WEST LAFAYETTE, IND. – Gophers coach P.J. Fleck left an article out for his players to read ahead of traveling to Purdue on Saturday, where the Gophers came away from Ross-Ade Stadium with a 38-31 victory to open Big Ten play.
The Journal-Gazette headline was innocuous enough — “Boilers gearing up for the Gophers.” But the first quote irked Fleck, compelling him to share an opposing team’s comments with his team for the first time.
In the story, Purdue junior defensive end Derrick Barnes called last year’s 41-10 defeat at the Gophers the worst of coach Jeff Brohm’s tenure, a loss that derailed the team’s momentum even into this season. Barnes said, according to the Journal-Gazette, the Boilermakers probably could have “blown [the Gophers] out of the water” if they had just played a little harder.
“I do everything I can to educate our players on how to be able to talk to the media and respect all of you, respect your teammates, respect the team we’re going to play. And it just struck a different chord that I felt like our team needed,” Fleck said. “I never bring up another team to them. I never do that. That’s not what this is about. This isn’t about just rile them up.”
Fleck said those quotes gave his team extra focus, knowing the Gophers have to earn respect that others won’t readily give them. Well, they beat Purdue again, thanks to an absolutely fine day from the receivers and sophomore quarterback Tanner Morgan.
The Gophers are 4-0, including 1-0 in the conference.
Morgan completed 21 of 22 passes, 95.5%, which is the highest in a game from any Big Ten player, according the Big Ten Network’s research department. He was perfect until the last two minutes of the first half.
Slant or fade route, Purdue couldn’t stop it, and Morgan amassed 396 yards and four touchdowns.
“It’s the play calling giving us the right situations. It’s the receivers making great catches. It’s not just me,” Morgan said, also praising the protection to defer credit to everyone but himself.
In the season opener, Rashod Bateman stole the show with his one-handed touchdown catch. In the second game, Chris Autman-Bell’s barely inbounds grab to force overtime was the highlight. The next game, Tyler Johnson’s 140-yard day and NFL-like receptions led the way.
That slow trickle became a waterfall in the Big Ten opener.
After senior running back Rodney Smith ran in a 2-yard direct snap from the wildcat formation for the Gophers’ first score, the passing game became an unstoppable current. Autman-Bell’s 70-yard catch, Bateman’s 45-yard nab, Johnson’s 3-yard score.
Bateman made another 47-yarder in the second half, and freshman kicker Michael Lantz also made a 31-yard field goal.
Autman-Bell eclipsed a career-high with 97 yards on three catches. Johnson had 73 yards on eight catches, and Bateman went for 177 yards on six receptions. Smith, tight end Jake Paulson and sophomore receiver Demetrius Douglas also contributed.
“It feels good, like, seeing Chris Autman-Bell go for that one. It’s just fun seeing my other teammates get touchdowns and catches,” Bateman said. “If I had no catches, I wouldn’t care. If I see them boys balling, and we’re winning, then the whole team’s happy.”
Purdue was not so gleeful. The Boilermakers lost three players in the first half, including its two stars on the same play.
At the end of the first quarter, Gophers senior defensive end Tai’yon Devers sacked Purdue quarterback Elijah Sindelar, who had just returned from a Week 2 concussion. He appeared to injure his left shoulder and immediately went to the locker room.
Also on that play, All-America sophomore receiver Rondale Moore planted his left leg and appeared to hyperextend his knee. He spent significant time in the injury tent before being taken to the locker room. Then in the second half, sophomore offensive lineman DJ Washington also injured his left leg and was carted off the field.
Despite those injuries, Purdue’s offense managed 414 yards, including a three-touchdown day from freshman running back King Doerue. All but the first field goal came after the catastrophic injuries to Sindelar and Moore.
While the Gophers stacked up an 18-point halftime lead only to leave Purdue with just a one-touchdown win, thanks to poor plays on defense and special teams, they still prevented the Boilermakers from blowing them out of the water, so to say.
But the Gophers know one result won’t change their wider perception. That’s up to them.
“I definitely think we’re underrated. And even after this game, we’re probably still going to be underrated,” Bateman said. “That’s kind of what the article is telling us. We’ve just got to go out there and prove people wrong.”