Purdue football: 5 keys for the Boilermakers as they look to rebound at Illinois
Few thought Purdue-Illinois would have gigantic Big Ten West implications before the season, yet the game is here and it certainly does.
And that’s even after the Boilermakers and Fighting Illini suffered disappointing home losses last weekend. But the winner of Saturday’s game has a path to a Big Ten West Division title, although for Purdue that path does involve needing help elsewhere.
But the Boilermakers can control only what they can control, and that’s in Champaign on Saturday. Let’s take a look at 5 keys for Purdue:
Purdue can ill afford to repeat the kind of starts it’s had the past 2 games, falling behind 21-0 in the 1st 13 minutes in the loss at Wisconsin, then 17-0 about 24 minutes into the defeat vs. Iowa.
The Boilermakers responded — somewhat — in Madison, outscoring Wisconsin 24-14 after the early Badgers blitz, but the deficit was too big to overcome. Purdue had moments against the Hawkeyes, but couldn’t fully capitalize on a late-1st-half red zone opportunity, settling for a field goal, then couldn’t get in a rhythm after halftime. And Iowa’s 75-yard TD run on the 2nd play of the 2nd half proved to be the back-breaker.
Purdue must avoid playing from behind against the Fighting Illini. No. 1, the Boilermakers might be able to climb out of shallow holes, like they did against FAU and Maryland earlier this season, but massive deficits are proving to be a problem. And No. 2, trailing would play directly into Illinois’ hands, considering Bret Bielema would lean in on the Illini’s strengths, a running game that ranks 33rd in the country (of 131), at 193 yards per game, and a defense that ranks tops in the country in points allowed, at only 10.4 points per game.
Contain Chase Brown
Illinois running back Chase Brown is going to get his yards. It seems inevitable.
The Illinois junior is averaging 149.3 yards per game, 2nd-best in the country, and his 1,344 yards lead the nation. Those numbers are incredibly impressive, but it’s equally so that Brown has been so consistent this season. The 5-11, 205-pounder has hit triple-digits in all 9 Illinois games this season, the lowest total being his 108 yards in a blowout of Chattanooga when he didn’t take a snap in the 4th quarter. Otherwise, he’s totaled between 129 and 199 yards.
The Boilermakers’ rush defense might be up to the task, at least in terms of holding Brown to the lower end of his typical range. Purdue’s allowing only 118.4 yards per game, 25th-best in the country, and only 3.75 per carry. But the last 2 games haven’t been as good as the first 7, as the Boilermakers allowed 362 yards on the ground to the Badgers and Hawkeyes on 64 carries, for a too-hefty 5.7 yards per carry.
Understandably, Purdue has been concerned about breakdowns in its secondary during the last month, but perhaps a recommitment to slowing the run will get the defense — as a whole — heading in the right direction once again.
Get Aidan O’Connell grooving early
Aidan O’Connell is one of the best QBs in the Big Ten, but the veteran has found himself in a bit of a rut of late, having thrown 5 interceptions in the back-to-back losses.
O’Connell might be pressing, especially with the Boilermakers falling behind in 1st quarters. Perhaps he’s still feeling the lingering effects of an injury earlier this season, and the Badgers and Hawkeyes did knock him around, but head coach Jeff Brohm said earlier this week that he didn’t think that was the case. Maybe his skill position teammates need to step up to give him more options. Maybe it’s a combination.
But Brohm has to find a way to help O’Connell get rolling again early, find his rhythm and settle into the game. That’ll be challenging against a Fighting Illini defense that has been excellent — it gives up only 152.6 passing yards per game, the best in the country — although it’s not faced a passing offense as explosive as the Boilermakers’.
Find No. 2
It could help the Boilermakers if a 2nd receiver emerged and earned O’Connell’s trust.
O’Connell likes to target Charlie Jones, and with good reason, as the senior wideout has been excellent this season. But the Boilermakers could use diversity, too, and it makes Brohm’s offense more dangerous when defenses can’t anticipate where the ball is going.
Tight end Payne Durham had an atypically quiet afternoon vs. the Hawkeyes, so he’ll likely be a major part of the attack, as he usually is. TJ Sheffield, Mershawn Rice and Tyrone Tracy have shown flashes this season. Perhaps Broc Thompson, who has missed all but 2 games with a knee injury, could return.
Brohm has been tight-lipped about a return date, probably because it’s dependent on how soon Thompson can feel well enough in his rehabilitation. But if Thompson can get back, he and O’Connell already have developed a chemistry that might help the offense.
The kitchen sink
Purdue’s best bet in solving — or at least lessening — its recent problems in pass defense might be up front.
If the Boilermakers can create more pressures, then that might disrupt Illinois quarterback Tommy DeVito enough to force him into mistakes (although he’s hitting on 72 percent of his attempts with just 2 interceptions this season). Purdue would be willing to take some risks, and maybe give up a few big plays, if it could do that in exchange for collecting turnovers.
Of late, Purdue is not only giving up the yardage, but it’s not generating turnovers either, and it’s creating situations that are hard to overcome.