The Gophers got booed off the field at halftime Saturday. Coach Tracy Claeys later blamed himself for green-lighting a Mitch Leidner pass, which was intercepted, setting up Purdue’s go-ahead touchdown.
Staring at a humiliating loss, Minnesota regrouped. The defense hit the reset button after giving up four first-half touchdown passes to David Blough.
“Everybody was a little shocked, obviously,” Claeys said. “But there was a lot of time left.”
Rodney Smith shook off a second-half ankle injury, rushing for 153 yards and three touchdowns, as the Gophers pulled out a 44-31 victory before an announced crowd of 42,832 at TCF Bank Stadium.
Leidner added 231 passing yards and two rushing touchdowns, as the Gophers (7-2, 4-2 Big Ten) extended their winning streak to four games heading into next week’s trip to Nebraska. The Gophers, Cornhuskers and Wisconsin are tied for first place in the West Division with three weeks to go.
“It’s a position that after our first two conference games [losses to Iowa and Penn State], nobody gave us a chance in hell in being here, and said that the season was over,” Claeys said. “We fought our way back into this thing, and so it’s a lot of fun.”
Purdue (3-6, 1-5) has lost all three games since firing Darrell Hazell and replacing him with Gerad Parker, but the Boilermakers led Nebraska at halftime two weeks ago and were tied with Penn State last week before folding.
The Gophers could have entered halftime with a 23-21 lead after kicking a field goal on fourth-and-1 from the Purdue 11.
“I didn’t [think about going for it] because I wanted the lead at halftime,” Claeys said. “And that worked out well, didn’t it?”
Minnesota forced a Purdue punt and took over at its own 23 with 15 seconds remaining in the half. Normally cautious in those situations, the Gophers suddenly gambled.
Leidner tried hitting Drew Wolitarsky, and Antonio Blackman picked it off, returning the ball to the 2-yard line. Purdue made it hurt; Blough found Brycen Hopkins for another touchdown as time expired.
“Here’s what happened,” Claeys said. “We got behind them a couple of times [deep passes earlier in the half]. I told the offense, ‘Throw it deep.’ Let’s see if we can get behind them for a play and see what happens, and if we don’t, we’ll run the clock out.
“Obviously, that didn’t get communicated correctly the way that I wanted it. That’s my fault completely.”
All of that overshadowed a big first half for Gophers kicker Emmit Carpenter, who hit field goals from 52, 53 and 28 yards. He is the first Gophers kicker to hit multiple field goals of at least 50 yards since Adam Bailey hit from 52 and 50 yards against Penn State in 1997.
Leidner credited offensive coordinator Jay Johnson with cutting the tension at halftime, after the interception.
“It’s definitely something frustrating at first,” Leidner said. “But once I got in the locker room I could see the guys start rallying. Coach Jay came in and immediately made me smile, so we knew we were going to come back. We weren’t going to let that instance define us as a team.”
Purdue got the ball to start the second half, but the Gophers quickly flipped the momentum. Duke McGhee intercepted Blough on a play that was originally ruled as a completion to Cole Herdman before the officials overturned it.
The Gophers quickly drove 42 yards for the go-ahead touchdown, capped with a 7-yard run from Smith. Then, with the defense thriving, Minnesota stretched the lead to 37-28 on a 9-yard run from Leidner early in the fourth quarter.
A Purdue field goal trimmed the lead to six with a little more than five minutes remaining, and the Gophers went three-and-out on their next possession. But Purdue went for it on fourth-and-1, and linebacker Nick Rallis knocked the ball loose from running back Jack Wegher.
Antoine Winfield Jr. recovered at Purdue’s 26-yard line, and Smith sealed the victory with a 14-yard touchdown run.
Earlier, Smith had hobbled to the sideline, but he had his right ankle taped and went back in the game, adding to his season-long dominance.
For the season, Smith has 954 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns. The Gophers needed another big day from him, with Shannon Brooks out because of an undisclosed injury.
“I know how tough Rodney is, and I had a pretty good feeling he’d be back,” Leidner said. “It would take a lot more to knock him out of a game.”