Purdue is one of the biggest surprises in the Big Ten this season. The Boilermakers kept Louisville and Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson on their heels most of the way in a 35-28 loss, and two weeks ago, battled Wisconsin 17-9 in Camp Randall. In September, Purdue dominated Frank Solich’s Ohio squad 44-21 and hapless Mizzou 35-3, though they did get blown out in the second half in a 28-10 loss to Michigan.
But last week, the Boilermakers did the most Purdue thing they could do: lost 14-12 to Rutgers. Purdue outgained 474 yards to just 217, with 74 of that coming on Rutgers’ second play of the game. Two turnovers and an inability to sustain drives until the closing minute doomed Purdue in this game. Still, new head coach Jeff Brohm is showing that it’s possible to show significant progress in your first “year one”.
Inconsistent quarterback play has been a major stumbling point for the Purdue offense. A shoulder injury in August sidelined presumed starter David Blough for much of preseason practice, giving Elijah Sindelar the chance to start against Louisville and Ohio. Both quarterbacks have rotated throughout the season, with Blough taking over the starting spot for the next three games until he threw a pair of interceptions against Minnesota. Sindelar started the last two games, but if you read the tea leaves, you might suspect that Blough will be the first quarterback in the game this weekend. Sindelar threw two interceptions against Rutgers, while Blough engineered a comeback drive late in the game. For the season, Blough has completed 67% of his 105 passes for 745 yards and eight touchdowns with four interceptions. Sindelar has completed 53% of his 148 attempts for 907 yards and six touchdowns with five interceptions. Blough has gained 54 yards on the ground this season, while Sindelar has lost seven yards net this season.
Sophomore Tario Fuller emerged from spring and summer as Purdue’s best running back, rushing for 261 yards and two touchdowns before being sidelined in week three against Missouri with an ankle injury. He’s missed the last four games, but could possibly return this week against the Huskers. D.J. Knox and Markell Jones have filled in, rushing for 236 and 140 yards respectively. Neither matches Fuller’s 6.1 yards per carry average.
Redshirt freshman Jackson Anthorp leads the Boilermaker receivers with 27 catches for 267 yards and four touchdowns; if the name sounds familiar, big brother Danny caught 10 passes for Purdue in 2015 in that mind-blowing loss for the Huskers. Senior Anthony Mohoungou is second with 20 catches for 300 yards and two scores, including a leaping one-handed touchdown catch in the final minute against Rutgers.
One of the biggest reasons for Purdue’s improvement this season is on defense. Last year, the Boilermaker were either last or next to last in the Big Ten in just about every defensive category. In 2017, the Boilermakers are ninth in scoring defense and total defense; that may not sound like much, but it IS improvement. Linebacker Jawhaun Bentley leads Purdue in tackles with 53 tackles and two forced fumbles, while fellow linebacker Markus Bailey is second with 49. Cornerback Josh Okonye leads the secondary with five pass breakups this season.
It’s interesting to note that despite only scoring one touchdown over the last two games, Purdue still is fourth in the Big Ten in red zone scoring, scoring nearly 89% of the time. (Nebraska is second worst in the Big Ten at 76%, for comparison purposes.) Clearly, Purdue is showing significant improvement this season, if not at quarterback, which explains why the Boilermakers are a touchdown favorite over the Huskers.
If that isn’t a sobering message to Husker Nation, I don’t know what would be.
After the jump, we’ll revisit our preseason preview of the Purdue Boilermakers.
In four years under Darrell Hazell's, Purdue only won four conference games, including one that will forever live in infamy. But a blowout loss to Iowa last October was the final straw; Hazell was fired at midseason and the Boilermakers finished the season 3-9. Enter Jeff Brohm, who went 30-10 the last three seasons at Western Kentucky, building on the foundation that Willie Taggart (2010-2012) and Bobby Petrino (2013) put in place.
Brohm has a legacy of developing quarterbacks who put up huge numbers through the air; at Western Kentucky, they each put up over 4,000 yards and 35 touchdowns all three seasons. Junior David Blough (6'1” 200 lbs.) could be next. He threw for 3,352 yards and 25 touchdowns last season. The big issue is cutting down on interceptions; he threw 21 last season. That's not expecting too much, as last season, Brohm tutored transfer Mike White from a 52% passer with 16 interceptions at South Florida into a second-team all-Conference USA quarterback with seven interceptions last season. That long touchdown run of Blough's against the Huskers in 2015 continues to be the exception; last season, he netted just 13 yards rushing for the season after subtracting sacks. Blough will be backed up by sophomore Elijah Sindelar (6'4” 206 lbs) who completed 14 of 32 passes last season for 165 yards in five relief outings.
