Purdue football: 5 who must step up as injuries accumulate
Purdue’s win Saturday over FAU might have looked ugly.
But there’s good reason why the Boilermakers had to scratch and claw to find a way to pull out a 28-26 Homecoming victory; Purdue was without 6 starters — quarterback Aidan O’Connell, running back King Doerue, wide receiver Broc Thompson, right tackle Cam Craig, corner/safety/nickel Jalen Graham and cornerback Reese Taylor.
It’s not yet clear which of them — if any — will be back by Saturday, when the 2-2 Boilermakers play their biggest game of the season, traveling to 4-0 Minnesota, the favorite in the Big Ten West at this point. So if Purdue is still short-handed, others will need to step in to big roles.
Let’s take a look at 5 (or 6) players who must step up if Purdue is to survive its mounting injuries:
Making his first start since 2019, Austin Burton acquitted himself well Saturday, throwing 3 touchdown passes in leading the Boilermakers to a win over the Owls.
But if the 6th-year senior makes another start — starter Aidan O’Connell is likely to be a game-time decision for the second straight week, after Jeff Brohm stayed mum on the status of his star QB during Monday’s press conference — he’ll need to take another step forward. Against FAU, Burton was an efficient 21-of-29 with the 3 scores (but 1 interception), and Purdue stayed fairly conservative in its passing approach, as the Boilermakers passed for only 166 yards.
Against the Golden Gophers, Brohm is likely to need to open up the playbook, seeking to get the ball down the field more frequently, as he does with the stronger- and more accurate-armed O’Connell. In Saturday’s 2-point win, Burton was 6-of-8 on attempts behind the line of scrimmage and attempted only 1 pass of at last 20 yards through the air.
The Boilermakers played more east-west, rather than their usual north-south. Look for Burton to push the envelop down the field, even if it’s not his greatest strength, if only to try to loosen up a Minnesota defense that is likely to try to crowd the line.
Dylan Downing/Devin Mockobee
When O’Connell is in the shotgun, it’s not hard to figure out what Purdue’s offensive goal is: chuck the ball down the field with a vertical passing game that is likely one of the best in the Big Ten, if not the country.
But objectives change with Burton under center. Purdue must be able to run the football, maintain better balance offensively and keep the ball out of the hands of the opposing offense. It was able to do so vs. FAU, when the Boilermakers rushed for 188 yards on 5.2 per carry with a touchdown. Former transfer walk-on Dylan Downing rushed for 113 yards, with a long of 30, while averaging 7.5 per tote. Fellow walk-on Devin Mockobee, probably the Purdue back with the most upside, had 37, while Central Michigan transfer Koby Lewis added 22. Burton, a quality runner from the QB position, gained 28.
It goes against Brohm’s natural inclination — he wants to call passing plays on every down — but the Boilermakers must stick with the running game against the Gophers if O’Connell stays on the sideline for another week.
Purdue’s had the luxury of depth and experience along its offensive line.
That’s beneficial now, as Craig missed the FAU game and could again be sidelined for Minnesota. But Purdue has 5th-year senior Daniel Johnson ready as a fill-in starter. The 6-5, 305-pounder was a part-time starter during his previous 3-year career at Kent State, and he has versatility ,too, having played both guard and tackle.
Craig has had back and knee injuries during his career, so having a quality backup is a positive for the Boilermakers.
Purdue needs a consistent 2nd receiver to complement the outstanding play of No. 1 Charlie Jones.
If Thompson was healthy, it would almost certainly be him, after the oft-injured receiver had a gigantic end to his 2021 season with a break-out game vs. Tennessee in the Music City Bowl win. But Thompson had multiple offseason leg surgeries, leaving him trying to battle his way back to the field. He’s a warrior, so for him to be on the sideline for 2 straight games is an indication he’s hurting.
Maybe Mershawn Rice can develop into the No. 2. Purdue is giving the 4th-year junior chances, but he’s not yet seen his targets tick up. He started last week, but Burton never sent a ball his direction. Rice, a former 4-star prospect, is a talented athlete, but injuries have taken their toll over the years. Still, Purdue is hoping there’s still something left, so that he can turn into a big-time threat.
With Big Ten play back in swing, Purdue might want to get bigger in its front, rather than playing primarily a nickel-based defense. That’s especially true with Graham, the Boilermakers’ best and most versatile defender, out with a leg injury. If he was available, Purdue would be comfortable playing him at safety, nickel and in the box at linebacker when the down and distance warranted.
But without Graham, there are times when Purdue needs to play bigger. Enter Jacob Wahlberg, a 6-5, 235-pound junior who had a team-high 8 tackles vs. FAU, forced a fumble and had the deflection that Purdue turned into an interception that helped to seal the victory.