One of the more impressive stories out of college football’s 2017 season has been the considerable improvement and success of Purdue under first-year head coach Jeff Brohm.
The Boilermakers (3–2, 1–1 Big Ten) played tight with quarterback Lamar Jackson and Louisville in their season opening, 35–28 loss, then also held a lead against Michigan at halftime before losing 28–10.
While everyone is talking about a revamped offense that’s averaging over 400 yards and nearly 30 points per game, Purdue’s defense is holding opponents to just under 21 points per contest.
On Saturday, the No. 7 Wisconsin Badgers (5–0, 2–0) welcome Purdue to Camp Randall Stadium in what should be an intriguing match-up.
The turnaround at Purdue has been remarkable, though we’re nearly midway through the season. What's been the most impressive part of Jeff Brohm’s early success so far?
I would say the defense. Yes, he is an offensive-minded coach, but what Nick Holt has done defensively is mind-blowing. The last few years Purdue would have needed to show improvement just to be moribund. Purdue gave up 38.2 points per game last season and 238.2 yards per game on the ground. So far Holt’s defense, using mostly the same players, is light years better. It has limited teams to 20.8 points per game and 151 yards per game on the ground.
Even beyond the stats, they passed the eye test. The loss to Louisville was more because of the individual brilliance of Lamar Jackson because his running backs did very little. Purdue held Michigan’s running game in check until a late 49 yard TD run against an exhausted defense finally got them over 100 yards. They gave up 200+ yards to Minnesota, but the gophers had two big runs and basically gave up on trying to pass.
Yes, the offense is slightly better, but Purdue’s defense has shown vast improvement to “slightly competent” from “completely atrocious”.
Who’s injured for the Boilermakers heading into Saturday’s game, and how would that affect the team this weekend?
We have a couple of big injuries that could have an effect. Tario Fuller, our leading rusher, will miss his third straight game. Fortunately, Markell Jones was able to return last week and he had a nice game against the Gophers that included the winning touchdown. Jones is probably Purdue’s best all-around back, and last week was his first significant action of the season.
T.J. McCollum, Purdue’s leading tackler and a Western Kentucky grad transfer, got injured on the final play of the game and is a question mark for Saturday. He has been a huge part of Purdue’s defensive turnaround and we should learn more about him this week. Purdue also lost some depth on the defensive line when Keiwan Jones was lost against Minnesota.
I am extremely excited to watch Purdue’s offense on Saturday from the press box. How has Brohm utilized quarterbacks David Blough and Elijah Sindelar, and who are the other players to watch on this side of the ball?
I am usually against a two-QB system but Brohm has made it work so far. He seems to know when one guy cools off to put the other in. For the most part Blough has been better, but Saturday he threw two bad interceptions and gave way to Sindelar, who ignited the offense in the second half. Blough was virtually perfect on the first three drives at Missouri and had an excellent game against Ohio, while Sindelar started strong against Louisville and finished strong last week.
In terms of other guys Purdue has had a lot of success moving the chains with Cole Herdman and Brycen Hopkins at tight end. They have 23 combined receptions and are big targets we like to go to over the middle. They also have five touchdowns. Jackson Anthrop has been a great slot receiver that just needs a little space to make a big play. He has 21 catches for 207 yards and 4 touchdowns (all four have come from Sindelar). Terry Wright has also looked good at making plays with his speed.
Where has the defense improved the most from last year and this year? Who could give Wisconsin fits inside Camp Randall Stadium?
It has improved everywhere. Last season Purdue tried to go with a 4-2-5 scheme despite having strength at linebacker and weaknesses in the secondary. It was a disaster. Maryland boatraced us for 400+ yards on the ground. Stephen Hawking could have rushed for 125 and two scores on us a season ago, or really at any point in the past 8 years.
This year Purdue has four solid linebackers and it has them aggressively going to the ball instead of trying to diagnose run or pass first. It has paid off tremendously. Ja’Whaun Bentley is having an excellent senior season in the middle and was rewarded with the game-clinching pick-six on Saturday. Markus Bailey is having an excellent sophomore season and Danny Ezechukwu is leading the nation in fumble recoveries playing as a hybrid defensive end/linebacker.
Minnesota ran for 227 yards vs. Purdue, and Blough has thrown four interceptions this season. On both sides of the ball, where can Wisconsin exploit weaknesses?
Most of the reason Minnesota ran for 227 is because they completely abandoned the passing game. 91 of their 227 yards came on two plays as Brooks and Smith each broke a 40+ run. Take away those two plays and Purdue held them to three yards a carry. Michigan broke their big run because our defense was exhausted from being on the field the entire game. Minnesota broke their two because Bentley and starting safety Jacob Theineman were suspended for the first half due to targeting penalties against Michigan. Once they were back the defense got better.
Blough has been a little up and down. He threw two picks each against Louisville and Minnesota, but in the other four games he looked really good. Michigan is the only team to really limit Purdue defensively and that is because they got constant pressure on both quarterbacks. They forced Purdue into incompletions and completely took away the running game.
Keys to the game, and your prediction?
As always, Purdue needs to slow down the Wisconsin running game. I don’t have enough time to run off all the big Montee Ball, Ron Dayne, Corey Clement, and more rushing games that Badger backs have had against Purdue. The Wisconsin formula is simple: put a good running back (this year, Jonathan Taylor) behind several large men knocking down everyone in front of him and repeat. That’s all Wisconsin has needed to do against Purdue and for 11 straight games it has worked. Until Purdue stops that, our fortune in the series won’t change.
Offensively, Purdue can’t make many of the mistakes it did against Minnesota. We were very lucky to only be down eight points at halftime with four turnovers. We turned it around in the second half and that built confidence for this team, but it doesn’t mean I want to try it again. Last week was the type of game that would have devolved into a 45-13 blowout loss under Hazell. This team actually plays with confidence and believes it can overcome mistakes. That’s the biggest difference, really.
I don’t expect to beat the Badgers. You’re better in almost every phase. Still, if there is a team from the last 10 years that is going to break this streak it is this one. Crazier things have happened, and we probably have a better chance than people gave Iowa State at Oklahoma last week.