The big concern in the Boilermakers' passing attack this season is the lack of experience with the wide receivers; last year's top four wideouts are gone, leaving just junior tight end Cole Herdman (6'4” 245 lbs.) as a returning starter. Herdman caught 35 passes for 344 yards and three touchdowns last season. Senior Gregory Phillips (6'0” 200 lbs.) is the leading returning receiver with 17 catches for 183 yards last season. Notre Dame graduate transfer Corey Holmes (6'1” 190 lbs.) arrives this spring to help provide some depth.
With so many questions with the receivers, Purdue will surely depend even more on their running backs. But since Brohm isn’t going to change who he is, it’ll be both through the air and on the ground. Junior Markell Jones (5’11” 205 lbs.) was the leading rusher last year with 616 yards and four touchdowns. He’s also the second leading returning receiver from last season, catching 32 passes for 215 yards. Sophomore Brian Lankford-Johnson (6’0” 195 lbs.) impressed in his one start last season against Illinois, but didn’t play much after that. He rushed for 314 yards and two touchdowns, but more importantly, averaged 6.5 yards per carry. Junior D.J. Knox (5’7” 206 lbs.) missed last season after tearing his ACL in the spring; he rushed for 409 yards in 2015.
Only two starters return on the offensive line, but the addition of graduate transfer David Steinmetz (6'8” 296 lbs.) should actually give Purdue better experience than they had last season. Steinmetz, a three year starter at Rhode Island, is slotted to play right tackle opposite of sophomore left tackle Matt McCann (6'6” 324 lbs.) this season. Junior center Kirk Barron (6'2” 305 lbs.) will be the leader of this group; he’s the most experienced offensive lineman with 13 career starts at Purdue.
Eight starters return for the Purdue defense; you decide if that’s good or not, considering that Purdue ranked at the bottom (or next to the bottom) of the Big Ten in all but one defensive statistic. It’s interesting to note that new co-defensive coordinator Anthony Poindexter spent the last three seasons as Bob Diaco’s defensive coordinator at UConn. He’ll team with Nick Holt, who was the defensive coordinator at Southern Cal from 2006-08 and Washington from 2009-11 before joining Brohm at Western Kentucky the last three seasons.
Senior Gelen Robinson (6’1” 283 lbs.) is sliding inside this season from defensive end to tackle; he led Purdue with five sacks last season and was third on the team in tackles with 61. He’ll be paired with junior defensive tackle Eddy Wilson (6’4” 304 lbs.) who had 36 tackles (six for loss) last season. A newcomer to keep an eye on is sophomore juco transfer Kai Higgins (6’4” 247 lbs.) who had three sacks in the spring game.
The strength of the Boilermakers’ defense should be the linebackers, where all three starters return and add graduate transfer T.J. McCollum (6’3” 234 lbs.) from Western Kentucky. McCollum started twelve games for the Hilltoppers with 85 tackles and four quarterback hurries; he’ll bring years of experience playing for Nick Holt in this defense. Sophomore Markus Bailey (6’2’ 250 lbs.) led Purdue last season with 97 tackles and four interceptions last season as a freshman. Seniors Ja’Whaun Bentley (6’2” 250 lbs.) and Danny Ezechukwu (6’2” 242 lbs.) have been two year starters who’ve been hampered by injuries; last season, they had 50 and 52 tackles respectively.
Three starters return in the secondary, with sophomore safety Navon Mosley (6’0” 183 lbs.) leading with 49 tackles last season as a true freshman. Junior college transfer T.J. Jallow (6’2” 198 lbs.) and Wake Forest graduate transfer Josh Okonye (6’0” 223 lbs.) will play opposite Mosley. Okonye could also be a nickel back; he had 36 tackles and three pass breakups last season for the Deacons. Senior cornerback Da’Wan Hunte (5’9” 185 lbs.) had 47 tackles and six pass breakups last season.
If Purdue can find some pass receivers, it’s reasonable to expect the Boilermakers to escape the Big Ten west cellar this season. But with non-conference games against Louisville and Missouri, plus a crossover game with Michigan, it might be tough to get to bowl eligibility in 2017. Purdue will probably be underdogs in at least eight games this season, so the Boilermakers will need to pull off a few upsets to be able to play in December.