The University of Minnesota started playing football in what’s now the Big Ten in 1896. When it comes to conference rivalries, you will not find much in the way of zaniness to compare with the eight games played between the Gophers and the Purdue Boilermakers leading to this century.
The Gophers scored 278 points in those eight games from 1993 to 2000, an average of 34.8, and went 2-6. Jim Wacker was 8-32 in the Big Ten from 1992 through 1996 as Gophers coach, and two of the victories were in the Metrodome against Purdue: 59-56 in 1993 and 39-38 in 1995. In between, the 1994 Gophers lost 49-37 at Ross-Ade Stadium.
Those three games resulted in a total of 278 points and 3,356 total yards. Wacker and Purdue’s Jim Colletto were fired after the 1996 season. Glen Mason came to Minnesota, and Joe Tiller brought the Big Ten’s first spread offense to Purdue.
The Boilermakers described Tiller’s offense as “basketball on grass.” The first time Tyrone Carter encountered it was on the Metrodome’s turf, as a Gophers sophomore safety in 1997.
“That spread … we had no real experience against it,” Carter said. “It was wild to face it, and that was before [Drew] Brees started playing.”
This was Mason’s first Big Ten home game. The final was Purdue 59, Gophers 43. Billy Dicken completed 10 passes as Purdue’s quarterback — five for touchdowns, three of which covered 65, 89 and 93 yards.
“Dicken is really good,” Mason said. “I don’t know how tall he is or how much he weighs, but he’s the kid on the playground who is going to beat you.”
Mason hadn’t seen anything yet. Brees was a true freshman and a little-used backup to Dicken in 1997. Tiller had recruited Brees out of Austin, Texas, with the promise of an offense that would turn a 5-foot-11 quarterback into a star.
The first start Brees made in the Big Ten was as a sophomore vs. the Gophers on Oct. 3, 1998, at Purdue. Final: Boilermakers, 56-21.
At halftime, Brees had completed 21 of 25 passes for 368 yards and four touchdowns. He threw two more touchdown passes in the first 5½ minutes of the second half for a 49-7 lead. His final numbers were 31-for-36 for Purdue records of 522 yards and six touchdowns.
“All the things you see now, we saw in him 20 years ago,” Carter said. “Getting rid of the ball. Going right away to the mismatch. Hitting receivers on the run. You couldn’t blitz him; the ball was gone too fast.
“And, of course, his accuracy … that was superb.”
The Gophers tried to play man-to-man for the most of that afternoon in West Lafayette, Ind. Purdue responded with 692 yards of total offense.
“And we were a lot better defensively that season than the year before,” Carter said. “It was Brees.”
A year later, the Boilermakers came to the Metrodome in late October and had to work much harder for a 33-28 victory.
“Minnesota’s defense was totally different,” Brees said postgame. “Last year, it was all man coverage. This year, they had maybe three snaps of man coverage … but we recognized what they were doing.”
Purdue went run-heavy for that victory. Brees was 28 of 41 for 283 yards with two touchdowns. It was the last college meeting for Carter and Brees. Carter, all 5-foot-9 of him, went on to win the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation’s top defensive back.
“We had the same passion for football,” Carter said. “And we had that underdog connection, too. Brees had people saying he was too short to be a great quarterback. I had people saying I was too short to play football, period.”
Brees had one more game against the Gophers: a 38-24 victory in the 2000 Big Ten opener at Purdue. Brees completed 23 passes for 299 yards by halftime, and finished 33 of 49 for 409 yards.
In three victories against the Gophers, Brees was 92-for-127 for 1,214 yards, 10 touchdowns and no interceptions, while taking two sacks.
“I was a year ahead of him and played 11 years in the NFL,” Carter said. “Brees is still going seven years after I was done. You hear a lot about the commitment of Tom Brady. You don’t hear as much about Brees. He’s 39 [on Monday] … and playing like he did last Sunday against Carolina?
“Drew Brees is as committed as anyone you’re going to find in football.”
Carter laughed slightly and said: “I couldn’t get him in college, but I got him by one in the NFL. I have two Super Bowl rings [with Pittsburgh]. Drew only has one.”
The Vikings are 5-point favorites to keep it that way against Brees and the Saints on Sunday.