Battle of strengths key Saturday

David McCoy

Anyone who has been paying even remote attention to Minnesota’s football team the past three weeks has noticed the way it has been able to run all over its nonconference opponents with ease.

After those three games, the Gophers are averaging 335 yards per game.

That figure is No. 1 in the country.

But the Gophers know they can’t get too excited about that fact.

After all, they haven’t exactly faced the nation’s toughest run defenses, such as, well Ö Purdue.

The 11th-ranked Boilermakers have the nation’s best run defense, giving up an average of just 16 yards on the ground per game.

And they just happen to be Minnesota’s next opponent at 11 a.m. Saturday at the Metrodome.

“Everything goes up a notch,” Gophers center Greg Eslinger said. “You’ve got to play at your absolute peak. There’s no such thing as taking a play off or getting a bad block, because if those things happen, you’re going to have some serious consequences because you’re going up against the best opponents in the league.”

On the flip side, Purdue’s running attack is ranked fourth in the Big Ten at 225 yards per game while the Gophers’ run defense is ranked sixth, giving up an average of 95 per game.

Their passing attacks are similarly ranked. The Gophers are seventh in the Big Ten in both passing offense and defense, while the Boilermakers are ninth in passing offense and 10th on defense.

The present scenario could mean one of two things:

The team that wins the key matchup between the Gophers rushing offense and Purdue’s run defense will have the crucial advantage.

Or the two strengths will cancel out and whichever team can revive its mediocre passing attack will dominate through the air.

Wide receiver Logan Payne said the Gophers receiving corps not only feels responsibility for taking the pressure off their top-ranked running backs, but also feels the need to make big plays as well.

“The home run is going to be there,” Payne said. “There’s no way that they can stop our run and also take away the home run. The challenge is there, and we need to make those plays.”

While the Gophers’ ground game has been consistent each week, their passing attack has been spotty at best.

But quarterback Bryan Cupito said he saw a lot of improvement in the passing game between the Colorado State game (190 yards, two touchdowns, one interception) and Saturday’s game against Florida Atlantic (230 yards, two touchdowns, no picks).

“We proved that we can catch the ball as good as we can run the ball,” Cupito said. “We’re ready for Purdue.”

Not quite on the former. Better be on the latter.