Purdue football: 5 looming questions before Thursday's primetime home opener vs. Penn State
Purdue is on the verge of kicking off its most anticipated season in almost 20 years.
The program has reason to be excited, considering it is coming off a 9-win season, including a bowl victory over Tennessee, and is riding a 3-game winning streak. But as the Boilermakers ready for the season-opener Thursday night against Penn State in Ross-Ade Stadium, there are lingering questions that will determine whether Purdue can take another step forward.
Let’s examine 5 of them:
Is Purdue ready for primetime?
As Jeff Brohm enters his 6th season in West Lafayette, expectation levels are at an extreme high.
Unfairly or not, fans want to see the Boilermakers not only qualify for their 2nd straight postseason and 4th in the Brohm era, but also take a significant step forward and compete in the Big Ten West. Purdue has a lot going for it: A veteran quarterback and experienced offensive line, a slew of options at wide receiver, a good tight end, an aggressive — and deep — defensive line and a potentially great secondary.
It has a schedule that is friendly, as Purdue’s East Division cross-over games are Penn State, Maryland and Indiana, meaning the Boilermakers avoid Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State. But if the goal is to compete, or win, the West, then the margin for error is small. The Boilermakers can ill afford a slow start, making the Penn State game a gigantic one, as well as the early Big Ten trips to Minnesota and Maryland, 2 locations that haven’t been particularly kind to Purdue.
Has Purdue found a No. 1 receiver?
No. And it might not. But that doesn’t mean Purdue’s passing game won’t be effective or potentially even explosive.
Purdue feels good about its receiver corps, thinking that while it might not have a top target, as it did in the last several years with Rondale Moore and then David Bell, it does have several options who can make plays. Junior Broc Thompson might be the closest that the Boilermakers have to a No. 1, after his breakout performance in the Music City Bowl. But Thompson, who had 31 receptions in ’21, has only recently been eased back in to practices, after an offseason that saw him undergo surgery to both shins. He’s been cleared for Thursday night, however, giving Aidan O’Connell a familiar jersey to throw toward.
Thompson likely will be joined by Iowa transfer Charlie Jones and slot man TJ Sheffield in the starting lineup. While Hawkeyes transfer Tyrone Tracy might not start, he will get starter-like snaps, both as a receiver and as a rusher. Perhaps Purdue ends up with 4 receivers, including tight end Payne Durham, who each have around 60-70 receptions, with backups sharing the remaining opportunities.
What happens in crunch time? Purdue was heavily reliant on Bell the last couple seasons, throwing his direction when it needed a play. And Bell frequently came through. So when O’Connell needs a big conversion against the Nittany Lions, where will he turn?
Can O’Connell take his play to another level?
It’s easy to argue that O’Connell is a solid quarterback capable of leading his team to big wins, because he’s done so in the past. Last season, Purdue beat No. 2 Iowa and No. 3 Michigan State, plus had the bowl win over Tennessee.
But in 2021, O’Connell had known weapons, like Bell and fellow receiver Milton Wright (who is academically ineligible now), so he could lean on others to carry the Boilermakers. But he might not have that luxury in ’22. O’Connell is being asked to be the star of the show and raise the level of play of others around him.
Reviews from training camp have been outstanding, with Brohm saying his 6th-year quarterback has been locked in and has shown leadership. He’s had a big offseason, which saw him take advantage of some NIL opportunities, head to the Manning Passing Academy, hold his own area QB camp and get married. Now, it’s time for a big season.
Does the defense have a pass rush specialist?
It has options, but replacing George Karlaftis is going to be a committee effort.
Senior Jack Sullivan will get the nod as the new starter in Karlaftis’ D-end position. The 6-5, 275-pounder isn’t as naturally talented as his predecessor but he plays with a high motor and can be effective. He was great in the victory over Tennessee, when Karlaftis was already prepping for the NFL, including a sack.
But Purdue needs a rush from its Leo, the hybrid edge/linebacker position. Even though he might not even be the Day 1 starter, maybe that’s Scotty Humpich, the transfer from Murray State. The 6-4, 255-pounder had 2 sacks in only 4 games for the Racers last season, but might be able to increase his production as a niche pass-rush specialist at Purdue. Junior Kydran Jenkins, who started 11 games last season, had a team-high tying (with Karlaftis) 5 sacks.
It might be a youngster who turns into the biggest play-maker. Of all the options, freshman Nic Caraway seems to have the greatest upside. A former 4-star Texan, Caraway has turned in a great camp, showing that he’ll have a role in ’22, one that likely expands as he gets more experience.
Can Purdue break bad streaks?
Purdue hasn’t beaten Penn State since 2004.
It’s not won at Minnesota since 2007.
Its last victory over Wisconsin came in 2003.
It hasn’t beaten Northwestern at home since 2007.
It has played only once at Maryland, and lost 50-7 in 2016.
For the Boilermakers to have the type of season they envision, a majority of these streaks are going to need to be broken.