It was over, wasn’t it?
When Purdue’s offense bumbled its way to four first-half turnovers against Minnesota Saturday, there was no way a team with such a small margin for error, a team that lives in West Lafayette, could overcome such adversity.
And yet the Boilermakers trailed only 14-6 at halftime.
But it was still over, wasn’t it?
When the Gophers drained nearly eight minutes from the clock upon returning from the field after a nearly 90-minute storm delay, converting a pair of fourth-and-shorts, to kick a field goal to take a one-point lead with only 2:26 left.
And yet the Boilermakers marched 56 yards in 79 seconds to go ahead by five, then cashed in on a two-point conversion to make it seven.
But there was no way Purdue was going to hold on, right?
Not when it went to nickel defense and the Gophers had one of those that-didn’t-just-happen plays that so often do happen to Purdue — a cornerback just missing an interception only to have the receiver bobble it and then secure it to set up Minnesota inside Purdue territory with 49 seconds left.
Not when Minnesota sits only 27 yards away from a game-tying touchdown with 23 seconds left.
And yet there was Ja’Whaun Bentley, the guy who couldn’t play in the first half because of a second-half ejection the previous week, stepping in front of a pass and instead of picking it off and laying down — probably the safest play, considering the soaking of the field from said storm delay — he trucked it 76 yards to the end zone.
Then, it was over.
And Purdue, officially, had overcome.
Again and again and again.
The Boilermakers won ugly, won tough, won with fight 31-17 and beat a Big Ten team in their home stadium for the first time since Oct. 31, 2015, a span of eight games.
And they savored it.
After the game, there was no containing D.J. Knox. The junior running back whose 44-yard kickoff return sparked the final go-ahead drive — and who also had a TD catch — was practically bursting, unable to stand still, unable to keep that toothpaste-commercial smile off his face.
“It feels so good,” said a laughing Knox. “Like, it just feels so good because I feel like we put in so much hard work for so many years and really had nothing to show for it. It’s gratifying to see that we can get out and make plays and keep fighting as a team. It just shows how close we’ve become as a team and how much we want to, just, perform.”
After the game, Danny Ezechukwu, who forced another fumble, shook his head, made a face and unleashed a considerable “uhhh,” among other things, when he was asked the last time Purdue won a game like this.
It’s his fifth season.
“Something like this really doesn’t come to my memory since I’ve been here,” he said, smiling soon after, realizing the special moment. “It felt really good to leg this one out and stay the course and really just continue playing hard.
“I just think we proved, more or less, that we belong. That we can play and we can make plays and that we can stay the course even if bad things happen to us and we can depend on one another. Offense was depending on us and special teams (Saturday). … We just showed that we could depend on each other and we count on each other to do what we need to do to get wins.”
The offense, yes, needed help.
David Blough, who started his third consecutive game at quarterback despite injuring a shoulder in the last game, threw two first-half interceptions, including one in the end zone. Elijah Sindelar lost a fumble. Receiver Terry Wright lost a fumble.
That meant Purdue’s defense had to trot onto the field with Minnesota’s offense lining up at the Boilermakers’ 39, their 37, Minnesota’s 43 and on the 20 after the red zone INT. The Gophers got two touchdowns on those four drives, and that was it.
“I love my defense. We turned the ball over four times, and they saved us,” Knox said.
Purdue’s rally to take a 16-14 lead just before the weather delay seemed short-lived — even if it, technically, held the lead for a really long time in actual time.
Because Minnesota came out, with the rain still coming down, and meticulously ticked off yard after yard, moving the ball 62 yards in seven minutes, 32 seconds, to kick a 38-yard field goal to regain the lead, 17-16.
Purdue’s defense stared down fourth-and-shorts twice on that drive, but Minnesota churned out just what it needed — a one-yard run on fourth-and-one, a four-yard run on fourth-and-one — to keep moving the chains. Finally, on a third-and-four, T.J. McCollum got low and held on with everything he had to the ballcarrier to force the field goal.
And it was up to Purdue’s offense.
“The built up anger of losing, we weren’t going to let that affect us,” running back Markell Jones said.
So the Boilermakers fought.
Knox broke free on the kickoff return, setting Purdue up near midfield. Then, on third-and-three, Sindelar found Anthony Mahoungou for a 37-yard completion to Minnesota’s 12 with 1:23 left. On the next play, Jones got a handoff and raced toward the right tackle, staring down Minnesota’s cornerback. A quick jump cut left the DB in the dust, and Jones raced to the end zone for the go-ahead TD.
And screamed ’til he was out of breath.
And, seconds later, Bentley ran until he was out of breath to cap an important victory, not only because of how it was accomplished, not only because it helps the bowl-type stakes for this turnaround season, not only because of the character it revealed, but because of who it was in honor of.
“We found a way to get it done. In the end to pull out the win, it was great for our team because it just shows, you stick to it, anything can happen,” Coach Jeff Brohm said. “As I told our team after, this one is for Coach Tiller. This is the way he taught to play the game, when he preached playing tough football, finding a way to win, and we’re happy to win this on a day we honor him.”
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