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Gophers flip the script in rout of Purdue

Minnesota Golden Gophers running back Mohamed Ibrahim (24) rushes with the ball as Purdue Boilermakers linebacker Markus Bailey (21) plays defense in the first half at TCF Bank Stadium on Saturday, Nov. 10. Jesse Johnson / USA TODAY Sports1 / 2
Minnesota Golden Gophers quarterback Tanner Morgan drops back for a pass in the first quarter against the Purdue Boilermakers at TCF Bank Stadium on Saturday, Nov. 10. Jesse Johnson / USA TODAY Sports2 / 2

MINNEAPOLIS — The Gophers were reeling, and the outlook was murky.

Minnesota’s defense was lost; its coordinator had been fired; and a foe with top-flight offense was up next.

But so much for the overwhelming evidence sealing the fate in another blowout loss.

While Minnesota’s interim defensive coordinator Joe Rossi had sought just a little bit of improvement in less than a week on the job, the Gophers produced a lot in a stunning 41-10 win over Purdue on a cold and snowy Saturday, Nov. 10, at TCF Bank Stadium.

Purdue was second-best in Big Ten games in points (36) and total yards (485) this season, but failed on Saturday to generate a first down much less touchdowns for most of the game. The Gophers held the Boilermakers without a conversion on their first 10 attempts and without a touchdown until midway through the fourth quarter, when Minnesota had already scored 38 unanswered points.

The Gophers, an 11-point underdog to once-Big Ten West contender, held the Boilermakers (5-5, 4-3) to 233 yards, including only 68 in the first half.  

When head coach P.J. Fleck fired Robb Smith last Sunday — after his unit allowed Illinois to score 55 points and rush for 430 yards — it was the acknowledgement that one of Fleck’s top assistants had failed in 21 games to provide the “cultural sustainability” Fleck preaches about.

But the Gophers (5-5, 2-5) bounced back and have now matched last-year’s win total; they are an upset of Northwestern or Wisconsin away from a bowl berth that seemed unrealistic after how poor the defense had performed in the first six Big Ten games.

So often, it was explosive plays that doomed Minnesota’s defense, but they benefited from one of the biggest on the first possession of the third quarter. Gophers linebacker Blake Cashman forced a fumble of Boilermakers quarterback David Blough and returned it 40 yards for a touchdown a 20-3 lead.

Instead of allowing a stack of big plays and tons of points, the Gophers kept Purdue’s playmakers in front of them. The Gophers’ biggest play allowed in the first half was a 12 yard pass from David Blough to freshman speedster Rondale Moore. The longest in the game was a 17-yard completion to Brycen Hopkins.

The Gophers’ offense gave its beleaguered defense a boost and a break to start the game. Minnesota put together a 13-play drive, going 69 yards, which reached Purdue’s 6. They had to settle for a 24-yard field goal from Emmit Carlenter.

On their second drive, the U offense did its defense no favors. Tanner Morgan’s on-target pass was tipped up by receiver Chris Autman-Bell and intercepted by Antonio Blackman at Minnesota’s 38.

But the Gophers defense held Purdue to only 16 yards and Purdue kicked a 40-yard field goal to tie the game, 3-3.

After two punts, Minnesota reached the end zone for the only time in the first half. They went 83 yards over seven plays, with wildcat quarterback Seth Green selling a run fake and then finding wide open tight end Jake Paulson for an 11-yard score.