yards.
“Joe Rossi,’’ Fleck said, “called a tremendous game.’’
The Gophers offense got into the act, too. Mohamed Ibrahim rushed 18 times for 155 yards and Seth Green passed for a TD and ran for one as the quarterback in the wildcat formation. Tanner Morgan passed for a score, and running back Bryce Williams ran for one.
“Our playmakers were making plays, and the guys up front were dominating the line of scrimmage,’’ Morgan said. “That’s what we’re capable of doing.’’
With a victory in either of their final two games — home vs. Northwestern next Saturday and at Wisconsin on Nov. 24 — the Gophers will secure a bowl berth.
From the start Saturday, Minnesota was in control, with the offense and defense complementing each other.
The Gophers marched 69 yards in 13 plays on their opening drive, taking a 3-0 lead on Emmit Carpenter’s 24-yard field goal. Morgan sparked it by completing six of seven passes for 49 yards.
On the Gophers’ second possession, Morgan’s pass intended for Chris Autman-Bell went off Autman-Bell’s hands, and Antonio Blakeman intercepted it at the Gophers 38. The Minnesota defense limited the damage when Cashman and Boye Mafe sacked Blough on third down. Spencer Evans’ 40-yard field goal tied the score.
As the Gophers defense kept forcing Purdue to punt — four times in the first half — the offense took advantage.
The Gophers took a 10-3 lead with an 11-yard TD pass from Green to tight end Jake Paulson on a play in which Purdue bit on a run fake. Two personal foul penalties against Purdue, including one that extended a drive after a third-down stop, helped the Gophers on the 83-yard march.
The Gophers defense came up huge on the ensuing Purdue possession. Facing fourth-and-1 from their 34, the Boilermakers went for it, but Cashman dropped Blough for no gain.
“It was physicality and toughness,’’ Cashman said of the third- and fourth-down success.
The Gophers converted that stop into Carpenter’s 27-yard field goal for a 13-3 lead.
Then came the knockout blow early in the third quarter. With Purdue at its 46, Blough kept the ball on a run but was hit by Cashman, who forced a fumble, scooped it up and returned it 40 yards for a TD and a 20-3 lead.
“It was a play that Coach Rossi called and that we ran a handful of times this week [in practice],’’ Cashman said. “[Blough] tried to stiff-arm me, and I hit his arm down and saw there was an opportunity to go for the ball, so I seized that moment.’’
The Gophers boosted that lead to 27-3 with 10:26 left in the third quarter on Green’s 2-yard TD run. The rout was on, and Minnesota added to it with Williams’ 11-yard TD run for a 34-3 lead and Morgan’s 12-yard TD pass to Tyler Johnson early in the fourth quarter.
In the end, it was the Gophers defense that had players and coaches raving.
“Man, they just had so much energy and were just swarming to the ball,’’ Morgan said. “We’re just so proud of them.’’
“This team showed a lot of heart, character and integrity tonight,’’ he said. “… I told them I was so glad to have our football team back after last week’s performance. I know they’re way better than that.’’