Purdue football: 5 key players for the last 5 games
If Purdue is to get back to the postseason in 2021, it’s going to need huge contributions from its stars — David Bell and George Karlaftis — as it has gotten through the first half of the season.
But they’ll also need big performances out of others, starting with Saturday’s game at Nebraska, if they’re to win at least 2 of their final 5 games, especially considering they’ll be the underdog in at least 3. Who needs to step up?
Let’s take a look at 5 candidates.
Purdue needs Aidan O’Connell to step off the roller coaster. The Boilermakers’ starting quarterback — Jeff Brohm reiterated he’d stay the starter vs. the Cornhuskers during his press conference on Monday — has been up and down, to say the least, in his 3 starts this season. The 5th-year senior was fantastic against Iowa, throwing for 375 yards and 2 touchdowns in the upset win, but then soured against Wisconsin, when he tossed 3 interceptions in the Boilermakers’ loss.
Purdue needs consistency. And offense.
The Boilermakers have scored only 13 points in 4 of the last 5 games, and against the Badgers, 6 of Purdue’s 13 points came on a Karlaftis defensive touchdown.
O’Connell has rolled up 8 interceptions this season, an atypically high rate (of 1 per 22 attempts, compared to 1 in only 68 attempts last season), a number that simply must reduce if the Boilermakers are to have more success offensively. O’Connell can make all the throws. He’s solid on the deep pass but more importantly the intermediate options that had been lacking with Jack Plummer as the starter. But he can’t give the ball to the other team.
The Boilermakers defense might have held up against the Badgers, and kept Purdue in the game longer, had the offense not turned the ball over 5 times.
Purdue needs its No. 1 running back on the field again. The starter has been out since early in the UConn game, sidelined after breaking his leg.
Brohm said Horvath was a “maybe” for the Nebraska game, but added that he wasn’t optimistic. Maybe the senior could return vs. Michigan State next weekend.
Whenever it comes, Horvath will be a major boost to a running game that is stuck in neutral at best, in reverse at worst. The Boilermakers finished their game vs. Wisconsin with negative-13 yards rushing, a lack of production that caused undue stress on O’Connell and the passing game. Horvath won’t cure all that ails the Boilermakers, but he’ll be a welcome return, because he gives them a physical between-the-tackles runner who can shed tackles. And he excels in the passing game, giving O’Connell and Purdue’s quarterbacks another option, one that could be particularly valuable in the red zone.
Purdue’s been on a season-long search for production out of its LEO position, the hybrid defensive end/linebacker.
Redshirt freshman Kydran Jenkins is starting to make moves toward giving the Boilermakers what they want, if only he stays healthy. Jenkins is questionable for Purdue’s trip to Lincoln because of a head injury suffered vs. Wisconsin. It’s unfortunate, because Jenkins had 6 tackles, including 2.5 for loss, in the victory.
Jenkins, who has 4 tackles for loss and 2 sacks this season, has been one of the best developments of the first half of the year for Purdue, especially considering that DeMarcus Mitchell hasn’t lived up to lofty expectations. Mitchell was nicked up in training camp and hasn’t fully recovered, giving Jenkins added opportunity; once he returns from the head injury, he’ll likely have a big chance to solidify his spot as a starter.
One of Purdue’s best defensive play-makers, Graham might be ready to take another step forward in the second half of this season.
Graham’s been outstanding for the Boilermakers through 7 games, with 27 tackles (4th-most on Purdue), 3 for loss, a sack and 5 breakups. He’s also forced a fumble and nearly had a pick-6 at Iowa, had he only held on to a ball after jumping in front of a red zone pass in the flat. Beyond the numbers, Graham, a former safety, has been one of the best cover linebackers at Purdue in the last 2 decades.
But Purdue could use a little more too, especially with two of the Boilermakers’ other play-makers — DeMarcus Mitchell and Cory Trice — sidelined due to injury.
Slot receiver TJ Sheffield has gradually carved himself out a niche this season, and looks to become a bigger piece of the offense in the season’s final 5 games.
The sophomore has 20 receptions for 139 yards with 3 touchdowns this season, but 8 of the catches have come in the last 2 games. He’s becoming a more reliable receiver for O’Connell and Co., and a good No. 2 option behind Bell.
O’Connell seems to like the slot man; perhaps it could develop into a solution for Purdue’s red zone woes.