Is banged-up Purdue a real challenger in the B1G West? We'll soon find out
In what looks like a wide-open field to challenge Iowa in the Big Ten West, maybe it’s Purdue that can be the dark horse candidate to make a charge.
Or maybe not.
Whatever the answer, we’re likely to soon find out, with the Boilermakers jumping into Big Ten play with consecutive games against Illinois and Minnesota. Purdue is likely to be favored in both — it’s giving 11 points vs. the Fighting Illini, and provided it beats Illinois, should be a slight favorite vs. the Golden Gophers on Homecoming.
Purdue could be 4-1, including 2-0 in the Big Ten, before its bye. The West’s heavy hitters, Iowa and Wisconsin, would then be on deck. The the 5th-ranked Hawkeyes are clearly the early-season favorites to win the West, with a path open to the College Football Playoff at the moment. And then the Boilermakers get a home date with the No. 18 Badgers (1-1 heading into a showdown with No. 12 Notre Dame), probably the most likely West team to challenge Iowa.
Let’s take a look at 4 things the Boilermakers need to accomplish before the Oct. 16 post-bye date in Iowa City.
A post-bye goal for any team, getting healthy is a more acute issue for the Boilermakers, who likely will be missing their best running back, their best wide receiver and their best cornerback for at least the game vs. the Fighting Illini and perhaps against the Golden Gophers, too. The latter will depend on the status of receiver David Bell, who is in concussion protocol after absorbing a huge hit in the loss to Notre Dame Saturday. Running back Zander Horvath (leg) and corner Cory Trice (ankle) are almost assuredly out the next 2 weeks, with only a remote possibility of a return vs. Iowa. Those returns would be on the near side of their rehabilitation window.
It doesn’t help the Boilermakers that their depth is being sapped by the injury bug, either. Bell’s backup, Mershawn Rice, is out for several weeks with a foot injury. It’s unfortunate for Purdue and Rice, who has long been consider a potential standout only to have his opportunities destroyed by injury. The foot is only the latest. Backup tight end Jack Cravaack is out for the season with a knee issue and backup defensive tackle DJ Washington is sidelined indefinitely with a toe injury.
This is the latest in what feels like a nauseating, seemingly decade-plus-long streak of injury issues for the Boilermakers. Much of that has involved the quarterback position — Purdue’s had a starting QB stay injury-free in only 2 seasons since 2010 (Caleb TerBush, 2011; David Blough, 2016) — but there’ve been other issues, as well. Wide receiver Rondale Moore, of course, missed most of 2019 after he was injured on the same play as quarterback Elijah Sindelar, who also sat the rest of the season.
So, here Purdue is again. The injuries often have sacked Boilermakers’ seasons, including in 2019 and arguably 2020 (when Aidan O’Connell’s foot injury after a 2-0 start wasn’t helpful). Purdue will have to find a way to weather the injuries for the next 2 weeks, then hope it can start getting guys back by the Iowa game.
Find a running game
Even if it’s only of moderate success, Purdue needs to find something in the running game that it can brag about.
That’s turned harder now, with Horvath out at least another 3 weeks, and maybe longer, after breaking his leg vs. UConn in Week 2. The big bruising between-the-tackles runner at least gave the Boilermakers a quality short-yardage option, even without road-graders on their offensive line. But backups King Doerue and Dylan Downing don’t have the same kind of ability, although they both might have a bit more big-play potential. Purdue’s biggest need is picking up third- and fourth-and-short and getting yardage in the red zone.
Against Notre Dame — granted the Irish might have the best defense Purdue will face, at least outside of Iowa — Doerue and Downing combined for only 59 yards. And 31 of them came on one carry by Doeroe; the other 17 attempts went for 28 yards. Like last season, the Boilermakers rank dead last in the Big Ten in rushing, averaging 110 yards per game. Purdue’s run game doesn’t need to be great, maybe not even average, but it does need to exist.
Maybe the biggest improvement Purdue has made from last season to this is on the defensive side, where the Boilermakers have successfully adopted a more aggressive approach.
It’s put Purdue 8th in the league in both scoring defense (16) and yards allowed (306), although comparing Big Ten teams against one another this early in the season has drawbacks due to uncommon opponents. Still, it’s clear the Boilermakers are improved, but aren’t near a finished product. Purdue has gotten into the backfield more frequently, but only started hitting home vs. Notre Dame, when it had 4 of its 5 sacks this season. That trend will need to continue vs. Illinois.
But the Boilermakers hope to start turning teams over, too. They have only 2 interceptions, with no fumble recoveries, in 3 games.
Keep the faith
When Purdue faced adversity last season, and even the year before, it was unable to overcome it. It had a 3-game losing streak in 2019 and lost 4 in a row to end last year.
The Boilermakers face adversity now, not only coming off their first loss of the year but now having the mounting injuries. We’ll see how they adapt this time around.