Gophers replay Gophers 34, Purdue 31
Missing 20-plus players from a mix of injuries and positive COVID-19 tests, the Gophers (2-3) eked out a close win against Purdue on Friday.
The offense, which had languished in the first four games from predictable play-calling that involved primarily receiver Rashod Bateman and running back Mohamed Ibrahim, looked utterly refreshed. Five rushers and seven receivers found the ball in their hands. Quarterback Tanner Morgan went 15-for-22 for 264 yards, including several deep passes. Ibrahim, the Big Ten’s top rusher, had three touchdowns and 102 yards on 25 carries.
Defense and special teams, though, were still unconvincing, from out-of-bounds kicks to allowing numerous explosive plays. While Purdue regained former All-America receiver Rondale Moore for the game, it was without starting quarterback Aidan O’Connell. But even against backup Jack Plummer, the Gophers allowed Purdue 492 yards, or 7.2 yards per play.
But some mistakes from Purdue, including a blocked field goal, and two key calls going against the Boilermakers on their last-minute drive helped the Gophers scrape out the win.
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RB conundrum: Ibrahim is the Big Ten’s leading rusher by a long shot, but he took most of the Gophers’ final drives off. Coach P.J. Fleck said Ibrahim took some knocks early and played through it, but the team trainers advised he come out of the game early as a precaution. Cam Wiley had one of his best games against Purdue as Ibrahim’s backup, scoring his first touchdown of the year.
Missing pieces: The Gophers lacked some notable names. Rush end Boye Mafe was absent, with Thomas Rush taking his place. Kicker Michael Lantz was on the sidelines, with Brock Walker going 4-for-5 on extra points. Cornerback Benjamin St-Juste, who tested positive for COVID-19 ahead of the Iowa game, was on the sideline watching his fill-in, Phil Howard, draw the game-changing offensive pass interference call. The defense also lost safety Jordan Howden, shaken up in the third quarter. Calvin Swenson took his place and ended up making another decisive play. Purdue receiver David Bell appeared to have stripped an interception right from cornerback Coney Durr’s hands and come down with a big catch late in the game, but Swenson touched the ball while out of bounds to make it an incomplete pass.
King crab: Receiver Chris Autman-Bell had his breakout game, making five catches for 125 yards.
Up next: at Wisconsin
1 p.m. Saturday, Camp Randall Stadium
The skinny: The Gophers and the Badgers have traded Paul Bunyan’s Axe back and forth in recent years.
That 38-17 loss to Wisconsin to end last season barred the Gophers from the Big Ten Championship and thus the Rose Bowl or College Football Playoff. And it’s a border rivalry the Gophers will be eager to reclaim after 2018’s 37-15 triumph at Camp Randall that ended a 14-year drought and was the Gophers’ first win in Wisconsin since 1994.
This year’s Badgers, while without last year’s starting quarterback Jack Coan because of an injury and because running back Jonathan Taylor left for the NFL, are still potent. Graham Mertz, a first-year starter, has shined at QB, going 32-for-43 for 375 yards, seven touchdowns and no interceptions.
The Badgers, though, are still a bit unproven. While they lead the Big Ten in scoring offense (47 points) and defense (9), trailing only Ohio State in offensive yards per game at 449 and topping the conference allowing just 218.5 yards per game, they’ve only played two games. After a dominant 45-7 win against Illinois in their opener, the Badgers had a two-week layoff because of a COVID-19 outbreak on the team. The Badgers returned with a 49-11 victory at Michigan.
This past Saturday, the Badgers faced Northwestern, the other undefeated West team, losing 17-7.