Opportunities fumbled away

The Gophers fumbled the ball three times in their Big Ten opener against Purdue.

by Luke Middendorf

Entering Saturday’s Big Ten opener against Purdue, Minnesota’s defense was statistically outmatched by the high-powered offense of the Boilermakers.

The Gophers’ offense, however, was expected to give the high-scoring Purdue team a run for its money.

Both of those predictions turned out to be realities in Minnesota’s 45-31 loss to the Boilermakers Saturday night.

The Gophers (1-3 overall, 0-1 Big Ten) got behind early in this track meet of a game, and were unable to catch up with Purdue (4-0 overall, 1-0 Big Ten) in the home stretch.

The bleeding started for the Gophers on the opening kickoff, as Desmond Tardy of Purdue returned the kick 95 yards to put the Boilermakers up 7-0 only 14 seconds into the game.

Minnesota was unable to match Purdue’s firepower on their first offensive possession, going 3-and-out to give the ball back to the Boilermakers.

The Gophers defense then picked up the offense by forcing Purdue to punt, putting Minnesota in good position to tie after senior running back Amir Pinnix started the drive with a 21-yard run.

But the Gopher’s offense again failed to sustain a long drive, quickly punting the ball back to Purdue after the Pinnix run.

“We need more confidence as an offense to come out in the first half and show our ability,” sophomore receiver Erik Decker said. “I think that’s been showcased in the first four games pretty well.”

Things didn’t get better for Decker and Minnesota.

After a big hit by senior cornerback Desi Steib and a Purdue false start penalty during the following series, the Gophers’ defense put the Boilermakers in a tough third-down situation in the red zone. But veteran Purdue quarterback Curtis Painter exploited the Minnesota secondary by throwing a 16-yard touchdown pass to bring the score to 14-0.

Following the touchdown, Minnesota’s redshirt freshman quarterback Adam Weber turned a nice scramble on second down into a turnover as he fumbled the ball on the Minnesota 17-yard line. The Boilermakers were able to capitalize on the turnover with a field goal to raise the score to 17-0.

Minnesota finally got on the board with a field goal and the Gophers’ defense again stopped Purdue to get the Minnesota offense back on the field. Weber started the drive with a 19-yard rush, but followed with an interception pass to defensive end Cliff Avril, which he returned 43 yards for a touchdown to bring the score to 24-3.

“I saw someone coming, and I didn’t want to put it up in the air too long and another (person) came and made a play on it,” Weber said. “It’s one of those things I will learn from, but it’s frustrating.”

Minnesota put together another long drive later in the second quarter, but it was spoiled by yet another turnover, this time by a Pinnix fumble on the Purdue 14-yard line.

Purdue followed the fumble recovery by driving into field goal range. The Boilermaker field goal attempt was blocked by senior linebacker Mike Sherels and picked up by senior cornerback Jamal Harris. It nearly swung the momentum to the Gophers’ bench but as Harris streaked down the sideline with his eyes on the end zone, the senior cornerback lost the ball as he was switched hands near the Purdue 20-yard line, giving it right back to Painter and the Purdue offense while stunning 47,483 at the Metrodome.

“I’ve never seen anything like that,” Decker said about the Harris play.

The fumble was recovered by the Boilermakers to end the half, all but ending the Gophers chances of keeping the game close.

“We have to find a better way to play in the first half,” coach Tim Brewster said. “Tonight we turned it over and dropped the ball on the 10-yard line when we were about to score. Those are self-inflicted wounds, and when we figure out how to eliminate them, we are going to be a good football team.”

Backup running backs Duane Bennett and Jay Thomas relieved Pinnix in the crowd-sparse second half, and provided a boost to the offense by each pounding in touchdowns runs. Painter threw a touchdown to standout receiver Dorien Bryant between Minnesota’s two touchdowns, and Purdue later added a touchdown run of their own to push the score to 38-17 entering the final quarter.

Weber tossed a touchdown pass to a sliding Decker to start the fourth quarter, but Painter again found Bryant in the end zone on the next series to expand the Boilermaker’s lead to 45-24.

Weber continued his improved second-half play by adding a two-yard touchdown run, bringing the score to 45-31, but that would be as close as Minnesota would get.

The Gophers defense managed to stop Purdue on a fourth-down conversion attempt to give Minnesota the ball. But the Gophers followed with a failed fourth-down conversion of their own to completely seal their fate.

“We have to make plays when we have our hands on an interception or a chance to recover a fumble; we have to take advantage of that,” Brewster said. “We have been behind every game and we can’t continue to do that in the Big Ten.”