Purdue football: At brink, Boilermakers push back to stay in West race
Purdue put itself in this position, after having lost back-to-back games in disappointing fashion over the last few weeks.
A 3rd straight loss would have dropped the Boilermakers out of Big Ten West Division contention, seen them fall to .500 overall and left a sour taste for everyone who thought Purdue had been on the verge of taking another step forward. But rather than that fate, the Boilermakers responded, as they’ve typically done in similar situations during coach Jeff Brohm’s tenure.
Purdue beat Illinois 31-24 on Saturday afternoon in Champaign, doing what the Boilermakers have done in many of their wins this season: Not playing perfectly, but making enough plays in all phases, taking advantage of opponent mistakes, then hanging on for dear life in the closing minutes.
And now, Purdue can see a Big Ten division title. The Boilermakers do need help, but it’s not an unreasonable path: Two victories by Purdue, against Northwestern and at Indiana, and a loss by Iowa, either at Minnesota Saturday or home to Nebraska the day after Thanksgiving, would give the Boilermakers the crown.
Easy? No. Possible? Certainly.
Possible because Purdue found answers against a Fighting Illini team that had been the surprise of the Big Ten. In situations like these, when it seems the Boilermakers’ wheels have fallen off — and that was the case after Wisconsin and Iowa the last 2 outings — Brohm has had a tendency to be able to rally his team.
Maybe it’s an “Us vs. the World” mentality, where he wants the Boilermakers to believe — rightly or wrongly — that no one thinks they can do it. Certainly, he wants to shut out the negativity, eliminate the external noise and let his players focus on only the task at hand. It worked in ’17 and ’18, during Brohm’s 1st 2 seasons in West Lafayette, when the Boilermakers needed wins in November to gain bowl eligibility. And last season, after a pedestrian start, