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Feat of Claeys: Winning makes things fun in Minnesota

Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire

Minnesota is having fun. It’s pretty easy to see why.

“Right now, everybody is in a pretty good mood. We’ve won three in a row, and winning solves a lot of problems,” coach Tracy Claeys told reporters in Minneapolis this week.

The Golden Gophers could have sunk into the abyss after losing a heartbreaking 14-7 decision to rival Iowa on Oct. 8. Making matters worse, starting quarterback Mitch Leidner suffered a concussion in that contest.

Instead, they responded.

Without Leidner, they knocked off one-loss Maryland, 31-10, in College Park. They followed it with wins against Rutgers and Illinois. While not exactly the Big Ten’s elite, wins are wins and confidence had been restored for the home stretch.

Claeys believes a strong bond keeps his guys together even when times get tough. They’re hoping to keep the positive vibes rolling Saturday when they host Purdue (2:30 p.m. CT, BTN).

“Being in the locker room after the Illinois game, and also practice, I mean, they have fun at practice, and we’ve had great energy,” he said. “You can just tell that, for the kids that are playing, they’re playing well. The kids that are on the work teams and giving us the scout looks each week have done a good job.”

Minnesota already has qualified for a bowl game, its fifth in a row. It’s trying to raise the prominence of its postseason event and also attempting to win the Big Ten West Division. At 3-2 in conference, it likely must win out for that to happen.

The Gophers (6-2 overall) face the division leader, Nebraska, next week. They also meet fellow second-place teams Northwestern and Wisconsin. They can’t get caught looking ahead to those three contests because they’ll lose meaning if they trip up against Purdue.

“When we’re here in the building, they need to work on respecting their opponent, and they’ve done a good job with that here lately, and we’ll have to continue,” Claeys said. “We’ve got four tough games left, and we need to make sure we continue to take them one at a time.’

It’s been another disappointing year for Purdue (3-5 overall, 1-4 Big Ten). The school fired head coach Darrell Hazell Oct. 16 and turned the team over to Gerad Parker on an interim basis.

In Parker’s first game running the show, the Boilermakers led at then No. 8 Nebraska, 14-10, at halftime only to fall 27-14. Last Saturday, they were tied with then No. 24 Penn State, 17-17, at the break only to collapse in the 62-24 loss.

Purdue quarterback David Blough leads the Big Ten in passing yards per game (293.3) and touchdowns thrown (16). He also paces the conference in interceptions (12).

“They like to throw it around, and they’re skilled at wide receiver,” Claeys said.

“They get the ball out in space, and just some good athletes. We’re going to have to have a great job of tackling. I think the yards after the catch and keeping the ball in front of us will be a big determination over whether we can win, and the same thing will be with the pressure, you know? Just trying to get us pressure without as many people going, so, it increases your chances of tackling in space.”

Minnesota should be able to unleash its dynamic duo at running back. Tailbacks Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks can feats on a defense allowing 250 rushing yards a game, the 13th worst average in the Big Ten (Rutgers).

The Gophers have started utilizing Smith and Brooks on the field at the same time. They wanted to get two of their best playmakers working together.

“I think both tailbacks on the field at the same time has helped us a little bit with one split out and one in the backfield and vice versa,” Claeys said, “but it all comes down to we can find ways to run the ball. I believe that. But eventually we’re going to have to be more efficient in throwing it.”

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