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Minnesota Football: Oars in Enemy Waters - Q&A with Hammer and Rails

Hammer and Rails gives us the lowdown on Purdue

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 01 Penn State at Purdue Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Ahead of Saturday’s Homecoming matchup between the No. 21-ranked Minnesota Golden Gophers (4-0) and the Purdue Boilermakers (2-2), we were able to connect with Travis Miller, editor of Hammer and Rails, and he was kind enough to field our questions.

The Daily Gopher: Purdue entered the season as perhaps a dark horse candidate to win the Big Ten West. Though they’ve struggled out of the gate with one-score losses to Penn State and Syracuse and a two-point win over Florida Atlantic, their goal of winning the West is still very much in front of them, albeit with a slim margin for error. Based on what you’ve seen from this team, what are your expectations the rest of the way?

Travis Miller: It is really hard to say. This is a team that is arguably two plays from being 4-0 where everything is fine. If it converts one more first down late against Penn State or commits one fewer penalty (out of FIVE) at the end of the Syracuse game it very likely wins both. I didn’t even mention the late first half fumble in field goal range, followed by poor tackling on a 62-yard touchdown that flipped 10 points Penn State’s way with less than a minute to go in the first half of that game. Both losses feel greatly self-inflicted, and given that Penn State is in the top 15 and Syracuse is undefeated, it is not like we lost to bad teams.

Here’s a stat for you: Jeff Brohm is now 12-18 in one score games at Purdue. In EIGHT of those losses it was either tied or leading with less than a minute left, including both losses this year. In five losses it lost literally on the final snap of the game. It’s a terribly frustrating trend and many of those narrow losses have been since 2019.

Then there are injuries, which I think made the FAU game much closer. Purdue went into the game without its top defensive player, starting quarterback, and the projected WR1 and RB1. I feel like if Aidan O’Connell is a full go we have a chance in any game. Not only has he been very good, he has a knack for late comebacks in his career. Seven times in his career he has led a fourth quarter drive that either gave Purdue a late lead or forced overtime. He led a great drive for a go-ahead touchdown at Syracuse with 51 seconds left. We just melted down with two unsportsmanlike conduct penalties after it, forcing us to kick off from the 10-yard line, plus a defensive hold and a defensive pass interference call that got the Orange to the Purdue 25 despite six straight incompletions.

If Purdue can get out of its own way and O’Connell can play we have at least a chance in every game here on out (except Wisconsin, because we always lose to Wisconsin).

TDG: Aidan O’Connell entered the season as one of the most prolific passers in the Big Ten, if not the country. What makes him such an effective quarterback in Jeff Brohm’s offense? Separately, if he is ruled out for the Minnesota game, will the Boilermakers’ offense be limited with former UCLA transfer Austin Burton under center?

TM: AOC’s rise has been meteoric. In his last nine starts he has 28 TD passes and four interceptions. He has spread the ball around and it was amazing in the bowl game that he topped 500 yards without his top two receivers. By the end of that game we were down to walk-ons, freshmen, and a guy needing two knee surgeries running routes and it somehow worked. He is the most accurate passer in Purdue history by completion percentage, and it is a very wide margin over second place.

Burton is interesting. He is a significantly more mobile quarterback than O’Connell. That’s not saying he is vintage Lamar Jackson, but considering O’Connell is as mobile as a statue it is nice that Burton can take off if needed. He had a couple of nice option plays against FAU and a pretty good game overall. He had one bad throw that was intercepted, but he didn’t force much and the offense was a lot more balanced as Dylan Downing had a 100 yard rushing game. With Burton I think Purdue will strive to have more balance, and the ground game was much better against FAU. Burton is a sixth year guy and in his third year in the program. Last week was his most significant action to date at Purdue and he did play a fair amount at UCLA, so he brings experience as well as a different look.

That said, I don’t think Burton is going to light a team up for 400-500 yards like O’Connell can.

TDG: Wide receiver Charlie Jones is the talk of the Big Ten, matching (and nearly eclipsing) his production in three seasons at Iowa in only four games at Purdue. How has Brohm’s offense harnessed his strengths as a receiver and enabled him to thrive?

