Five losses removed from their week-one victory against Middle Tennessee State, the Gophers are almost forgetting what it feels like to win.
For seniors like Kyle Theret, losing streaks like the team’s current one are nothing new. As freshmen they endured a 1-11 season in head coach Tim Brewster’s first year, and the following season ended on a five-game losing streak.
Theret said the key to getting back on track is to not let losing become a habit.
“We can’t let it be okay,” he said. “With the record we have, if we don’t start winning soon, there’s not going to be a chance for a bowl game.”
If the Gophers want to attain that lofty goal of becoming bowl eligible, a win Saturday is almost essential. After returning from West Lafayette, the Gophers will host No. 1 Ohio State, one of three ranked opponents Minnesota will face to end the season.
Just two more losses and Minnesota will fall short of its goal to still be playing in December, and with Purdue possibly being their most beatable opponent left, the Gophers understand the game’s importance.
“This is our season right now, this Purdue game,” Theret said. “That’s how we’re looking at it.”
But if the Gophers are to beat Purdue and finally get back on track, they will have to be able to at least curb an effective rushing game and contain a mobile quarterback, a potentially lethal combination for a team that has little success against either.
Minnesota allows a Big Ten-most 196.3 yards on the ground per game, which happens to be almost exactly how much Purdue gains rushing per contest, good enough for 30th in the nation.
Purdue freshman quarterback Rob Henry made his first career start in place of the injured junior Robert Marve against previously-undefeated Northwestern last week.
Henry had just 47 yards through the air on six completions, but led the Boilermakers in rushing with 132 yards and a touchdown.
Because of Purdue’s quarterback change, Brewster expects to see more of a spread offense that includes designed quarterback runs, a situation the Gophers have struggled with.
Northwestern’s Dan Persa gained 99 yards on the ground against the Gophers, utilizing both designed runs and scrambles for large chunks of yardage.
Much like Northwestern, many of Purdue’s rushing yards come from the quarterback.
“Probably the biggest concern is when he scrambles on pass plays,” linebacker Keanon Cooper said. “If we have good coverage, he can take off and run, [and] if we don’t have a spy on him he’s a dangerous guy.”
The Gophers slightly modified their secondary for matchup purposes, with Theret switching to strong safety and senior Ryan Collado, normally a cornerback, taking his spot at free safety. Sophomore Kyle Henderson and freshman Brock Vereen will line up at cornerback.
This isn’t the first time this season the Gophers have switched around personnel in the secondary, with freshman James Manuel starting at strong safety for much of the season and Ryan Collado listed as a backup cornerback last weekend.
Although some continuity may benefit the Gophers, the defensive backs are willing to play wherever the coaches put them.
“It makes it harder on the people that are switching,” Theret said. “But it is what it is and you have to do what it takes.”
Sophomore linebacker Mike Rallis, who has missed the last three weeks with an abdominal strain, is listed as a starter for Saturday’s game, and Brewster said Wednesday that Rallis, Aaron Hill and Ryan Grant will share some time Saturday.
Besides Rallis, the Gophers have remained relatively injury-free, but that hasn’t been the case for the Boilermakers.
In addition to losing Marve, a transfer from Miami who broke many of Tim Tebow’s high school records, Purdue lost its starting running back Ralph Bolden and its No. 1 wide receiver Keith Smith for the season.
Purdue was able to overcome its injuries and pick up a big road win last week. The team is undefeated in conference play, while the Gophers are just trying to find answers quickly before wins become harder to come by.
“Every week gets a little harder,” senior quarterback Adam Weber said. “But it’s all about sticking with the plan and eventually things will go our way.”