At Friday’s team dinner in West Lafayette, Ind., Gophers coach Jerry Kill went through his weekly ritual of sending players through the buffet in order, from oldest to youngest.
“Seniors,” Kill said, and 13 players who would dress for Saturday’s victory at Purdue stood up.
“Juniors,” he said, watching 15 move toward the spread.
“Sophomores,” Kill said, as 19 more got ready to eat.
“And when we called the freshmen, there were too darn many,” Kill recounted Sunday.
After another rough week of injuries, the Gophers had 21 freshmen among the 68 who dressed for the Purdue game. Senior defensive backs Damarius Travis (hamstring injury) and Briean Boddy-Calhoun (knee) were out, but they helped fill the 70-man travel roster.
Kill said the Gophers will have Travis back for Saturday’s game against Nebraska, and there’s a chance Boddy-Calhoun will play, too.
The Gophers hope to be healthier soon, especially with the bye week coming after the Nebraska game. After that, they begin a daunting three-game stretch against No. 12 Michigan, No. 1 Ohio State and No. 17 Iowa.
First, Kill’s squad had to collect itself at Purdue, which is 1-17 in Big Ten games under coach Darrell Hazell but was coming off a three-point loss to then-No. 2 Michigan State.
The Gophers responded with another agonizing first half, as they built a 10-6 lead before coming to life with 28 third-quarter points. Shannon Brooks led the way, with 17 carries for 176 yards, the highest total for a Gophers freshman since Laurence Maroney galloped for 179 against Illinois in 2003.
This 41-13 rout was exactly what the Gophers needed, something most Big Ten teams were able to deliver in nonconference play.
The Gophers’ three previous victories — over Colorado State, Kent State and Ohio — had all come by three points. This time, Kill was able to play backup quarterback Demry Croft and other reserves for much of the fourth quarter.
“There’s no question that was a must-win for us,” Kill said. “… I was proud of [the players]. You go win the game, you’ve got eight starters out … and I think Purdue thought they were going to kick our butt, too.”
The Gophers believed they had the depth to beat Purdue, but there were concerns at center, where true freshman Tyler Moore was making his college debut.
Filling in for injured senior Brian Bobek, Moore showed why he was a coveted recruit coming out of Houston. Moore pancaked senior defensive tackle Ryan Watson on the Gophers’ first offensive play and didn’t hesitate to mix it up with the Boilermakers after the whistle.
“His personality sometimes gets the best of him,” Kill said. “But you’d rather have to tell him, ‘Whoa,’ than ‘Giddy up and go,’ as Coach [Dan] O’Brien would say. But you don’t want to take the physicalness and aggressiveness out of him. Frankly that’s kind of what we’ve been missing up front.”
Quarterback Mitch Leidner said, “The amount of energy that [Moore] brings on the offensive line is unbelievable.”
Right tackle Jonah Pirsig said Moore did a good job communicating signals to the rest of the line, as centers need to do before the snap.
“[Moore’s] still got a lot of work to do, and we’ll see how things play out with Brian Bobek,” Kill said. “He’s got to get his snaps better, things of that nature, get more comfortable. … But he had a lot of pressure to play, and he performed pretty well.”
Brooks impressed Kill, too.
“Everybody talks about the long [71-yard touchdown run],” Kill said. “But he had several 8- to 10-yard runs where he just ran over people.”
The Gophers were all smiles after the game. The season’s first five weeks had been a mental and physical grind, and this was their release. Next, they will be back home, facing a Nebraska team that’s reeling from four gut-wrenching losses. The latest came Saturday, when Wisconsin’s Rafael Gaglianone hit a 46-yard field goal with 4 seconds left for a 23-21 victory in Lincoln.
“They’ve all been nail biters,” Kill told WCCO (830-AM) on Sunday. “It’s one of those things where [Nebraska will] be coming in hungry for a win. We better show up like we did last week, or we’ll be in trouble.”