WEST LAFAYETTE, IND. — When the Big Ten released its availability report Saturday, two hours before the Gophers' 49-30 loss at Purdue, one name stood out that suggested Minnesota's defense could have a challenging afternoon on its hands.
Linebacker Cody Lindenberg was listed as questionable.
In many cases, a player listed as questionable ends up playing, such as running back Zach Evans last week against Illinois. In Lindenberg's case, however, he was back on the availability report after missing the season's first seven games because of a leg injury. He played in the previous two games — in a limited role against Michigan State and full-go against Illinois, against whom he made 11 tackles and forced a fumble that led to a fourth-quarter touchdown for the Gophers.
Defensive coordinator Joe Rossi said he thought Lindenberg had his best career game against Illinois. So, when the fourth-year sophomore from Anoka wasn't taking part in early pregame warmups with his fellow linebackers and was walking with a limp, it was clear the Gophers were getting bad news.
The news quickly got worse. Redshirt freshman Maverick Baranowski, Lindenberg's backup, suffered an apparent shoulder injury on the Gophers' first defensive series and did not return to the game. That left true freshman Matt Kingsbury and redshirt freshman Tyler Stolsky to man a position that's so important for the Gophers.
"We're decimated right now at the linebacker position," Gophers coach P.J. Fleck said. "We've got some guys playing that position right now who haven't played college football. … Kingsbury played tonight as a true freshman. That's not where we want to be."
The issues at linebacker weren't totally responsible for the Gophers losing — giving up 604 yards and 49 points applies to a lot of players and coaches — but they did play a part. Fleck listed it among the reasons for Saturday's loss, and he knows others will say that's an excuse. Whatever the nomenclature, it's the Gophers' reality on a season that has taken a downward turn.
The Gophers beat Iowa 12-10 on Oct. 21 and ended an eight-game losing streak in the Floyd of Rosedale series. A 27-12 win over Michigan State followed, and the Gophers were 5-3 overall and sitting atop the Big Ten West Division with a 3-2 record. But the late defensive collapse in a 27-26 loss to Illinois and Saturday's beatdown leave Minnesota at 5-5 and desperate for a win just to reach bowl eligibility.
With two weeks left in the regular season — the Gophers travel to Ohio State on Saturday and finish at home against Wisconsin on Nov. 25 — Fleck knows any help must come from within. Injured players need to return to health, and the young backups must quickly mature.
"I know the reasons, and those reasons equal 'time,'" he said. "I'd love to be able to sit there and wave a magic wand, but it's time. We've got to get some guys back on the field. We've got to get healthy. Unfortunately, that's the position we're in right now."
That's not only at linebacker. The Gophers' running back corps has been spread thin, too. Jordan Nubin, a converted defensive back, was fifth on the pecking order entering the season but now is their starter. The return to health of true freshman Darius Taylor, who's missed the past three games because of a leg injury, and of redshirt freshman Zach Evans, who was limited to five carries on Saturday, would boost the Gophers backfield.
"We were not good enough tonight for a lot of reasons," Fleck said. "We'll go back to work [Sunday]. And then we'll find those reasons, work on those reasons all week long and then go play the No. 1 team in the country. What a great opportunity."