MINNEAPOLIS — Purdue has made great strides in turning around its football program. But the Boilermakers were given a painful reminder on Saturday that there's still room for them to improve.
"When you play the way we played, these are hard ones," said Boilermakers head coach Darrell Hazell, whose team won just one game last year in his first season at Purdue. "You're so close and you've got a chance to win it several times, and then you don't succeed, that's a hard loss.
Sophomore quarterback Austin Appleby threw three first-half touchdown passes for the Boilermakers (3-5, 1-3 Big Ten), but the offense stalled after taking a 31-20 lead into the locker room at the break. Appleby's 1-yard plunge midway through the third quarter provided Purdue's only second-half points, and he was only 4 for 10 for 18 yards in the second half.
"We've got to do a better job of coming out of the locker room at halftime and keeping the foot on the gas pedal and continue to run points up," said Appleby, who was making his third career start. "We're good enough to hang 60 (points). We really are. There's no reason why we can't, there's no reason why we shouldn't, and that starts with the quarterback."
That confidence stems in part from the explosive play of running backs Raheem Mostert and Akeem Hunt, who gave Minnesota's defense fits all day. Mostert rushed for 115 yards on five carries while Hunt added 98 yards on 17 attempts, his fourth straight game with at least 90 rushing yards.
But Purdue's bid to spoil the 100th homecoming at Minnesota (6-1, 3-0) fell excruciatingly short, due in part to a mishap on the first play from scrimmage that set the Gophers up for a quick 7-0 lead. Releasing the ball as he was being hit, Appleby threw it straight into Minnesota safety Cedric Thompson. The senior returned it to the 2, and Cobb carried the ball in on the next snap with just 20 seconds elapsed on the clock for the fastest score by Minnesota in four seasons under Kill.
But Appleby wasn't rattled. On Purdue's next possession he found Danny Anthrop on a bubble screen that turned into an untouched sprint for 55 yards to tie.
Anthrop wasn't surprised by the way his team's young quarterback responded to his first pass being intercepted.
"He's a resilient kid," Anthrop said. "That was the first play for us and when he came back to the sideline there was no, 'Well, here we go again.' It was a hungry team and I'm glad we got the opportunity to make some explosive plays right there after. Austin Appleby is really the commander of this offense, so after that happened, there was no doubt what we were going to do the rest of the game."
Purdue's team speed, especially on offense, frequently exposed Minnesota's defense. The four touchdown drives by the Boilermakers in the first half covered an average of 74 yards. Mostert put Purdue in front for the first time at 21-20 with a 42-yard burst, then tore through the Minnesota front again midway through the third quarter. His 69-yard gain set up a touchdown run by Appleby that stretched the lead to 38-29.
But Minnesota rallied with key stops on Purdue's two final possessions. On fourth-and-1 from the Gophers 30, Hazell passed on a long field goal attempt that could have put Purdue up by four points with just over 8 minutes to play.
"It didn't surprise me," Minnesota coach Jerry Kill said of Purdue's decision to go for it. "I said we'd better be ready. ... I'm sure on the road they wanted to win the game. But our defense was prepared for them to run the ball."
Appleby was stacked up as he tried to go around right end and the Gophers took over, with Santoso nailing the game-winning field goal nine plays later.
Then, trying to drive his team into position for its own go-ahead field goal, Appleby's final pass of the day was picked off by Thompson with 2:28 remaining to seal it.
Afterward, nobody in the Purdue camp was clinging to a moral victory for taking first-place Minnesota down to the wire. But Anthrop admitted he likes what he's been seeing lately.
"These past few weeks we've seen a team that fights, and that's what our coaches really instill in us," the junior wide receiver said. "I think we're on the verge of a breakthrough. This one's going to hurt but we've just got to worry about the next one."
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