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Previewing the 2018 Purdue Boilermakers

The Boilermakers could easily be 4-0 instead of 1-3.

NCAA Football: Missouri at Purdue Sandra Dukes-USA TODAY Sports

Like Nebraska, Purdue also opened their 2018 football season 0-3, with those three games being decided by a combined eight points. In a 31-27 loss to Northwestern to open the season, Purdue could have gotten the ball back with just over two minutes left, if not for a personal foul penalty on a third down stop of the Wildcats. The next week, Eastern Michigan kicked a 24 yard field goal as time expired to beat Purdue 20-19. Eastern Michigan’s game winning drive was kept alive by two costly Purdue penalties, including a late hit penalty after a third down sack. Purdue gave up another game winning field goal as time expired as Missouri beat Purdue 40-37 in a game that featured 1,224 yards of combined total offense by both teams. But last week, it all came together as the Boilermakers dominated then-23rd ranked Boston College 30-13. Purdue’s defense held BC to just 229 yards of offense, well below their 561 yard average from their first three games.

Elijah Sindelar started at quarterback in the season opener against Northwestern, but after throwing three interceptions in the first half, gave way to David Blough. Blough and Sindelar split time the the next week, but Sindelar has missed the last two weeks due to an undisclosed injury. Not that this really matters, as Blough has staked a clear claim to the starting job. Against Missouri, Blough threw for a school record 572 yards and set a Big Ten record with 590 yards of total offense. For the season, Blough is completing 72% of his passes for 990 yards and seven touchdowns with just one interception.

Four of those touchdowns went to true freshman Rondale Moore (5’9” 175 lbs.), who’s caught 33 passes for 372 yards; he’s also rushed six times for 132 yards, including a 76 yard touchdown. Keep an eye on Moore, and preferably double coverage as well, at all times. Sophomore Jared Sparks has 14 catches for 146 yards while junior tight end Brycen Hopkins has 12 catches for 205 yards, including a 74 yard touchdown.

D.J. Knox is Purdue’s leading running back, rushing for 303 yards (5.5 yards per carry) and three touchdowns this season. He’s backed up by Markell Jones, who’s rushed for 181 yards on about half as many carries, averaging 6.2 yards per carry.

Defensively, Purdue is led by senior safety Jacob Thieneman and sophomore linebacker Derrick Barnes, each with 31 tackles. Sophomore linebackers Cornel Jones has 29 tackles, with eight being for a loss. It will be interesting to see if the defensive intensity Purdue showed last week emerges again this week in Lincoln.

2017 showed that Purdue really isn’t Purdon’t anymore. They may be 1-3 on the season, but they could easily be 4-0, if not for a few mistakes. Both teams this week desperately need a victory to keep bowl hopes alive; the big question is who’s the hungriest?

Below, you’ll find the preseason preview of Purdue football.

Being relative newcomers to this thing called the Big Ten, Husker fans only have limited knowledge of the background of the various teams in the conference. For example, Ohio State is arrogant, Michigan is pompous (and still delusional about what would happen in a matchup with 1997 Nebraska), Penn State was out of bounds and trapped the ball in 1982, Wisconsin likes to jump around and drink massive quantities of beer, Iowa is a pesky mosquito and Purdue is, well, Purdon’t.

Over the last ten years, Purdue football has been mostly awful, though occasionally bubbling up to almost sort-of mediocre. Darrell Hazell only won three conference games from 2013 through 2016, representing the bottom of the pit of despair. (The only thing worse than Purdue football was getting trucked by expletive-deleted Purdue for one of those wins. Riiiiiight, Mike Riley?)

But after jettisoning Hazell in 2016, Purdue athletic director Mike Bobinski did his homework and sought out one of the exciting young coaches in college football. And at least for the first season, proved just how important good coaching is for a football program.

Right away, new Purdue head coach Jeff Brohm raised eyebrows by battling Louisville (and Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson) down to the wire, losing 35-28. After blasting Ohio 44-21, the Boilermakers rolled into Columbia and trounced Missouri 35-3. Purdue went on to finish the season 7-6, culminating in an exciting 38-35 victory over Arizona in the Foster Farms Bowl.

The hero of that bowl win, junior quarterback Elijah Sindelar (6’4” 226 lbs.) split snaps with senior David Blough (6’1” 205 lbs.) last season until the Blough seemed to claim the starting job against the Huskers. Sindelar reclaimed the job a week later when Blough dislocated his ankle, ending his season. Sindelar went on to finish the season strong despite tearing his ACL a week later against Northwestern. His four touchdown passes against Arizona in the Foster Farms Bowl tied a school record for bowl game passing. For the season, Sindelar completed 57% of his passes for 2,099 yards, 18 touchdowns and seven interceptions. In Blough’s nine games, he completed 65% of his passes for 1,103 yards and four interceptions. Who plays probably depends first on both player’s availability; both sat out the spring. The general consensus is that Sindelar better fits Brohm’s offensive philosophy, and played better down the stretch to get the nod. That being said, Blough is a team leader and is a bit more mobile than Sindelar. Legs permitting, both will probably play this season, at least initially.

