Saturday is supposed to be the first Big Ten football game of the season.
But when Minnesota and No. 21 Purdue take to the field on Saturday down in West Lafayette, Ind., it might look more like a game of capture the flag.
Boilermakers quarterback Drew Brees is the flag.
The senior quarterback and Heisman Trophy candidate has thrown for 805 yards and eight touchdowns in two career games against the Gophers.
Last season, Minnesota’s defense got to Brees for just one sack in a 33-28 loss. If the Gophers are to win this year, they’re going to have to get to Brees early and often.
“If you give a guy like Drew Brees enough time, he’ll pick you apart,” Minnesota coach Glen Mason said. “And that’s the thing, it’s awfully tough to get to that guy.
“There are games when you think his jersey never gets dirty, because no one gets near him.”
Purdue’s strong offensive line protects its star quarterback like the secret service protects President Clinton. Brees has been sacked just three times this year — getting to him is a lot easier said than done.
A glance at the statistics proves Brees has been a champion Gopher-killer, with 522 yards passing and six scores in one year, on top of another 283 yards and a pair of touchdowns last year. Brees did not throw an interception in either game.
Clearly the Gophers (2-1) will have to do something different on defense if they are to slow Brees and the Purdue (3-0) attack.
“In 1998 they ran man-to-man (defense) and it was pretty much disastrous,” Brees said. “Last year they ran all zone, so who knows what we’ll see.”
Despite the offensive outburst of the past two years, Purdue coach Joe Tiller said past results don’t necessarily predict a third explosion on Saturday.
“Minnesota is a physical team that will get after you,” Tiller said. “They run a number of blitzes and force you to try and get the ball off in a hurry.”
Coming off a tough 23-21 loss to Notre Dame last weekend, the Boilermakers are looking to get back on track. Purdue ran the ball an uncharacteristic 43 times last week, while attempting a pass just 22 times.
It would appear the Boilermakers first option against the Gophers would be the aerial attack. If so, Purdue’s main defensive focus must be Gophers defensive end Karon Riley.
Last season’s Big Ten leader in sacks, Riley said Minnesota will throw more zone coverage at Purdue on Saturday. Riley also said it could be the only way the Gophers can slow Brees down.
“He’s super smart,” Riley said. “He knows where he’s going to go before he even snaps the ball.”
While Brees will be making his 17th conference start for Purdue, Gophers redshirt freshman quarterback Asad Abdul-Khaliq will be making his first.
And with Abdul-Khaliq’s first Big Ten start taking place on the road, Minnesota will worry about getting off to a slow start. So is the young man nervous?
“Not right now,” Abdul-Khaliq said. “But I might be once we get out there in front of 67,000 fans.”
Not only will Ross-Ade Stadium be sold out, but the nearly 70,000 people in the stands will be celebrating homecoming. Mason, however, said the fans won’t need a motive to get excited.
“It’s a hostile crowd down there, the worst in the Big Ten,” Mason said. “They throw stuff at you. They put you right in front of the student section. And they get after you pretty good.”
John R. Carter covers football and welcomes comments at [email protected]