Minnesota will play as a ranked team for the first time in three years. It’s been much longer since it won at Purdue.
The No. 25 Gophers look for a third straight victory while trying to snap a seven-game road losing streak to the struggling Boilermakers in a Big Ten matchup Saturday.
In a remarkable turnaround from a 1-11 finish in 2007 in Tim Brewster’s first season as coach, Minnesota (6-1, 2-1) is bowl eligible and has returned to the AP poll for the first time since Oct. 9, 2005.
“We’re pleased,” Brewster said. “But polls mean nothing now. At the end of the year, let’s see where we’re at.”
Currently tied for fourth in the Big Ten, the Gophers will play three of their final four games at home as they try to finish with a winning record in conference play for the first time since 2003.
“We’ve set the bar high now,” said receiver Eric Decker, whose 59 receptions lead the Big Ten.
Though Purdue (2-5, 0-3) has lost four in a row, Minnesota can’t afford to look past the Boilermakers as it tries to win at West Lafayette for the first time since a 19-7 victory on Oct. 6, 1990.
After losing 34-12 to then-No. 14 Ohio State on Sept. 27, Minnesota beat Indiana 16-7 the following week to snap its nine-game conference losing streak. The Gophers’ 27-20 win at Illinois on Oct. 11 in their most recent contest showed how far they’ve come, beating an Illini team that played in the Rose Bowl last season.
In its second season running the spread offense, Minnesota is third in the conference with 29.9 points per game, while Decker averages 8.4 receptions to rank third nationally and 111.7 receiving yards to rank fifth.
“Last year was new coaches, new schemes, new everything,” sophomore quarterback Adam Weber said. “This year I think everyone’s a little bit more comfortable. Everyone knows what’s expected out of them.”
Weber, who threw 19 interceptions and completed only 57.5 percent of his passes in 2007, has nine touchdowns and two interceptions while completing 67.9 percent this season.
Freshman DeLeon Eskridge rushed 26 times for a career-high 124 yards with two TDs versus Illinois and has 478 yards and seven TDs on the season.
Though the Gophers allowed 550 total yards to Illinois, they give up 18.7 points per game, compared to 36.7 in 2007. Minnesota also ranks among the national leaders with a turnover margin of plus-12.
“We’ve gotten bigger. We’ve gotten faster and stronger. Guys are getting more confident in their game, and that comes with experience,” Decker said.
Minnesota hopes its experience pays off at Purdue, which has won the last two meetings and nine of 10 overall against the Gophers, including 45-31 last season.
While Decker caught seven passes and a TD from Weber in that contest, Purdue’s Curtis Painter was 33-for-48 for 338 yards with three touchdowns in the win. Kory Sheets rushed 21 times for 111 yards and a touchdown for the Boilermakers.
Though Painter moved into second all-time in the conference with 919 completions last Saturday, he continued to struggle, throwing three interceptions in a 48-26 loss at Northwestern. The senior was benched early, but returned after backup Joey Elliott was injured.
Painter has thrown for 1,726 yards this season, but has completed 56.2 percent of his passes with six TDs and nine interceptions.
Sheets, who needs 267 rushing yards to reach 1,000 in a season for the first time, ran for 168 yards and two touchdowns on 17 carries versus Northwestern. The senior has 10 TDs and continues to be the Boilermakers’ most consistent offensive performer.
“I can’t do it all by myself,” Sheets said. “Everybody’s coming to me saying, ‘Sheets, get the offense going.’ I do something good then something bad happens. I need some help.”
Though the Boilermakers offense has been inconsistent, defensively they are last in the conference, allowing 407.4 yards per game.
Purdue, which hasn’t dropped five in a row since losing six straight in 2005, tries to snap a 17-game losing streak to Top 25 opponents dating to a 27-14 win over then-No. 10 Iowa on Nov. 8, 2003.