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Behind Enemy Lines: Purdue Boilermakers

We talked with our friends over at Hammer and Rails regarding Purdue and this weekend’s matchup

NCAA Football: Illinois at Rutgers Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

First of all, I personally want to extend my thoughts and prayers to Tyler Trent, a student journalist at the Purdue Exponent and big Purdue fan who recently earned his diploma from Purdue. Tyler is battling cancer and has not been given a good prognosis. From myself and the entire site, we wish nothing but the best for Tyler and our friends over at Hammer and Rails during this difficult time.

And now on to the less important stuff.

Sitting at 2-3, Purdue has seen a slight regression over the debut season of former Illini staffer Jeff Brohm. With a surprising upset of Boston College and a head scratching loss to Eastern Michigan, it is hard to discern what kind of team they have in West Lafayette.

I sat down with Travis Miller from Hammer and Rails to discuss this weekends tilt.

TCR: Purdue has had an interesting year. They follow up a near win against Northwestern with a loss to Eastern Michigan. Then, two weeks later you beat a very good Boston College program. What kind of team is Purdue in 2018?

Travis: I think what you’re seeing is a lot of the inexperience, especially on defense, that we had coming into the season. Last year our defense at least had experience and Nick Holt molded it into a unit that was devastating against the run for the most part and very aggressive. That was the key to the sudden turnaround. We went from being a team that couldn’t stop anything with a pulse to one that was actually pretty good defensively.

Unfortunately, we lost about 7 starters and those that filled in either did not have a ton of experience or were Hazell recruits that were backups for a reason. They have really come together of late.

The Eastern Michigan game especially was one where everything that could go wrong did. We had two critical turnovers. We missed an extra point and a short field goal. We gave up a big play on a 75 yard TD and we couldn’t stop a 4th and 14 when the game was on the line. It was raining too for good measure and our passing game was ineffective at best in it. In short, we played like crap, EMU didn’t make many mistakes, and honestly deserved to win. At least this team learned from it. They responded well vs. Missouri and had a TD taken off the board on a questionable call that might have won the game. Beating Boston College in the manner we did definitely changed a lot of things.

TCR: David Blough is probably one of the underrated QB’s in the Big Ten. How would you describe his skill set?

Travis: Blough has been incredible in the last three games. We needed either him or Sindelar to step up and neither was great in the first two games. When Sindelar got hurt in practice before the Missouri game Blough seized the position by going out and establishing a single game passing record. Considering who we have had at Purdue as a quarterback (the Brees was okay, I guess) that’s pretty good.

Blough isn’t flashy at all, but he does remind me of Brees a little. One of the things that always stood out about Brees to me was his ability to read a defense and dash for 10-15 yards when it was there. His senior season he had 521 yards rushing and 5 TDs. He had 900 yards and 14 TDs rushing in his career. Blough has moments like that. One was converting a 3rd and 14 with his legs at Nebraska on the drive at the end of the first half that ended in a field goal. It is little things like that.

Blough has been accurate, his line play has greatly improved by moving Matt McCann outside to right tackle, and he has been smart. He’s a 5th year guy that is reading what defenses are giving him and playing at a very high level right now. It is fun to see. It might be the best QB play we have seen since Joey Elliott was in a similar position in 2009.

TCR: DJ Knox and Rondale Moore lead Purdue with five touchdowns each. Is Purdue better equipped to run the ball in favor of Knox or air it out in favor of Moore? Which is more explosive on offense?

Travis: Knox has been solid and is having a great year, but holy crap has Moore been great. Knox is pretty much a bowling ball getting tough yards. He has broken a few runs, but he’s mostly been good at getting the 4-7 yards a pop to keep defenses honest.

Moore, however, is a highlight reel. If he touches the ball there is a chance he is going to break a huge play. In the first HALF of his first collegiate game he had more than 300 all-purpose yards. Right now he is among the nation’s leaders in that category. He has a 70-plus yard run for a TD, leads the Big Ten in receiving, and now we have him on punt and kickoff returns. He’s going to break a kickoff return for a score. It is only a matter of time.

TCR: Jeff Brohm took a 3-9 Purdue team and transformed them into a 7-6 team in one offseason. Now in year two there seems to be regression. Is that due to the rebuild that is going on, something Illinois fans are used to, or are there other issues plaguing this team?

Travis: I really think it is due to the rebuild. Like I said above, the defense was really experienced last year and inexperienced this year. The recruiting classes he is working with on this team were ranked 71st (2014, Hazell), 68th (2015, Hazell), 73rd (2016, Hazell), 68th (2017, started by Hazell, finished by Brohm), and 49th (2018, Brohm). His currently class for 2019 is ranked 27th and he has quite a few top prospects on the line. There are likely at least three players in that class that could start for us right now on defense. It is, by far, our best rated class in more than a decade.

So it is a regression based on a loss of experience and relying on talent that was below most Big Ten recruiting classes. If he locks up a few more guys like J.J. Weaver and David Bell in the 2019 class you’re looking at a top 20 national class coming next season. That’s merely setting the stage for continued recruiting success and improved talent with his improved coaching will raise the floor even more.

We also see that the three losses were by 8 points total. You could probably change a single play in each of those three games and Purdue is undefeated right now. What if we don’t get a dumb personal foul after stopping Northwestern on 3rd and long in the last two minutes? What if we stop the 4th and 14 vs. EMU? What if the Jared Sparks TD is not overturned against Mizzou and we’re leading 41-37 instead of tied 37-37 before their final drive?

TCR: Who wins Saturday and why?

Travis: I don’t think Illinois is as bad as most expected them to be. You handled business against Rutgers (we couldn’t last year), pushed South Florida, and gave Penn State quite a scare into the second half. If you beat Purdue you can definitely start thinking bowl game, and even with a loss I can see you beating Minnesota, Nebraska, and Maryland or Northwestern. You’re definitely showing improvement.

That said, I like the momentum Purdue has had the last two weeks. We’ve cleaned up quite a few things and I think we’re going to sell out against the run and dare Bush to beat us through the air. Nebraska had a lot of success on the ground, but they struggled greatly to slow down our offense. I think Blough keeps it going and a bit like the Nebraska game we score in the 30s or 40s, enough to hold a lead while Illinois has success on the ground.

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