New coaches eager to square off in Minnesota-Purdue game
By Michael Marot
AP Sports Writer
P.J. Fleck spent 11 seasons building his coaching resume.
By last fall, the former NFL receiver was on coaching wish lists for many schools.
Some thought Fleck’s Midwestern roots might be a perfect fit at Purdue. But when the Boilermakers hired Jeff Brohm, Fleck wound up at Minnesota — and neither school can quibble with the results. On Saturday, the two first-year coaches who have their programs off to surprising starts will meet in a crucial game in West Lafayette.
“I think he’s a guy that wants to win. He’s excited to be where he’s at,” Brohm said. “He’s in a great situation. He’s with a very good football team.”
Fleck inherited a team that finished 9-4 and still had some cornerstone players to build around. So Minnesota went with an old-school combination, a time-consuming ground game (180.8 yards) and a stingy defense (13.8 points).
The result: Minnesota won its first three games. Last weekend, in a conference-opening loss to Maryland, the Golden Gophers were exposed. The running game was virtually non-existent, quarterback Conor Rhoda threw two interceptions and the defense struggled, making this game even more crucial if Minnesota (3-1, 0-1 Big Ten) plans to become bowl-eligible.
Still, Brohm is impressed with what he’s seen.
“They do a great job of controlling the tempo, controlling the ball,” he said. “And when they do not turn it over, they are always going to be in the game.”
Fleck happens to be a big fan of Brohm, who has the Boilermakers (2-2, 0-1) showing some promise. After five consecutive losing seasons and four straight years without a bowl bid, Purdue has led at halftime of every game this season including matchups with No. 8 Michigan and No. 16 Louisville. The next step is finishing off those games so they can become bowl-eligible.
And Fleck’s concern is not allowing that to happen this weekend after Brohm had two weeks to prepare for the game.
“Coach Brohm is one of the best coaches in the country, always has been, one of the best offensive minds in the game,” Fleck said. “He’s really captivated Purdue, you can see it already.”
Here are some other things to watch:
The biggest question facing Purdue this week: Who starts at quarterback? David Blough left the Michigan game after re-injuring his throwing shoulder. Blough has practiced this week, though Brohm wouldn’t say if he’d play this weekend. If he doesn’t, Brohm will go with the other quarterback in his rotation — sophomore Elijah Sindelar.
Brohm isn’t the only one in his coaching family who appreciates what Fleck has accomplished. His 12-year-old son, Brady, contacted Fleck last season to get some coaching tips. The middle schooler and the Minnesota have continued corresponding, but there’s no word out of West Lafayette if the elder Brohm is trying to get some helpful hints from his son about how to counter Fleck’s strategy.
Purdue’s improved defense is likely to start Saturday’s game without three key defensive starters: Linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley, safety Jacob Thieneman and defensive end Austin Larkin. Bentley and Thieneman are suspended for the first half after being called for targeting against Michigan. Larkins suffered a sprained ankle against the Wolverines.
Minnesota won’t be at full strength, either. Fleck said he’s “leaning toward” holding out safety Antoine Winfield Jr., who hurt his hamstring in last week’s loss to Maryland. Receiver Demetrius Douglas’ undisclosed season-ending injury leaves the Gophers thin at that position, too.
One week after Joe Tiller died, both teams plan to honor the Boilermakers’ winningest coach.
Purdue plans to hold a moment of silence before the national anthem; will wear helmets that replicate the ones worn during Tiller’s tenure and include a tribute sticker; will present the Tiller family with a commemorative football and will play a video tribute at halftime. School officials had already planned to celebrate the 20-year reunion of the 1997 Alamo Bowl team that surprised many in his first season and won over a skeptical fan base.
Minnesota also will wear a special logo in honor of Tiller, who Fleck called one of the best coaches in Big Ten history.