Purdue: 5 ways the Boilermakers can salvage their season
A month ago, Purdue hosted Northwestern, thinking that the winner would have the inside track to the Big Ten West title.
And that was true. The Wildcats beat the Boilermakers by a touchdown, then went on to beat Wisconsin the next week to all but seal up their spot in next weekend’s Big Ten Championship Game. The unknown, however, was that the loser would dive into a monthlong tailspin with little end in sight. But that’s where the Boilermakers find themselves entering the eighth week of the season.
Purdue has dropped four straight, starting with that 27-20 loss to Northwestern in Ross-Ade Stadium. And while each has been by 10 points or less — the four losses are by a combined 27 points — each has seemingly compounded the frustrations of the Boilermakers and their fans.
And Tuesday came news that Purdue had canceled its practice due to COVID concerns, leading to questions about whether it would play Indiana in the Old Oaken Bucket game on Saturday.
Aside from winning, which would be the obvious elixir to Purdue’s problems, what can the Boilermakers do to salvage what was a once-promising season?
Let’s take a look at 5 answers:
Rekindle the offensive spark
During the losing streak, Purdue’s offense hasn’t necessarily been the problem. But it hasn’t necessarily been the solution either. The numbers are OK; basically right down the middle of the road in the Big Ten, as Purdue is sixth in both points (27.2) and yards per game (390.5).
But Jeff Brohm’s offense also feels very … meh. What happened to the wow factor that the Boilermakers used to play with, when Brohm called for a flea flicker — or a fake flea flicker — about once a game? Or the double-reverse, lateral back to the QB, then to the tight end, which — following Purdue debuting it a couple years ago — has been duplicated frequently across the country?
Perhaps Brohm felt as though he had to run the gadgets in previous seasons because he didn’t have the talent that the current Boilermakers do. And there’s truth to that. Purdue had to manufacture some flare or it wasn’t going to be able to score the way Brohm wanted to.
But the 2020 problems are about more than gimmicks or the lack thereof. Purdue seems oddly bland, even with Rondale Moore and David Bell playing together. They hit occasionally, like the 89-yard touchdown to Bell vs. Nebraska, but when that’s mixed with a confounding three-and-out at a critical juncture, it’s hard to rally behind.
Determine if defensive scheme fits
When Bob Diaco came to Purdue, he brought with him a largely 3-4 defense that was vastly different to what the Boilermakers had ever done before.
So, there were bound to be some adjustments. But now 6 games into the season, it’s still unclear whether it’s a defensive system that works for what Brohm wants. With a potentially quick-scoring offense, an opportunistic defense that has a tendency to turn opponents over is preferred. The theory being that if your defense is more bend-but-don’t-break and your offense scores in 5-play drives, the defense will be on the field too long.
Well, Purdue’s defense is on the field too long. The Boilermakers offense is possessing the ball only 27:35 minutes per game, leaving the defense to wear down. It’s been particularly devastating the last two weeks, when the opponent has had the ball for all but 5 minutes of the combined fourth quarters.
Purdue needs to be more aggressive. But Diaco has settled back into coverages frequently, blitzing only occasionally and rarely hitting home. The Boilermakers have only 5 sacks, worst in the Big Ten.
Is this a good and sustainable marriage?
Make special teams special again
Purdue’s special teams are a dumpster fire inside a train wreck, arguably having cost the Boilermakers dearly in their last three games. Heck, cleaning up special teams alone might have Purdue’s record reversed or better.
In the last three weeks, Purdue has missed 2 field goals, one a chippy to tie that came after a bad snap; it’s given up a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown; it’s had a punt blocked, setting up a TD on the next play; and it allowed a big punt return, combined with a 15-yard sideline penalty, that resulted in a net loss of 6 yards.
Marty Biagi is the Boilermakers’ special teams coordinator, Brohm’s fourth in his four years at Purdue. Brohm has been searching for the right person — and the jury might still be out on Biagi — since Tony Levine left after the 2017 season to open Chick-Fil-As in the Houston area. Back then, Purdue was dynamic, running multiple fake punts, all with success. The unpredictability made something as mundane as a punt a must-see snap. Now, unfortunately, it is for the wrong reasons. Even before Purdue had its punt blocked Saturday, it was experiencing issues, to the point where it had nearly cost the Boilermakers against Illinois weeks ago.
And yet they couldn’t find a solution, going so far as to have QB Jack Plummer pooch punt against the Cornhuskers.
At worst, special teams should be a net neutral, but Purdue is trending badly in the red.
With two weeks left, Purdue really could stand to make something positive happen while cutting out the mistakes.
Develop a defensive standout
Purdue has George Karlaftis, and he’s a stud, but the sophomore hasn’t had the season he wanted, due first to an ankle injury and then to his positive COVID test. The defensive end will be back for the champions week crossover game.
Linebacker Derrick Barnes has been a revelation, playing at an All-Big Ten caliber. Defensive tackle Lorenzo Neal has shown moments, especially in late-game situations where Purdue has needed a stop.
But, three guys aren’t nearly enough.
In the last two weeks of the season, Purdue needs development out of one — well, multiple would be preferred — guy on its defense. There are candidates, but they’ve shown only flashes. The secondary, in particular, has been absent of big plays. Maybe cornerback Cory Trice, who had a 2-interception game last season, can make a move, or safety Marvin Grant, who hits like a truck but might need further knowledge about what he’s doing.
Win … next year
There might not be much Purdue can do this season, considering it’s now paused its practices before the IU game, and will have only one game left on Dec. 19. Getting back to .500 could turn impossible.
But the only way to erase 2020 might be to win next season. It’ll be a big one for Brohm and Co., who will enter their fifth year in West Lafayette. The players on the roster will be overwhelmingly his own — there might be a holdover or two, if any seniors opt back for an extra year of eligibility — so it’ll be time to win, if it hasn’t been already.