WEST LAFAYETTE, IND. - Whip them, punish them, humiliate them. Inflict scars both psychic and physical, and even dance a mocking makes-we-want-to-shout shimmy in front of their facemasks. The Gophers absorb it all, climb back to their feet, and respond with a startling request:
More. Give me more.
"I wish we could have played another quarter, just to keep playing," coach Jerry Kill said almost masochistically after his Gophers fell behind by 31 points seemingly during the opening coin flip and walked away after the requisite 60 minutes with their second consecutive blowout loss, 45-17 to Purdue. "We need repetitions, with the youngsters we have playing right now."
It's not fun and it's not sublime, but this is what the Gophers are left with now: Learning how to operate the cockpit controls before they can ever try to fly.
This week's crash came not in the form of a far-superior force, as in last week's 58-0 disaster in Michigan, but in the Gophers' own ineptitude. Two fumbles in their own territory, an interception returned for a touchdown, and a roughing-the-punter penalty that extended a Boilermakers touchdown drive -- all that before halftime, no less -- decided the outcome. But not the day's worth.
"There's some guys who got better today. There's some young guys who played pretty good. There's some older guys that I thought stepped it up," Kill said. "We just haven't done it as a team."
Not even close, not in Big Ten play. The Gophers allowed 372 yards to just 213 of their own, 22 first downs while picking up only half as many, eight extra minutes of possession under a hot, defense-roasting sun. So it's not fair to the Boilermakers to say the Gophers, who used 18 freshmen in various roles, gave a victory away.
But Purdue's first three scoring drives went 39, 36 and 11 yards, thanks to a pair of Donnell Kirkwood fumbles and Dan Orseske's shanked punt, and their fourth first-quarter score was provided by cornerback Ricardo Allen's easy read of MarQueis Gray's underthrown pass and 37-yard return to the end zone. A second-quarter Boilermakers drive stalled at their own 33, but Devon Wright dived into the punter's legs and reignited what turned into a 70-yard touchdown march.
"To be honest, the whole first quarter was one of those things that just hits you in the mouth. We just seemed not to be able to fight back off that with a big play of our own," Kill said. "All four of those [mistakes], that's 24 points. We certainly compliment Purdue for what they did and their aggressiveness to cause those, but on our side of it, you can't make mistakes like that."
Or drop an open pass at the goal line, as Marcus Jones did. Or react to a pass breakup by shoving the cornerback, another freshman mistake that cost Jones and the Gophers 15 yards and killed a drive. Or scatter passes in the vicinity of, but rarely directly to, receivers, as Gray did upon relieving Max Shortell at quarterback. Gray was 4-for-14 at one point before locating his receivers late in the game, but the missed connections were chronic and crippling.
"I felt confident in myself. We were getting out and doing some good things. Then all of a sudden, [we'd] do something bad," said Gray, who didn't start but was called upon after the first three drives under Shortell were short-circuited by mistakes. "We couldn't find a rhythm on offense."
Not until Purdue, after its players took part in an exaggerated dance-off between the third and fourth quarters, sent in its own second- and third-teamers. Gray, who finished with 104 passing yards on 8-for-20 effectiveness, directed a six-minute drive that ate up 78 yards in the final period, completing a couple of timely passes and keeping the defense off-balance with a couple of runs, including the touchdown plunge from a yard out.
It's not much, but it's a step. In a season likely doomed to the Big Ten basement but devoted to laying a foundation while they're down there, the Gophers took heart from small but tangible accomplishments. Jones' electrifying 92-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, and his 32-yard reception along the sidelines. Duane Bennett's 3.5-yard rushing average. Three sacks, a shocking total for a team that had two in the season's first five games.
And especially, the chance to get experience that will help them someday.
"This is how we're going to be -- 60 minutes hard, no matter what it says on the scoreboard," linebacker Mike Rallis said. "I completely agree [that he would have played even longer]. Me personally, and as a team, we need all the experience and reps we can get."