Thursday, October 8, 2009

A Must-Win Game in Early October?

The Gopher football team plays Purdue at home on Saturday. After the game, the team will hit the road for two games against #14 Penn State and #9 Ohio State. The season could easily get away from the 3-2 (1-1 Big Ten) Gophers if they don't defend their home turf on Saturday.

Purdue comes to Minneapolis with a new coach. Danny Hope replaced Joe Tiller before this season, ending Tiller's run which began in 1997. Tiller had the Gophers' number, and the Gophers' 17-6 win last season was the team's first victory in West Lafayette since 1990.

The 2009 season has started slowly for Purdue, which is off to a 1-4 start, losing its last four games, and lost its Big Ten opener to Northwestern last week. That's not to say the Boilermakers do not have talent on their roster, however.

QB Joey Elliott leads the Big Ten in passing yards with 1,276 through five games. The senior has notched 10 TDs against 7 interceptions. His ranking of 138.06 ranks fourth among Big Ten QBs. Against Northwestern last week, Elliott was 20-28 for 313 yards, threw 3 TDs and 1 INT. Sophomore RB Ralph Bolden is second in the Big Ten among rushers with 541 yards. Half of those yards came in the season's first game against Toledo, when he carried 21 times for 234 yards. After picking up 123 the next week against Oregon, Bolden has been held largely in check. Junior WR Keith Smith is third in the Big Ten among receivers, with 35 catches for 459 yards and 3 TD. The Achilles heel for Purdue has been the defense, which has surrendered 148 points in its five games this season.

The Gophers come into the game on the heels of a tough loss at home against Wisconsin. The team was significantly out-gained by the Badgers, but still had a chance to come away with the victory. WR Eric Decker continues to amaze, and is the Big Ten's (and the nation's) leading receiver with 43 catches for 639 yards and 5 TDs. QB Adam Weber is having a decent season thus far, going 91-159 for 1,150 yards and 6 TDs against 6 INTs. Still, his inconsistency has plagued the team all season long. The team's inability to establish a running attack is also puzzling. After committing to a power running style late in the 2008 season with Assistant Coach Tim Davis, the Gophers have not really tried to establish a run at any time in 2009, despite solid backs in DeLeon Eskridge and Duane Bennett. Also, the inability to work freshman QB Mar'Queis Gray into the offense is simply unacceptable. He gives the Gophers a different look on offense and has playmaking ability. A good use of Gray's ability may lie in working him into the team's third down package, where the Gophers have been inconsistent with Weber all season long.

Saturday's game has a must-win feel to it, with the tough tests ahead. The Gophers have winnable home games remaining against Purdue, Michigan State, and Illinois, but need to start that off with a win against the Boilermakers this coming Saturday. If they win out at home, the Gophers will be assured no worse than a 4-4 record within the conference, which is good considering the difficulty of the schedule.

The Gophers must take advantage of Purdue's defensive weaknesses. The Boilermakers will likely rack up a bunch of yards through the air, but if the Gophers are able to put pressure on Elliott (something they weren't able to do with consistency last week against Wisconsin's Scott Tolzien), they improve their chances. On the other side of the ball, the Gophers should try to establish a running attack early on and work Gray into the mix. This should open up the field for Decker and others like Brandon Green.

Prediction: Gophers 31, Purdue 21.

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