Purdue football: 4 reasons the Boilermakers recovered to win 2 straight
Purdue has won back-to-back games, including an upset as a near-10-point underdog at Minnesota on Saturday, to straighten out what had appeared, if only briefly, to be a season that was turning a bit sideways.
It’s not been easy. Jeff Brohm’s team has played with as many as 6 starters out, including a game without starting quarterback Aidan O’Connell. And O’Connell’s return vs. the Golden Gophers came with the 6th-year senior looking less than 100 percent.
But Brohm has found a way, scheming Purdue into good situations while relying on other players, previous unknowns, to step into big roles. Let’s take a look at 4 reasons why the Boilermakers have turned things around — as least as of early October.
Brohm doesn’t like conservative football.
He even once admitted it nearly physically pains him to call running plays, as he much prefers to chuck the ball — and caution — to the wind. But in the last 2 games, circumstances have forced his hand, first because he had backup quarterback Austin Burton under center against FAU, then because he played a seemingly compromised O’Connell for the Minnesota game.
In the 2 games, both victories, Purdue combined for 71 pass attempts vs. 63 rushes, about as balanced as the Boilermakers have ever been in back-to-back games during Brohm’s 6-year tenure.
In the win over FAU, Burton managed the game with great efficiency, directing a running game that out-gained the passing attack — 188 yards to 166 — and tossing 3 touchdowns. O’Connell, who is dealing with an undisclosed upper-body injury (most likely bruised ribs), wasn’t as sharp as typical, throwing for 199 yards and 2 interceptions, but he hit a game-long 28-yard pass to Charlie Jones to set up the go-ahead 4th-quarter field goal against the Gophers. His veteran presence as he gutted it out seemed to inspire his teammates.
Because of the quarterback situation, Brohm has been forced to lean on the running game, which has ranked last in the Big Ten the past 3 seasons, and a more conservative passing game.
During training camp, Devin Mockobee kept making plays, showing a burst and slipperiness than was separating him from Purdue’s other running back options.
But the redshirt freshman was — and still is — a walk-on. Did his carries, largely against Purdue’s reserves during those training camp practices, matter all that much?
Well, as it turns out, the answer is yes.
Mockobee has proven to be able to make the same kinds of plays on Saturdays, never more so than vs. Minnesota, when his late 68-yard dash through the Gophers’ defense and ensuing 2-yard run proved to be the game-sealing offensive plays. Mockobee had a career-high 112 yards, and the touchdown, on 11 carries, a week after going for 37 on 6 totes vs. FAU.
The 6-foot, 195-pound Mockobee has a swagger that belies his status, as he showed when he burst through the line, juked past a couple defenders, then stiff-armed his way to the 68-yard run. And it was good to see him overcome an early fumble that might have scarred other, less confident running backs.
Mockobee appears more mature than his years. He needs to get physically stronger in the years to come, but Purdue has potentially found its running back not only of the future but of the right now.
Co-defensive coordinator and play-caller Ron English admits now that he might have been a little overly aggressive in the first few games of the season, stacking the box to stop the run but at the cost of his secondary. Too frequently, the DBs were exposed in man coverage with a single-high safety.
Yes, Purdue stopped the run, but it also gave up big plays, like the late touchdown that turned a likely win at Syracuse into a sure loss.
Against Minnesota — and to a lesser extent FAU, too — the Boilermakers found a balance defensively, still loading the box to stop the run, but doing a better job of not hanging out their cornerbacks. Veteran corner Cory Trice played his best game vs. Minnesota; Reese Taylor returned from a one-game absence to turn in a solid game; Bryce Hampton, who had given up the game-winning TD vs. the Orange, was back in the rotation and seemed to hold up well.
The Boilermakers still stopped the run, giving up only 47 yards on 26 carries without sacrificing the back half of the defense.
Jacob Wahlberg was an after-thought during training camp.
The 4th-year junior was likely Purdue’s 6th linebacker and likely to see the field only at the end of blowouts. Things have changed. The 6-4, 235-pounder has been a game-changer the last 2 weeks. He forced a fumble on FAU’s last drive, creating a loose ball picked up by teammate Sanoussi Kane to seal the win, and also tipped a pass that led to an interception. Against Minnesota, he made a pick of his own pick.
Where would Purdue be without him?
With Jalen Graham out the last 4 weeks — Brohm said Monday that Graham, a linebacker/safety/nickel, could be back for the Maryland game — the Boilermakers have lacked play-makers at linebacker. But Wahlberg has filled that void, so much so that he’s going to be hard to take off the field.