TM: He has just gotten open on a regular basis and has a great rapport with O’Connell. I knew he would be a big piece of the offense, but he has wildly exceeded my expectations. FAU is the team that has kept him in check the most, but only because we passed a lot less. He still caught a pair of touchdowns. He hasn’t done a ton yet in the return game, but his presence within the offense, especially with Broc Thompson (our projected No. 1 receiver and bowl game hero) has been fantastic. If anything, I think we rely on him too much, but he is still delivering. It is almost like he is a combination of David Bell and Rondale Moore because he runs routes well like Bell, but is quicker like Rondale.

TDG: Minnesota has the second-ranked rushing offense in the country, averaging 294.5 yards per game on the ground, but against Michigan State they also demonstrated their ability to air it out, throwing for 268 passing yards and three touchdowns. What are the strengths of the Boilermakers’ defense and how do you expect them to try and stifle the Gophers’ dynamic offense?

TM: For the most part the run defense has been pretty good. We were able to limit Syracuse’s Sean Tucker, who ran for almost 1,500 yards last year, to 42 yards on 18 carries. It was decent against Penn State, too. We haven’t really been gashed in the running game and the performance against Tucker has me cautiously optimistic.

In the passing game it feels like it has been feast or famine. Purdue was able to beat FAU because of three big forced turnovers in the fourth quarter, one of which was an interception on a two-point conversion attempt. It also has been plagued by poor tackling against Penn State, dumb penalties against Syracuse, and FAU’s LaJohntay Wester was running wild on us with nine catches and three touchdowns. We miss S/LB Jalen Graham, who is our best defender overall. He might be back this week after missing the last two weeks, but like AOC, he is pretty much a game time decision. We have a pair of pick-sixes on the season, but we’ve also given up some big plays.

TDG: This is Year 6 of the Jeff Brohm era at Purdue. What is the general fan sentiment regarding his tenure in West Lafayette and do you believe his job is secure for the foreseeable future?

TM: Going 9-4 last year with two Top 5 upsets and a bowl win over an SEC team did wonders for his longevity. It was an immensely enjoyable season and he needed it after two down years. Had Purdue missed a bowl last season and started like it has this year there would be a lot of questions swirling right now. Last year probably bought him at least this year and next year, and assuming Purdue finishes this year in the 7-5 or 8-4 range (very doable) he’ll be fine.

That said, the close games factor is maddening. A lot of people were very vocal with their frustrations that we couldn’t put FAU away, and it is not like beating ourselves in the final minute like the two losses this year are something new. The series with Minnesota is a microcosm of that. The last three times Purdue has played the Gophers it lost because its two best offensive players were lost for the season on the same play (Rondale and Elijah Sindelar in 2019), it had an egregious offensive pass interference call (2020), and couldn’t consistently move the ball in the rain while giving up 1-2 big plays in a 7-point loss (2021).

Even in Year 6 he is underwater at Purdue (30-31). The highs have been very high. They only make the head scratching losses even more confusing. This is a coach that lost at home to Eastern Michigan mere weeks before absolutely boat-racing No. 2-ranked Ohio State by four touchdowns. That is basically the Jeff Brohm experience. He has beaten a Top 5 team three times, all while unranked. He has also lost to Eastern Michigan, Nevada, an awful 2017 Nebraska team, and Rutgers twice.

TDG: What is your prediction for the game?

TM: It really depends on if O’Connell can play. He supposedly got hurt in the first quarter against Syracuse and still threw for 424 yards and three scores. Was he held out against FAU as a “we still should beat these guys without him and we want him healthy for Big Ten play,” or did it get worse during the week? If he can be a full go I like our chances against anyone.

That said, Minnesota is playing really well right now and Fleck has Brohm’s number as much as Brohm has Kirk Ferentz’s number. Given that Fleck has never beaten Ferentz, it is a bizarre standoff between the three.

I still think Purdue can win the West, but it will not happen unless it wins this game. It really feels like a pivot point for the rest of our season and I don’t like that we’re very banged up heading into it. If O’Connell is out I expect Minnesota to win by double digits. If he plays and is effective, we at least have a shot.