Sam Renner has never known what starting the Big Ten with a victory is like. Until now.
The redshirt senior defensive tackle shared earlier this week about how in the past couple of seasons, the Gophers rode their high horses after 3-0 nonconference starts until a loss in the conference opener knocked them back to the ground. This season, the Gophers were being more careful, on the watch for any signs of overconfidence.
That mentality shift worked, as the Gophers beat Purdue 38-31 on Saturday to start the Big Ten 1-0 for the first time since 2014. Plus, they’re one of only 18 undefeated teams left in the FBS at 4-0.
“It’s special,” sophomore receiver Rashod Bateman said. “It just sets the bar high for us. We’ve just got to keep going each week and just prepare for the next game.”
Before the season, many probably didn’t envision the Gophers being in this position. And the Gophers are very aware of that slight.
Coach P.J. Fleck shared comments from a Purdue player ahead of the game, words he felt underestimated his team. According to the Fort Wayne (Ind.) Journal Gazette, Purdue junior defensive end Derrick Barnes called his team’s loss to the Gophers last season the worst in coach Jeff Brohm’s first two seasons. The story also quoted him as saying Purdue could have blown the Gophers out of the water if the Boilermakers had just played harder.
Fleck wanted his players to understand what the conference’s perception of them is — and how winning is the easiest way to change that.
“We’re just going to have to continue to earn it every week,” sophomore quarterback Tanner Morgan said. “And we know how we believe in ourselves. And that’s all that matters. Doesn’t matter what other people believe about us.”
So far, though, the Gophers haven’t put together a commanding victory. The first three were all fourth-quarter comebacks against an FCS squad and two Group of Five opponents.
While the offense had the ball with the lead to end the game at Purdue and showcased a near-perfect outing from Morgan (completing 21 of 22 passes — a Big Ten-record 95.5% — for 396 yards and four touchdowns) and the receiving corps, other facets weren’t as strong. For example, the defense allowed an 18-point halftime lead to become a one-touchdown affair, mostly from missed tackles.
“I didn’t like the 99-yard drive,” Fleck said of one of Purdue’s fourth-quarter scores. “We were horrible on third down on the last drive. We didn’t tackle very well on the outside. That’ll be addressed this week with the corner position. We had numerous opportunities to get off the field, especially on a fourth down.”
The Gophers allowed the Boilermakers to convert seven of 16 third downs and both of their fourth downs. The run game, despite being a touted strength, has yet to really kick-start, producing one of the worst yards-per-carry totals in the FBS at 2.6. Special teams play has also been turbulent, with several miscues, such as a dropped punt and a fumbled onside kick off a facemask.
Yet despite all of these imperfections, the Gophers are still winning — and in different fashion than the first three games. The mistakes never seem to catch up, or at least they haven’t yet. And the Gophers don’t plan on slowing down to let that happen.
“I mean, might as well keep it rolling, right?” senior rush end Carter Coughlin said. “There’s no point in taking an ‘L’ on the schedule. … Next game, we can make it 5-0 and just keep it rolling.”