The Minnesota Golden Gophers football team will go from playing in a top traditional rivalry game last week to head coach P.J. Fleck’s budding personal grudge match on Friday night. From the Battle for Floyd of Rosedale to what seems to be a kind of unofficial Bowl Against Brohm.
Minnesota’s intra-West Division matchup against Purdue doesn’t have the ubiquitous animosity of trophy games with Iowa or Wisconsin, but the Gophers' 38-31 win over the Boilermakers in 2019 stirred plenty of friction.
In the days leading up to the teams’ game in West Lafayette, Ind., last September, Fleck was agitated by a quote from Purdue’s top defender Derrick Barnes in the Fort Wayne (Ind.) Journal Gazette. To set it up, in 2018, Purdue had beaten No. 2 Ohio State, lost to unranked Michigan State and then beat No. 19 Iowa over three weeks, while Minnesota was 4-5 and had just fired defensive coordinator Robb Smith after a dismal loss to Illinois.
The Gophers then beat Purdue 41-10 at TCF Bank Stadium, one year after Purdue beat Minnesota 31-17 at home in 2017.
“I wouldn’t say we had the mindset of we were about to blow (the Gophers) off the field,” Barnes said. “But this is a team we beat the previous year, so we knew that if we come out and play harder … and played strong we could have blown them out of the water.”
Fleck had copies of the story distributed to each player during the week leading up to last year’s game. Afterward, Fleck gripped a copy of that story as he spoke to reporters.
“I do everything I can to educate our players on how to be able to talk to the media and respect all of you, respect your teammates, respect who you are going to play,” Fleck said.
Fans can read between the lines about who Fleck was referring to in that comment. But less than an hour prior, fans could plainly see how Fleck barely broke stride for his postgame handshake with Brohm at midfield of Ross-Ade Stadium.
Fleck and Brohm’s careers have run parallel in the Big Ten, with both coming into the conference in 2017. But they diverge in many other ways.
Fleck often dresses up in a full suit, or necktie and zip-up on game days; Brohm seems to be in a polo or hoodie when he isn’t at Big Ten media days.
Fleck is loquacious, going on a 809-word rambling answer Monday about the direction of his program, while Brohm’s answers are often brief. Fleck reads his team children’s stories and does countless other things to motivate, while Brohm comes across as no frills.
On the field, Brohm had earlier success at Purdue, going 7-5 and a bowl win in 2017, while Fleck went 5-7 and stayed home that December. In 2018, both went to bowl games, with Auburn throttling Purdue 63-14 in the Music City Bowl, while Minnesota ran over Georgia Tech 34-10 in the Quick Lane Bowl.
Last season, the Gophers peaked to 11-2 and won 31-24 over Auburn in the Outback Bowl, while Purdue lost quarterback Elijah Sindelar and star receiver Rondale Moore early in the game against Minnesota and slumped to 4-8.
At Minnesota, Fleck is 2-1 against Brohm, but it looks as if Brohm is more likely to even the head-to-head record Friday. The Boilermakers (2-1) are 2.5.-point road favorites against the Gophers (1-3).
“We’ve got to win at a place that we haven’t done very well at,” Brohm said this week. “… Minnesota had a tremendous year last year. You don’t go 11-2 and beat Auburn in a bowl game without having a lot of great things. These guys have some really good players coming back. …
“They just happened to get in a few games this year where they got down and it’s hard to kind of climb out of that hole, and that can happen to anybody.”
Brohm is known for his creative offensive schemes, especially during a highly successful run at Western Kentucky that led to his hiring at Purdue. He has been putting receiver David Bell in spots to be successful, and the sophomore is second in the Big Ten with 107 receiving yards per game.
Plus, Moore, the 2018 Big Ten receiver of the year, could make his season debut Friday after dealing with a lower-body injury that kept him out of the first three games this fall. Brohm has said he’s hopeful for Moore’s return against the Gophers.
“As far as their receiver corps, they have got a lot skill and they do a good job of throwing the football and getting it into their playmaker hands,” Gophers defensive coordinator Joe Rossi said. “So we have to be a aware of where those guys are and we’ve got to make sure that we keep them in front of us, but we’ve also got to make sure that we are contesting throws. It’s one thing to keep it in front, and it’s another thing to be able to contest it. We’ve got to be able to do both.”
That one-two playmaking punch at receiver would be a big problem for the Gophers, who will play without a starting cornerback; Benjamin St-Juste was ruled out for the Hawkeyes game with COVID-19 and will be out 21 days.
His absence is just the latest in a long line which have contributed (along with NFL departures and recruiting misses) to the Gophers being one of the youngest and most porous defenses in the country. Minnesota has been allowing 7.85 yards per play, which ranks 125th out of 126 programs in the country.
While Fleck, like Brohm, is an offensive-centric coach, the task of stopping Brohm’s offense falls primarily on Rossi.
Brohm “is a very good play-caller. He runs a really good offense,” Rossi said. “… There is going to be some things that change. There is going to be some different routes, but if you focus on the concepts, it gives you an opportunity to be prepared for everything you are going to see.”
And we’ll all see how Fleck and Brohm greet each other on Minnesota’s block “M” logo for that postgame handshake.