For the first time in the P.J. Fleck era, the Golden Gophers football team is facing its first crossroad.
In a 31-24 loss to Maryland in the Big Ten opener, Fleck and the Gophers may have had their oars ripped from the boat. The offense – in all phases – was lackluster while struggles in the kicking game hit a new level with a pair of kickoffs sailing out of bounds. The defense may have had the biggest wake-up call after allowing 14 points in the fourth quarter. The loss also marked the first time this season that the Gophers allowed a 100-yard rusher.
However, in terms of the team, the Gophers had a severe wake-up call in the overall depth of the roster. Injuries and undisclosed discipline have indicated the depth. In his weekly press conference, Fleck noted that they are blazing the recruiting trail for talent.
“We have to find players that can play at that level and that skillful through 2018 and 2019,” Fleck stated.
While the recruiting could affect the overall talent for future seasons, the Gophers have little time to waste, as Minnesota will travel to West Lafayette in hopes of bouncing back against the Purdue Boilermakers.
Tale of the tape
The Gophers are not the only program in the Big Ten to undergo a coaching change in 2017. After a three-year tenure at Western Kentucky, Jeff Brohm enters the limelight as the head coach for a program that he calls “the cradle of quarterbacks.”
Under Brohm, the Boilermakers have had a resurgence of their own.
In just four games, the Boilermakers are a mere win away from tying their win total from a year ago (3-9), sitting at 2-2 (0-1 Big Ten) and it’s all due to the offensive ingenuity of Brohm. There has been a slight offensive explosion for Purdue. Through four games, the Boilermakers have registered 117 points (29.2 per game) with 1,568 yards of offense. However, the most impressive stat is that Purdue in perfect (15-for-15) in the red zone with 11 of those 15 attempts being touchdowns.
Defensively, the Boilermakers have allowed 87 points (21.8 per game) and 1,546 yards of offense but has struggled when backed up, allowing teams to score 86 percent (12-for-14) of the time when inside the 20-yard line. One standout from the Boilermakers through four games is that they are explosive in the first half of games, outscoring opponents 86-20 with a shutout against Ohio. However, the second half appears to be an adventure for Purdue, being outscored 60-31 and 31-10 in the fourth quarter alone.
In his first four games as head coach, Brohm hasn’t made a definitive statement as to who will be the starting quarterback, opting to wait until pre-game warmups to declare a starter. It was a similar approach taken with Fleck in terms of using the non-conference similar to an extension of fall camp to evaluate the competition at the position. However, Brohm has remained poised on his stance to have David Blough and Elijah Sindelar battle it out.
Blough, a junior, has started 20 of the 22 games he’s seen action in. Starting two games this season, he has completed 56 of his 80 attempts for 629 yards and six touchdowns with just two interceptions. According to the Purdue Athletic Department’s official stats, he has completed 70 percent of his passes. Despite a mild AC joint sprain in the 28-10 loss to Michigan, Blough has stated following the team’s bye week that he is ready to go against the Gophers.
Despite the juggling of signal callers, there hasn’t been a real dip of flow. Sindelar, who is a sophomore, has completed 31-of-64 for 366 yards and five scores. When watching the film, it appears that Blough should undoubtedly be the starter, showing a good understanding of both the offense and his limitations. He has a strong arm and does a good job of protecting the football. Blough also has enough mobility to tuck and run if needed.
Players to watch
Running back Tario Fuller
Despite having five players with 10 or more carries, sophomore running back Tario Fuller Jr. is the lead back for the Boilermakers and for good reason. He can do it all. With a running style that is similar to LeSean McCoy of the Buffalo Bills, Fuller has the ability to run between the tackles from under center and from the shotgun. More importantly, he has explosive big-play ability.
He does a good job of keeping a strong base under him and has great lateral agility. A shifty runner, Fuller has good patience to let his blockers set up running lanes before attempting to burst through the hole. His play style is similar to Ty Johnson in terms of what the Gophers defense could expect.
Linebackers Ja’Whaun Bentley and TJ McCollum
While Purdue’s defense has struggled to stop anyone this season, the individual play from a pair of linebackers has outstanding. Bentley and McCollum are the top two tacklers on the team with Bentley leading with 29 stops, three tackles for loss and a pair of forced fumbles. With a strong defensive front doing a good job of plugging gaps, both linebackers are able to cleanly flow from the front side to the backside. Expect both standouts to have a bevy of stops against Minnesota’s struggling run offense.
Linebacker Jonathan Celestin
The Gophers defensive unit is littered with young talent with sophomore Antoine Winfield Jr. possibly being the best player and future prospect. However, some of the biggest plays this season have been developed off the play of senior captain Jonathan Celestin.
There may not be a prospect in the Big Ten who has helped their stock as much as Jonathan Celestin. He has shown the tools that could make him a strong three-down linebacker candidate in the NFL. He has very good instincts and reads his keys well. As a blitzer, he is nearly unstoppable. Celestin has a good initial burst in his get off when stacked in the A gap.
He is an adequate cover guy, showing fluid hips and comfort in space. There are times where the senior takes bad angles and is “soft” at the point of attack, but has a strong blend of strength and agility to stack and shed defenders.
The Gophers are 37-32-3 all-time against Purdue and currently hold a four-game win streak, the longest streak in the history of the program. Of the four-game win streak, three wins came while at home, with the Gophers winning 41-13 in 2015 at Purdue. The last win for Purdue win against Minnesota came in 2011 as the home team. The Gophers are 6-20 all-time in West Lafayette, Ind.
Kickoff is set for 2:30 p.m. CT and can be seen on ESPN2.
- Josh Zimmer is the Lead NFL Draft analyst for NGSC Sports as well as serving as a contributor for NHL coverage.
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