WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – Already facing depth problems, the Gophers took a trio of hits Saturday when wide receiver Phillip Howard, offensive tackle Nick Connelly and cornerback Kiondre Thomas suffered injuries and did not return during the 31-17 loss to Purdue at Ross-Ade Stadium.
Howard, a redshirt freshman starting in place of the injured Demetrius Douglas, took a hard hit from Purdue cornerback Da’Wan Hunte on the second play from scrimmage. Howard was hit in the head by Hunte’s shoulder and had to be tended to on the field.
Mark Williams, another redshirt freshman, took Howard’s place.
Connelly was hurt during the extra-point attempt following the Gophers’ tying touchdown with 4:56 left in the first quarter. He was assisted off the field and limped to the locker room. Sam Schlueter replaced Connelly in the lineup. The Gophers did not play true freshman tackle Blaise Andries, preserving the chance to redshirt him.
Thomas injured a leg early in the fourth quarter and walked off the field with a slight limp. Coney Durr replaced him.
Coach P.J. Fleck did not have an update on the three, saying only, “They’re out.’’
The injury to Thomas is particularly troublesome to a secondary that keeps taking hits. The Gophers were without starting safeties Antoine Winfield Jr. (hamstring) and Duke McGhee (suspension). In addition, cornerback Zo Craighton (knee) is out for the season, while Durr is still making his way back from a torn ACL suffered in the Holiday Bowl in December.
“We have to understand that everybody on this football team will play this year,’’ Fleck said. “We’ve proven that. … We’ve proven that everywhere. But when your opportunity comes, you’ve got to make plays.’’
Fleck wrote a first-person article for Yahoo Sports, and in it he revealed how he handled an offseason situation in which some players appeared in a photo at a party.
“We had a great teaching moment in our first few months here. A picture from a party popped up on Twitter with four or five of our players in it. One was holding an alcohol bottle, and the others had alcohol all around them,’’ Fleck wrote in a story compiled by Yahoo’s Pete Thamel. “Our players put it out collectively and didn’t find anything wrong with it. We had a team meeting over that particular picture. I’m sure a lot of our players were grumbling, ‘We’re having a team meeting for this?’ ’’
Fleck then asked his players if he tweeted a picture of he and his wife, Heather, posing with alcohol what would happen.
“One player mentioned I may get fired. One said it would be another black eye for the program,’’ Fleck wrote. “Some said it would make me look fake. Everyone agreed it wouldn’t validate what we do, or the culture we’re establishing here. The lesson was simple: You have a choice in the decisions you make. You don’t have a choice in the consequences that come your way. Let’s make the smart choice in our decisions.’’
• Center Jared Weyler, who missed the previous two games because of a foot injury, suited up for Saturday’s game. Conner Olson started.
• The Gophers wore helmet stickers honoring former Purdue coach Joe Tiller, who died Sept. 30 at age 74. The stickers featured Tiller’s bushy mustache.
Purdue honored Tiller, their all-time leader in coaching victories, with a moment of silence before the national anthem and a video tribute at halftime.
In addition, the Boilermakers’ 1997 team, Tiller’s first at Purdue, was recognized in the third quarter.
• St. Paul native Tony Levine is in his first season as Purdue’s special teams coordinator/co-offensive coordinator/tight ends coach. Levine, a former Gophers receiver, held a similar position at Western Kentucky and made the move with coach Jeff Brohm to Purdue. Levine was head coach at Houston from 2011-14.
• Purdue added permanent lights to Ross-Ade Stadium this season.