The Gophers will try to end their two-game losing streak Saturday night against No. 21 Michigan State without four starters, including three players who were injured against Purdue.
Safety Antoine Winfield Jr., who suffered a hamstring injury early in the Sept. 30 loss to Maryland and missed the Purdue game, won’t play against the Spartans. That will leave the Gophers without their best defensive playmaker and the player they like to match up against an opponent’s best offensive threat.
In addition, cornerback Kiondre Thomas (leg), wide receiver Phillip Howard (head) and offensive tackle Nick Connelly (leg) — all starters who were injured against the Boilermakers — won’t play Saturday.
Senior safety Duke McGhee, who sat out the past two games because of a disciplinary suspension, will “possibly be back,” coach P.J. Fleck said. “We’ll see how his week of practices goes.”
The injuries have forced the Gophers to exhaust their depth and play youngsters throughout the lineup. They have used 13 either redshirt or true freshmen this season. Freshmen and sophomores replaced Thomas, Howard and Connelly on Saturday.
Michigan State (4-1) comes to town having won both of its Big Ten games, including Saturday’s 14-10 upset of then-No. 7 Michigan. The week before, the Spartans beat Iowa 17-10.
Rhoda is Fleck’s QB
Fleck reiterated that Conor Rhoda will remain the starting quarterback.
“I have expectations, but if there was the better answer today, I would have somebody else in there. That’s not the better answer,” Fleck said. “He’s the better answer for our football team. He’s proven that he can run this offense very efficiently. But he’s also made mistakes. What I want to be able to say is, ‘Watch him grow from those mistakes.’ ”
Rhoda completed 11 of 25 passes for 101 yards and two touchdowns in the 31-17 loss at Purdue. He also lost a fumble at the Boilermakers 7-yard-line and threw a fourth-down interception from the Purdue 27 that was returned 76 yards for a touchdown with 10 seconds left in the game.
Last week, Demry Croft, who began the season as the co-starter with Rhoda, returned to the team after missing two games because of a disciplinary suspension.
Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio drew praise from Fleck for how he was willing to play the coach’s Western Michigan team in Kalamazoo in 2015. Teams from Power Five conferences rarely travel to non-Power Five opponents. The Spartans got two home games in the deal and Western Michigan got one.
“It was incredibly selfless of Mark Dantonio,” said Fleck, whose Broncos team lost 37-24 to the Spartans. “One thing that really makes him special is he gets the greater picture than just football. … He understood how important it was for the Western Michigans, Central Michigans and Eastern Michigans to have Michigan State inside their stadiums, to help the state of Michigan.”
Tip of cap to Tiller
The Gophers-Purdue game on Saturday featured several tributes to former Boilermakers coach Joe Tiller, who died on Sept. 30 at age 74. But it turns out, one of the tributes came during play.
Purdue coach Jeff Brohm called for a bubble screen — one of Tiller’s favorite plays — on the Boilermakers’ first play from scrimmage. David Blough passed to Terry Wright for a 2-yard gain.
“I did want to sneak in a bubble screen right off the bat in honor of Coach Tiller, and I thought it would get more yards,” Brohm said. “When we lined up to an empty set and they walk everybody out with no linebackers in the box area, I’m like, OK, [chuckling] not really the look I thought we’d get.”
Illinois at 2:30 p.m.
The Gophers’ Oct. 21 homecoming game against Illinois will be a 2:30 p.m. kickoff on Big Ten Network.
Gophers notes 7 p.m. Saturday vs. Michigan State (BTN)