Gophers lose Big Ten opener

Tyler Rushmeyer

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – On what was referred to as the “blackout game” by Purdue fans, Minnesota’s football team failed to find a light switch.

Questionable coaching decisions, costly penalties and unforced turnovers all were ingredients in the Gophers’ 27-21 loss to the Boilermakers Saturday in front of nearly 55,000 black-clad Purdue fans.

“Mistakes are going to happen in a game. In the Big Ten, it’s hard enough to beat anybody,” coach Glen Mason said. “When at the same time you’re hurting yourself because of unforced errors, it’s that much more difficult.”

In a season in which ranked opponents are scattered throughout the schedule, the defeat was a costly one and could set the tone for the remainder of the Gophers’ Big Ten season.

“It felt like last year in a way,” senior quarterback Bryan Cupito said. “We had a lot of opportunities to win it last year and we did. Today we again had those opportunities, but we didn’t take advantage of them.”

Minnesota opened the game, as it has in its past five contests dating back to last season, by putting points on the board. Junior fullback Justin Valentine capped a 15-play touchdown drive with a one-yard run.

Purdue quickly countered by racking up 50 yards on its first three plays, but were forced to settle for freshman kicker Chris Summers’ 39-yard field goal.

The Gophers’ defense gave up their first big play of the day minutes into the second quarter, allowing junior quarterback Chris Painter to hook up with senior tight end Dustin Keller for 55 yards, after having the Boilermakers pinned inside their own 10-yard line.

The score remained at 7-3 after Summers missed a 42-yard field goal attempt.

With the lead and momentum, the Gophers drove to the Purdue 34-yard line when Mason sent out sophomore kicker Jason Giannini to attempt a 51-yard kick.

The line drive kick was blocked by sophomore defensive tackle Alex Magee and returned to the Gophers’ 42 yard line. A minute later, Purdue was in the end zone after Chris Painter hooked up with junior wide receiver Dorian Bryant for a 27-yard touchdown.

The Gophers ran an effective two-minute drill on their next possession, mixing the pass and rush to get to the Purdue 4-yard line.

Minnesota suddenly abandoned the run, leaving Amir Pinnix, who finished with 221 all-purpose yards, without another carry on the drive.

Cupito’s third-and-goal pass to Wheelwright was tipped into the hands of Purdue’s senior linebacker George Hall, essentially ending the first half.

Despite racking up more than 250 yards, possessing the ball for 20 minutes and running 23 more plays than Purdue, Minnesota found itself down 10-7 at halftime.

The Boilermakers built on their halftime lead, capitalizing on a suddenly weak Gophers defense and a Cupito fumble to stretch the lead to 20-7.

Down 13 in a hostile environment, Minnesota, led by Pinnix, respond by getting to the Purdue 3-yard line, where the offense again stalled.

Facing a fourth-and-goal situation, Cupito battled the crowd noise to hook up with senior tight end Matt Spaeth on the last play of the third quarter to make it a 20-13 game.

On Purdue’s first possession of the fourth quarter, Minnesota forced the Boilermakers into a third down from their own seven yard line when Painter threw an incomplete pass to the sidelines.

Senior cornerback Trumaine Banks was called for pass interference, a costly penalty that kept the drive alive and eventually led to a Purdue touchdown and 27-14 lead.

“That killed us,” said junior linebacker John Shevlin. “I’m not a receiver or anything, but I thought that play was uncatchable. Calls go each way, but usually they balance out.”

The Gophers converted on two fourth downs their next possession, including a fourth-and-19, to again bring the Gophers within a touchdown, at 27-21.

Minnesota’s defense forced a three-and-out from Purdue to give the offense one more opportunity, starting at their own 41-yard line with 3:44 remaining.

After another penalty forced Minnesota into a fourth-and-13 with 2:28 to go, Mason confused many by deciding to punt the ball away.

“If you don’t get it there (fourth down), the game’s over,” Mason said. “I thought we could punt it away, play good defense and get it in better field position.

“If we got the ball back one more time, I thought we’d be OK.”

The Gophers defense failed to hold Purdue on a fourth-and-one with a minute to go and the clock ran out on a very winnable game.

Junior center Tony Brinkhaus summed up what seemed to be the general sentiment of the team.

“Missed opportunities were the key to this game,” Brinkhaus said. “We had chance to jump on them early and we killed ourselves with stupid penalties throughout. It just puts a bitter taste in my mouth.”