Purdue’s identity crisis has been no secret.
For the past three years, we’ve wondered how the Boilermakers would be able to tally wins. After several minutes of hesitation and interrupting long pauses of silence with “uh…well…,” the only logical answer was luck.
But Purdue may finally have a solution. It may be in the form of a 5-foot-11, 210-pound running back.
Markell Jones had high expectations coming into the season after a successful freshman campaign. As the primary ball-carrier for the Boilermakers, he carried the ball for 875 yards and 10 TDs. And since the spring game, Darrell Hazell has emphasized the importance of his star running back.
So when Purdue opened its season last Saturday against Eastern Kentucky, it was no surprise that Jones was the feature of the offense. How the running back would handle the increased workload was still a looming question.
The sophomore delivered.
Jones had more yardage than any other B1G back in the first week of the season. He took 24 handoffs for 145 yards and a touchdown, eclipsing the 100-yard mark for just the second time in his career. Nobody else on Purdue’s roster had more than four carries in the 45-24 win over Eastern Kentucky.
He muscled through, hurdled and sped past Colonel defenders. On Saturday, Jones was a force. His teammates took notice.
“I remember coming off after the first quarter and I was talking to somebody and I said `We’ve got a superstar running back.’ That’s the truth,” quarterback David Blough said in the postgame press conference. “We’re going to feed him because he’s a workhorse.”
The bulky Boilermaker ball-carrier is more than just a workhorse, though. He’s a bulldozer with a cruise control setting. Jones is as powerful as any running back in the country. Even when met by host of big-bodied lineman, the sophomore trudges forward and gobbles more yardage. When he finds a crease in the defense, he’s got the crafty footwork to make would-be tacklers miss in the open field.
To put it frankly, Jones might be the best offensive player sporting the Old Gold and Black since Drew Brees. That’s not an exaggeration. He’s the reason Purdue has a real shot to get back to bowl eligibility for the first time since 2012.
I know, I know. His big day came against Eastern Kentucky. What does that really prove?
If you weren’t impressed with the 145-yard outing, maybe you’d like to flashback to last season, when he rushed for 157 yards and a pair of scores against a stingy Michigan State defense in East Lansing. Or you could review his game against Nebraska, when he pushed the entire Huskers defense for eight yards before popping free for a long gain.
Jones isn’t a one-hit wonder. He’s capable of gashing more than just an FCS defense. As Purdue prepares for its first real challenge of the 2016 season against Cincinnati, the Boilermakers need another strong performance from their running back.
He’ll have a good opportunity to post big numbers again.
Last season, the Bearcats ranked ninth in the AAC in defending the run. They gave up 192.1 yards per game and allowed 21 touchdowns on the ground. Seven times, opponents tallied 200 or more yards running the football, including a 361-yard performance from South Florida.
Those deficiencies haven’t been improved much, either. Last week, Cincinnati gave up 177 yards to Tennessee-Martin in a 28-7 win.
Saturday’s game is critical for Purdue. In order for Hazell to post a respectable mark and get his team competing for bowl berths again, it’s imperative the Boilermakers start the year 4-0. Of those four opponents – EKU, Cincinnati, Nevada, Maryland – the Bearcats are the biggest threat to that goal.
Another strong outing from Jones can keep the Boilermakers heading in the right direction.
Increasing the workload didn’t seem to bother Jones’s effectiveness on Saturday. And the aftermath of shouldering more of the offense may not show this weekend, either. But can he sustain this type of production? Can the Boilermakers expect him to continue to dominate defenses while enduring so much punishment week to week?
We may not know the answer to that until we hit the thick of the B1G schedule. But this much I know, carrying a strong portion of the offensive weight typically doesn’t come without a price. Hopefully for Purdue, it’ll be an inexpensive cost.
Hazell told us at B1G Media Days that the train has finally arrived in West Lafayette. He didn’t tell us that Jones was the locomotive.
Jones has an opportunity to define Purdue’s offense. A unit that has lacked an identity since Joe Tiller’s “basketball on grass,” era ended in 2008 may finally be developing a personality. And a strong one, at that.
Reaching a bowl game has been Purdue’s goal since the spring. Jones is the one who will determine if that’s a realistic destination. Barrelling through the first road block on Saturday would be a pretty good sign that the train is heading in the right direction.