Purdue football: 10 takeaways from the 2022 regular season
Purdue’s season is far from over.
After winning the Big Ten West Saturday with a 30-16 victory over Indiana — and getting help the day before, when Nebraska upset Iowa — the Boilermakers are in the conference championship game. They’ll take on Michigan Saturday night in Indianapolis.
Purdue will be an underdog, but that’s fine. If there’s any one reason why the Boilermakers are where they are right now, it’s that they’ve embraced their underdog role. Purdue won as a ‘dog at Minnesota, Maryland and Illinois this season, after getting underdog victories against Iowa, Michigan State and Tennessee in the 2nd half of last year.
In all, Purdue won 8 regular-season games this season, with a couple of significant streaks: The Boilermakers won 4 games in a row after a 1-2 start, then won 3 more consecutively, a run that they’ll take into the game vs. Michigan in Lucas Oil Stadium.
But before the game, let’s list our 10 takeaways from the 2022 season:
Validation for the rebuild
When Jeff Brohm took over at Purdue 6 years ago, the Boilermakers were coming off a period in which they had won 9 games — that’s 9 total — in 4 seasons under coach Darrell Hazell. And of those 9 victories, only 3 came in the Big Ten, 2 vs. Illinois and 1 against Nebraska.
And that was it.
But Brohm immediately brought energy back to the program, as Purdue qualified for bowl games in his 1st 2 seasons, then after injuries and Covid marred the next 2, he has the program currently back on a bowl streak. With at least 2 more games this season, Purdue already has won 17 games the last 2 years, the most since the 1997-98 seasons.
Much of it is a credit to Brohm and his belief that Purdue could win football games. It did this season, enough to be able to claw its way from the heap of the Big Ten West to be the division’s representative in the conference title game.
An unconventional path
In a West that no one seemed to want to take control of, the Boilermakers not only became the entry into the Big Ten Championship Game, but they won the division outright.
It wasn’t a straight-line path. Thanks to road wins against Minnesota and Maryland in October, the Boilermakers readied to start a 4-game stretch to end the season knowing that they could take the division with 4 wins. But Purdue slipped up at home vs. Iowa, losing control of its own destiny. But the Boilermakers rebounded, first winning at Illinois, then taking a home game vs. Northwestern before beating Indiana in Bloomington for the Old Oaken Bucket. And they got help, as the Cornhuskers upset the Hawkeyes in Iowa on Friday.
But take nothing away from Purdue. You can’t back your way into a championship game by winning 3 straight games at the end of the season, as the Boilermakers did.
Aidan O’Connell’s toughness
After Saturday’s Bucket win, Brohm grew emotional in the postgame press conference, holding back tears as he talked about quarterback Aidan O’Connell.
The 6th-year QB, who came to Purdue as a walk-on and was 8th on the depth chart in 2017, was dealing with a personal issue, according to Brohm. O’Connell was seen in tears on the sideline with teammates and chaplain Marty Dittmar after the win, in which he threw for 290 yards and 2 touchdowns.
“He’s got a lot going on right now,” Brohm said. “Can’t say anything. So, he’s emotional for a lot of reasons. He played really hard.”
O’Connell has been a warrior throughout his career, gradually moving up the depth chart, earning a scholarship, winning the starting job before losing it and then winning it back. And through it all, he’s become one of the best quarterbacks in the Big Ten, noted not only for his accurate arm but his ability to shake off distractions.
Whatever was troubling him and his family, he shook it off to excel for a few hours Saturday, solidifying his status as one of the Purdue QB greats.
A star is born
Purdue wouldn’t be where it is right now had it not been for the emergence of running back Devin Mockobee.
The redshirt freshman running back, who bet on himself by choosing to walk on for the Boilermakers, has found a home in the backfield. And he won’t be leaving any time soon. The southern Indiana native has proven — already — to be one of the most dynamic backs in recent Purdue history. His 99-yard day vs. Indiana gave him 849 yards on the season, plus 8 touchdowns. Mockobee could still get to 1,000 yards for the season, considering Purdue has 2 games remaining. If he does, he’ll become Purdue’s 1st such running back since Kory Sheets did so in 2008.
