MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The Big Ten’s strength has been questioned all season after some ugly wins and bad losses for several of its top-tier teams. Purdue and Minnesota have found the league to be plenty challenging.
After impressive performances in their nonconference games, both the Boilermakers and the Gophers have been set back in Big Ten play. The two teams that might be fighting for one of the conference’s last bowl spots will meet on Saturday and one side will enjoy that elusive first Big Ten victory.
“I feel like everyone’s got a different mindset. Obviously, we’re a little salty about the losses we have,” Purdue defensive tackle Kawann Short said. “But once that day is gone, you can’t replay it.”
The same move-on theme has been preached around Minnesota this week. Coach Jerry Kill urged his players to shake off their discouragement and focus on the opportunity to win at least two more to be eligible to grab a bowl game invitation.
“He spoke to the underclassmen as well as the seniors to do everything you can to step this thing up right now and really make a push to finish this thing off right,” linebacker Mike Rallis said. “The team has really responded great.”
The Gophers (4-3, 0-3 Big Ten) have lost at Iowa, to Northwestern and at Wisconsin. The Boilermakers (3-4, 0-3), who were beaten by only three points at Notre Dame, currently ranked fifth, were blown out by Michigan and Wisconsin. Then they squandered a 22-14 lead in the closing seconds last week at Ohio State and lost in overtime.
“But we came out of the game with a little more confidence as a football team and maybe a little more self-respect and regained some pride,” coach Danny Hope said, calling the defeat “a big step” for the program.
Hope added: “Even though we’ve slipped a little bit, we have a chance to win eight or nine ballgames and that will be the best we’ve done around here for a long time. So a lot to play for, not a lot of margin for error.”
Though Purdue hosts surging Penn State on Nov. 3, winning out wouldn’t exactly be the wildest accomplishment in Big Ten history. The Boilermakers travel to Iowa, too, but finish with Illinois and Indiana, the two other Leaders Division teams still without a conference victory.
The Gophers have a more grueling finish. They play 20th-ranked Michigan next week; then they go to Nebraska. Illinois is after that, but they finish against Michigan State.
“Believe me, I wish I could fix everything in a year and a half, be 10-0, 12-1. It just doesn’t work that way,” Kill said.
Injuries have been as big of a problem as confidence, inexperience or talent deficiency this month for Minnesota, which has turned to freshman Philip Nelson at quarterback because MarQueis Gray couldn’t stay healthy. Gray, recovering from a sprained left knee and ankle, has been moved to wide receiver. Starting left tackle Ed Olson will miss his second straight game with a sprained right ankle. That doesn’t help Nelson or the running attack that has slowed since conference play began.
“We certainly want to run the ball. My background in coaching is I like running the ball. But right now there are some things that physically we’re still struggling with a little bit. Doesn’t mean we can’t, but we’ve got to take a look at how,” Kill said.
Purdue has allowed an average of 401.3 yards per game, the second-most in the Big Ten. Nelson ought to be able to build off his so-so debut at Wisconsin.
“I just want to go out there and practice like I always have and treat nothing new. It’s just football,” Nelson said.
Boilermakers quarterback Caleb TerBush is a senior, coming off one of his best games of the season. His opportunity to find that rhythm and reach the next level of production and performance is dwindling.
“He’s getting better, gaining some momentum,” Hope said.
That’s what he’d like to have happen for the entire team.
“It’s part of football. You strive to be consistent, and that’s why we practice and we practice well,” Hope said. “Sometimes it’s a mystery to me why we don’t execute some of the things in the games as well as we do in practice. Obviously, the competition picks up when you go into the ballgames. I recognize that. But we do very well in practice, and this football team practices as well as any that I’ve been around.”
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