Injuries meant that four running backs split the carries last season. Junior Tario Fuller (6’0” 192 lbs.) rushed for 261 yards and two touchdowns with a 6.1 yard per carry average before an ankle injury ended his season after three games. Senior Markell Jones (5’11” 210 lbs.) missed three games with a knee injury suffered in the season opener, but was the leading rusher last season with 566 yards. Senior D.J. Knox (5’7” 206 lbs.) rushed for 561 yards and two touchdowns, with a team leading 6.2 yards per carry average. Junior Richie Worship (6’0” 260 lbs.) split time between fullback and running back, rushing fro 257 yards and three touchdowns before tearing his ACL in November. It seems that all will play this fall, but since Fuller is still limited by his injury, Jones and Knox appear to be the most likely to get carries.

Purdue spread the ball around quite a bit last season, so even though their leading receiver (Anthony Mahoungou and his team leading eight touchdowns) are off to the NFL, seven out of last season’s nine top receivers are back. Most notable is sophomore Jackson Anthrop (5’11” 185 lbs.), whose 47 catches was the most by anybody last season. Sophomore Jared Sparks (6’1” 205 lbs.) split time as a backup quarterback and wide receiver last season; he’ll focus full-time on receiver this fall after catching 19 passes for 222 yards last season. At tight end, junior Brycen Hopkins (6’5” 240 lbs.) caught 25 passes for 349 yards while senior Cole Herdman (6’4” 245 lbs.) caught 20 passes for 331 yards, with each catching three touchdown passes. That should give whomever is throwing the ball decent targets in the passing game this season.

Purdue’s offensive line returns four guys with starting experience from last season, and adds graduate transfer Dennis Edwards (6’1” 315 lbs.), a three-year starter from Western Kentucky. Sophomore left tackle Grant Hermanns (6’7” 293 lbs.) started the first six games last season before tearing his ACL; he’s back, and his replacement, senior Eric Swingler (6’6” 295 lbs.) will slide over to right tackle this fall. Senior Kirk Barron (6’2” 300 lbs.), an honorable mention all-Big Ten honoree last season, has started every game the last two season.

While Brohm’s football background is all offense, Purdue’s rise last season was actually driven by the defense. SB Nation’s Bill Connelly notes how Purdue played significantly better on defense last season, led by a 117 position ranking rise in rushing S+P from sixth worst in all of college football to sixth best. But with only four returning starters and a significantly tougher schedule (Rutgers and Michigan get replaced with Ohio State and Michigan State from the Big Ten’s East division), Purdue will probably take a step back defensively this season.

Up front, junior nose guard Lorenzo Neal (6’2” 315 lbs.) is the only returner from last season’s two-deep on the Purdue defensive line. Neal’s 22 tackles (5.5 for a loss) last season is fourth among the Boilermakers’ returners on defense. He’s a two-year starter who’ll habe to take on a huge leadership role with the rest of the projected starters on the line having scant experience. Sophomore defensive tackle Anthony Watts (6’4” 296 lbs.) had one tackle last year, while junior defensive end Kai Higgins (6’4” 255 lbs.) had two. Higgins looks to be paired up with redshirt freshman Giovanni Reviere (6’5” 270 lbs.) at the end position.

Junior linebacker Markus Bailey (6’1” 231 lbs.) is the sole returning starter among the linebackers; he’s a two year starter who’s totalled 97 and 89 tackles the last two seasons. Sophomore Derrick Barnes (6’1” 230 lbs.) did start two games last season with 16 tackles as a true freshman, but after that, the Boilermakers’ linebacking corps is really, really green.

The other two returning starters on defense are at safety with junior Navon Mosley (6’0” 195 lbs.) and senior Jacob Thieneman (6’1” 210 lbs.). Thieneman was third on the team last season with 80 tackles, while Mosley had 49. At cornerback, aside from senior Kamal Hardy (5’11” 185 lbs.), who had 13 tackles and an interception last season, Purdue will lean heavily on redshirt freshmen Dedrick Mackey (5’11” 185 lbs.) and Kenneth Major (6’0” 190 lbs.).

Considering the inexperience on defense, Purdue looks like a team that could take a step back this season. Except this is with Jeff Brohm, who’s had a history of exceeding expectations. Considering that Purdue really exceeded expectations last season, just entering November with a chance to make a bowl game on road trips to Minnesota and Indiana might be the goal for Boilermaker fans.