Mockobee didn’t make his 1st start for the Boilermakers until Game 7. Now, baring an injury, it’ll be impossible to get him out of the lineup.
Embracing the ‘dog
Since Purdue traveled to No. 2 Iowa last season and knocked off the Hawkeyes, starting a streak in which the Boilermakers won 6 of their final 8, Brohm’s squad has proven to be great away from Ross-Ade Stadium.
The Boilermakers are 6-3 as an underdog in non-home games during that span, winning 3 last season (including the Music City Bowl vs. Tennessee in Nashville), and 3 this season. The Boilermakers seem to thrive when others think less of them, and that’ll be the case vs. Michigan in Indianapolis on Saturday.
Wide Receiver U?
Rondale Moore. David Bell.
And now, Charlie Jones.
The Boilermakers have churned out big-time playmakers at wide receiver during the Brohm Era, with Jones being the latest. The Iowa transfer finished his regular-season with 97 catches for 1,199 yards and 12 touchdowns. Right now, those numbers rank 4th, 6th and 4th, respectively, in Purdue’s all-time record book for a single season.
And consider that Jones came to Purdue mainly as a return man, but one who was looking for a bigger impact potential at wide receiver. He certainly found that, becoming O’Connell’s most trusted target, just like when the duo played youth football together years ago in the Chicago area.
Injuries are a part of football, but the Boilermakers didn’t have an easy run in 2022.
Purdue lost 3 offensive linemen to season-ending injuries, including its 1st- and 2nd-string right tackles and its center. They lost starting running back King Doerue to a bad calf early in the season, an injury from which he never fully recovered. Starting wide receiver Broc Thompson has barely played due to his achy knees and lower legs. The Boilermakers didn’t have Mr. Versatility Jalen Graham for the 1st few games of the season, then had safety Chris Jefferson leave the team in October. Defensive linemen, including Branson Deen the last couple games, and linebackers have missed games due to injury, as well.
Yet, Purdue has been able to plug others in and keep chugging along. It’s a credit to Brohm’s recruiting, both of high schoolers and through the portal, that Purdue has its deepest team in years. Without that, there’s little chance Purdue could have kept winning at the end of the season.
Purdue was only 1-2 when FAU came rolling into West Lafayette in late September, and the Boilermakers were set to play without O’Connell, who was nursing what was thought to be bruised ribs.
Yet the Boilermakers prevailed, thanks to a solid outing from backup Austin Burton and a defense that found enough stops late. And the 26-24 victory marked the 1st of 4 straight wins, all of them by 10 points or less. After narrow losses to Penn State and Syracuse, Purdue had found ways to close out opponents in the final minutes.
The FAU win was a big one, because it righted Purdue after the early stumbles.
It’s easy to “What if” Purdue’s season, even though there were a lot of successes.
The Boilermakers very nearly beat Penn State in the opener, but instead allowed the Nittany Lions to rally for a win. They did the same 2 weeks later at Syracuse, when physical and mental breakdowns late proved incredibly costly. If Purdue wins those 2 games, are the Boilermakers sitting on a 10-2 season, rather than 8-4? Perhaps. Or perhaps not.
Those early miscues turned into teaching lessons for Brohm and Co., and Purdue cleaned up its act after September. Purdue wasn’t always perfect, but it was better, and that helped the Boilermakers finish 7-2 after the 1-2 start.
Purdue was victorious in its 2 trophy games this season, taking the Cannon from Illinois and the Old Oaken Bucket from Indiana.
Under Brohm, the Boilermakers are 8-2 vs. Illinois and Indiana (4-1 vs. each), as Purdue has maintained an edge on its 2 nearest rivals.