West Lafayette, Ind. – There were no reports of chairs being thrown. Of tables being tipped over. Of walls being punched.
No, after the Gophers’ 31-24 loss to Maryland last week — the first defeat for P.J. Fleck as Minnesota’s coach — any anger was quickly channeled toward purpose.
“When you don’t win, the coach is going to be mad,” sophomore wide receiver Tyler Johnson said, “but then again, he just told us that our ‘how’ wasn’t really there. The coaches knew, and we’ve just got to learn from this.”
For the Gophers (3-1, 1-0 Big Ten), learning from the loss means fixing the issues that doomed them against the Terrapins. And they must do so quickly, with Saturday’s game at Purdue (2-2, 0-1) taking on added importance because of a conference schedule that turns nasty later in October.
“This is a first that we get to see how the program responds to a loss, and everyone was incredibly focused,” Fleck said earlier this week. “They understood why we lost and how we lost. Again, the result is not what I focused on. It was the step-by-step process of how we played. We played significantly worse in this game than we did the other ones, and the result showed.”
How well they’ve fixed the problems will play out at Ross-Ade Stadium. But Fleck and his coaching staff had several key areas to address:
Get the running game going
The Gophers went undefeated in nonconference in large part because they ran the ball effectively, which kept the clock running and opposing offenses off the field. They’ll need that formula to work Saturday, because Purdue’s offense is every bit as explosive as Maryland’s.
That starts with the offensive line, which struggled against the Terps.
“The principles of run blocking are great first step, low pad level, strike and run your feet,” offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca said. “I didn’t feel like we did those things very well on Saturday. For the first time all year, I didn’t feel those details were there.”
The Gophers are a bit green up front, with redshirt freshman Conner Olson and sophomore Nick Connelly being young first-year starters. Purdue, like Maryland, has veterans on the defensive line and at linebacker, with five of the seven starters being seniors.
“When you have seniors up front,” Ciarrocca said, “that makes a difference.”
Fleck will stick to his principles in the run game based on the talent he has.
“We’re going to run the ball, but we’re not going to just run the ball and say, ‘Well, that didn’t work, we’ve got to come up with this completely new scheme.’ We’re going to do what our offensive linemen can do.”
Grow up in a hurry, especially on defense
The Gophers likely will be without their best defensive playmaker, safety Antoine Winfield Jr. (hamstring), and will be without their other starting safety, Duke McGhee (suspension). True freshman Ken Handy-Holly, who made his debut against Maryland, is slated to start at safety.
“That’s football — the next-guy-in mentality,” defensive coordinator Robb Smith said. “We’ve got to do a better job of getting pieces of the puzzle in the right spots and getting some matchups this week. They’re an explosive team in the pass game, and we’ve got to get the right guys on the right guys at the right time.”
Creating favorable matchups could give the Gophers an edge, because Purdue ranks last in the Big Ten in converting third-down situations (17-for-54 for 31 percent). Last week, Maryland took advantage of unfavorable matchups for the Gophers and converted nine of 16 third downs.
Covet the football
The Gophers rank fifth in the Big Ten in turnover margin with a plus-2, a figure that took a downward turn with two interceptions thrown against Maryland — one from the Terps’ 15-yard line — while Minnesota gained no takeaways.
“That is the No. 1 statistic,” Fleck said, “… You are not going to win in the Big Ten by doing that.”
The Gophers will need to be sharp in that department against the Boilermakers, who rank third in the conference at plus-4.
“We’ve got to take care of the ball, because they’ve been able to create turnovers throughout their first four games,” Gophers quarterback Conor Rhoda said.
Those details all combined to send the Gophers to a loss last week. Now, the results of the coaches’ corrections will reveal themselves at Purdue.
“As a coach,” Fleck said, “you find all the things your players aren’t very good at and you constantly, constantly continue to develop them in those areas.’’