Season Record: 2-2
Head Coach: Jeff Brohm (2-2, 1st year at Purdue)
2017 S&P+ Overall Ranking: 72nd
2016 S&P+ Overall Ranking: 105th
There is renewed optimism among the Boilermaker faithful because, in Jeff Brohm’s first year at the helm, Purdue is four games into the season and already one win shy of matching the program’s ceiling under previous head coach Darrell Hazell. In four seasons at Purdue, Hazell was 0-3 against non-conference Power 5 opponents and 1-3 against MAC opponents. So you can understand their fans’ excitement over wins against Ohio and Missouri, although the latter is mired in a disastrous season that would make Tim Brewster blush.
The Boilermakers also held a fourth quarter lead over Louisville and last year’s Heisman-winning quarterback Lamar Jackson in Week 1 before letting it slip away in a 35-28 loss. It was a similar story against Michigan in Week 4, when Purdue led 10-7 at halftime and appeared poised to pull the Top 10 upset but were shutout in the second half as the Wolverines pulled away to escape West Lafayette with a hard-fought 28-10 victory.
A win on Saturday over Minnesota would mark just the program’s second non-Illinois conference victory in the last four and a half years. Can the Boilermakers pull it off and take another step forward? Let’s take a closer look.
The Boilermakers seem to be torn between two quarterbacks at the moment. Sophomore Elijah Sindelar started the first two games of the season against Louisville and Ohio, but junior David Blough has gotten the starting the nod the last two weeks against Missouri and Michigan. Both have seen action in all four games.
Their stat lines thus far:
Blough: 56-for-80 (70%), 629 passing yards, 6 touchdowns, 2 interceptions
Sindelar: 31-for-64 (48.4%), 366 passing yards, 5 touchdowns, 2 interceptions
Blough is expected to be the starter against Minnesota, but he is dealing with a sprained throwing shoulder from the Michigan game, so there is some uncertainty regarding his status. I would anticipate he’ll be ready to go on Saturday.
While the coaching staff seems optimistic about Blough, that optimism does not extend to the status of Tario Fuller. The Boilermakers’ junior starting running back sat out the Michigan game with a left foot injury and is doubtful for Saturday’s game against the Gophers. With 261 rushing yards on the season, Fuller is the only player on the roster with more than 100 rushing yards. Purdue has also been without junior running back Markell Jones, who was sidelined after the Louisville game with a knee injury but could return to action this week.
If not Fuller or Jones, expect to see the load split between junior D.J. Knox (14 carries, 65 rushing yards) and sophomore Richie Worship (12 carries, 43 rushing yards, 1 touchdown).
The group that will test the Gophers’ defense is the Boilermakers’ receiving corps. Purdue has four players with at least 10 receptions and five players with at least 100 receiving yards on the season. Freshman wide receiver Jackson Anthrop is the leader of the pack, with 18 receptions, 157 receiving yards, and 4 touchdowns. Brohm also likes to involve his tight ends in the passing game, and Purdue has at least two of that are legitimate receiving threats. Keep an eye out for junior tight end Cole Herdman (6 receptions, 213 receiving yards, 1 touchdown) and sophomore tight end Brycen Hopkins (12 receptions, 170 receiving yards, 3 touchdowns).
The Boilermakers’ offensive line, which returned just two centers from a season ago, has struggled in pass protection. Purdue has allowed an average of 3.25 sacks per game, which is tied for 119th nationally. The Gophers’ defensive line, which failed to generate much pressure against Maryland, will need to take advantage of that to help out a short-handed secondary.
Verdict: If starting safeties Antoine Winfield, Jr. and Duke McGhee are both sidelined for Saturday’s game, defensive coordinator Robb Smith will have his work cut out for him. Purdue doesn’t have the same athletes at running back that Maryland did, but they’ll be able to spread Minnesota out at wide receiver. And with how active the Boilermakers’ tight ends are in the passing game, Smith will need to commit his athletic linebacker corps to pass coverage, which won’t help a defensive line that has been toothless without the benefit of a blitz package.
It is important to note that Purdue will be without starting middle linebacker and leading tackler Ja’Whaun Bentley (29 tackles, 3 tackles for loss, 2 forced fumbles) and starting strong safety Jacob Thieneman (24 tackles, 2 tackles for loss, 1 sack) for the first half on Saturday. Both were ejected for targeting during the second half of their game against Michigan. Bentley is a key cog in the Boilermakers’ run defense, so the Gophers will need to take advantage of his absence to get the ground game rolling in the first half.
Even with Bentley out, the Boilermakers have two returning starters at outside linebacker: senior T.J. McCollum (28 tackles, 1 tackle for loss) and sophomore Markus Bailey (24 tackles, 2 tackles for loss, 2 sacks, 1 interception, 1 forced fumble). Bentley, McCollum, and Bailey represent three of their top four tacklers, and the group has led a rushing defense that ranks 49th in the country (132 rushing yards allowed per game).
On the defensive line, Purdue might be without starting defensive Austin Larkin (6 tackles, 1 forced fumble), who suffered an ankle injury against Michigan. His status is unknown. The standout on the Boilermakers’ defensive line has been senior Gelen Robinson (14 tackles, 3 tackles for loss), who switched from end to defensive tackle in the spring but could end up returning to his original position while Larkin is sidelined.
While the run defense has been surprisingly tough, the pass defense has not. Purdue ranks 98th in passing defense, allowing an average of 254.5 passing yards per game. The Boilermakers have yet to hold an opponent below 220 yards passing, even with Thieneman and two seniors at cornerback: Josh Okonye (28 tackles, 1 tackle for loss, 4 pass break-ups, 4 passes defended) and Da’Wan Hunte (12 tackles, 3 pass break-ups, 3 passes defended).
And while the Purdue defense has been opportunistic, tied for 19th in the nation in turnovers forced (7 fumble recoveries, 3 interceptions), their pass rush has struggled to find the opposing quarterback. The Boilermakers are currently tied with Minnesota and a few other programs for 104th nationally in sacks, averaging 1.25 per game.
Verdict: Minnesota had no semblance of a rushing attack against Maryland, and that will need to change if the Gophers are going to be successful on offense. But Purdue’s defensive front is surprisingly formidable. The Gophers will need to move the ball early and take advantage of Bentley being in the locker room. The Boilermakers are vulnerable in the passing game, so look for receivers Tyler Johnson, Eric Carter, and Phillip Howard to build on a promising game from last week. Minnesota and quarterback Conor Rhoda will need to air it out to keep Purdue from regularly stacking the box to stuff the run.
Prediction: Minnesota 30, Purdue 28. As improved as the Boilermakers seem to be under their new head coach, I’m not quite ready to concede that they’re better than the Gophers, who have won four straight against Purdue. It’ll be a close game, and it’s very possible that the Gophers will walk out of Ross-Ade Stadium with their tail between their legs and an 0-2 record in the Big Ten. But I think P.J. Fleck will have his team ready to bounce back after last week’s loss. The defense won’t be quite as air tight as we’ve seen early in the season, but I think both the offense and the defense do just enough to escape with Fleck’s first Big Ten victory.