Whatever his usual postgame routine is, Tracy Claeys should’ve stopped by the locker of every defensive player Saturday and personally thanked each guy for overcoming his mind-boggling blunder.

Mitch Leidner should’ve been right behind him.

The Gophers head coach and senior quarterback botched the final few minutes of the first half with horrific game management that would have looked more egregious with a different outcome.

Coach and quarterback were able to breathe easy after the Gophers defense saved their bacon with an about-face second half to secure a 44-31 win over Purdue at TCF Bank Stadium.

The Gophers improved to 7-2 by extending their winning streak to four games to remain in contention in the Big Ten West. But, seriously, does any team look as flawed in victory sometimes?

The Gophers rushed for five touchdowns, passed for 231 yards, forced three turnovers, collected six sacks … and still had to sweat out the final minutes against a lousy team.

“After our first two conferences games, nobody gave us a chance to be here,” Claeys said.

Actually, that’s not true. The cream puff stretch of Maryland, Rutgers, Illinois and Purdue always loomed like a steak dinner to ravenous travelers. This was their time to make hay before embarking on the big-boy portion of their schedule: at Nebraska, Northwestern, at Wisconsin.

The Gophers won’t contend in the West with first halves like Saturday’s.

The Gophers were victims of big plays and dumb decisions. They trailed by five points and were booed off the field at halftime after a ridiculous sequence.

The defense, though, played like a Gophers defense we’ve seen in recent years in the second half to prevent disaster. They forced three turnovers and held Purdue to only three points in a terrific final 30 minutes.

The defense allowed 28 points before halftime, including touchdown passes of 89 and 60 yards. Purdue’s final score of the half came in the closing seconds after two decisions by Claeys on which he should have taken the exact opposite approach.

Trailing 21-20 with 1:32 left, the Gophers faced fourth-and-1 from the Purdue 11. The Boilermakers own one of the worst defenses in college football — 104th in total defense, 121st in rushing defense.

That situation screams, “Go for it.”

Purdue called a timeout, followed by a Gophers timeout. Claeys then sent his field-goal unit onto the field for a chip shot that gave Minnesota a 23-21 lead.

Claeys has shown a willingness to take risks in his brief tenure. He said he didn’t consider going for it that time. His reason?

“Let’s kick it and take the lead to the locker room,” he said. “Then I screwed that other part up.”

That’s an understatement.

The Gophers held Purdue and regained possession at their own 23-yard line with 15 seconds left, no timeouts and an erratic passer at quarterback.

That situation screams, “Take a knee and go to the locker room with a lead.”

Nope. Claeys allowed Leidner to pass.

Claeys said he told coaches he wanted a deep pass, which somehow got lost in translation because Leidner attempted a short pass.

Miscommunication between Leidner and receiver Drew Wolitarsky resulted in the pass being well underthrown. Purdue’s Antonio Blackmon intercepted the ball and returned it 34 yards to the Gophers 2 with 10 seconds left.

Why gamble in that situation but not on fourth-and-1? That made zero sense, especially given Leidner’s struggles as a passer.

“Obviously that didn’t get communicated correctly, the way that I wanted it,” Claeys said. “That’s my fault completely. I’m not sure how the play got called to him.”

Even with the mixup, a senior quarterback shouldn’t make that mistake. Leidner’s explanation was alarming.

“I guess I was really unaware of what we wanted to do with the football,” he said. “Just one of those good learning moments.”

The Boilermakers turned that learning moment into a touchdown on the next play, giving them a 28-23 halftime lead.

The Gophers can survive those mistakes against bad teams, but mental hiccups will haunt them if they happen against the final three opponents.

Ultimately, the Gophers defense bailed them out with a dominant second half. Their winning streak continues.

Claeys should feel thankful those final two minutes before halftime didn’t doom his team.


Chip Scoggins chip.scoggins@startribune.com