Hickey: For Ryan Walters, a surprisingly important game awaits in Week 5
It is premature to call Purdue’s Week 5 game against Illinois a crossroads for Ryan Walters.
The guy has had 4 games as a head coach, for goodness sake. And this is Purdue. A place where you are expected to have success, but where fans are patient enough for that process to take a little time.
West Lafayette is not a haven of blue-chip talent. With the exception of Joe Tiller, every coach who has succeeded at Purdue needed a couple years to put it together. From Jeff Brohm to Jim Young to Jack Mollenkompf, a losing record in Year 1 has been the norm for new Boilermakers coaches.
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That being said, this week feels pretty important for Walters. Regardless of what happens on the field this season, Walters is not going to lose his job. But a win against Illinois would help stem the tide against what is developing into a season of bad vibes.
In grading the Big Ten’s first-year head coaches, there’s no question Walters is having the worst time of it right now. And when that group includes unexpected interim coach David Braun at talent-dry Northwestern, that’s a troubling development.
More than any other team in the B1G, Purdue looks poorly coached.
Purdue’s train of errors
The Boilermakers were bound to take a step backward from last season’s Big Ten championship game appearance. And surely that figured into Brohm’s calculus in finally leaving for the job that would perpetually be made available to him: Louisville, his alma mater.
Last year’s 63-7 Citrus Bowl slaughter at the hands of LSU was a sneak peek at Purdue’s lack of depth behind stars Aidan O’Connell, Charlie Jones and Payne Durham.
Things were never going to get that level of out-of-hand in 2023, but growing pains were all but guaranteed. If there were ever a perfect time for a coaching transition, this was it. A new coach and a young team could take some lumps and grow stronger together.
That likely figured into Brohm’s thinking, too. He wasn’t going to leave until he knew the program could maintain good health without him.
That overall program health allowed Purdue to take a chance on someone who had never previously been a head coach. You don’t make that hire unless there’s a solid cultural foundation in place. The Boilers had that. Walters would be able to be as football-focused as possible with a group that doesn’t need to learn how to win from scratch.
But in Walters’ first month, these Boilermakers are inventing ways to lose from scratch.
Purdue is among the nation’s most undisciplined teams, ranking 117th with 283 penalty yards. For those who can’t do math as quickly as Purdue grads, that equates to 70.8 penalty yards per game.
Last year’s Boilermakers ranked 68th nationally with 53.6 penalty yards per game. Not exactly the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, but certainly better than what we are currently seeing.
It’s not just penalties. The Boilermakers are careless with the ball.
Even with no rain in the forecast, Purdue fumbled a stunning 7 times against Syracuse. They were fortunate that the Orange only recovered 3 of them, though Syracuse still turned Purdue’s mistakes into 21 points. That more than made up the difference in a 35-20 Orange win.
Purdue’s worst turnover of the season was the kind that raises the most questions about how well-coached this group is.
Few things are preached by coaches as much as “play through the whistle.” And running back Devin Mockobee, perhaps the Big Ten’s toughest rusher, knows that as well as anyone. His legs don’t stop moving until the officials bring a play to a stop.
Yet in a crucial moment against Wisconsin, Mockobee stopped playing.
That's a fumble! 😤
— FOX College Football (@CFBONFOX) September 23, 2023
The most telling element of this play? Mockobee isn’t the only Boiler who stopped. Every Purdue player stops, assuming that it was an incomplete pass rather than a lateral.
At the same time, 3 Wisconsin defenders are trying to rip the ball away from Mockobee. None of them care whether or not it’s a lateral or an incompletion. They haven’t heard a whistle, so they are going to keep playing.
And though it’s a remarkably small sample size, it’s the only thing we have to measure a Luke Fickell-coached team against a Ryan Walters-coached team. The difference is damning.
Why Illinois looms large
Other than winning the Old Oaken Bucket at the end of the year, no game is more important for Walters in 2023 than the coming matchup with Illinois. And it’s not just because the teams are vying for possession of the world’s tiniest cannon.
Invariably, we measure coaches in these situations by how they do against their mentor.
Lane Kiffin? Sure, he’s alright, but he still hasn’t beaten Nick Saban. Which is the same rap that followed Kirby Smart around until he finally did beat Saban. Now the student has surpassed the master.
Bret Bielema clearly isn’t Nick Saban. But he is still the guy at the root of this coaching tree, and that means beating him would qualify as a significant win for a first-year coach. A win here helps reverse the negative momentum of Walters’ first month at Purdue.
And a loss? Look out below. The Boilermakers would be 1-4 with all 4 losses at home. And Purdue still has Ohio State and Michigan to reckon with this season.
A bowl game is all but out of the question at that point. And Purdue’s loss total could balloon to the point where Boilers fans can reasonably begin wondering whether they’ve been saddled with the next Darrell Hazell or Danny Hope.
So while this isn’t a must-win game for Walters, the implications feel a lot higher than you’d expect from the 5th game of a coach’s career.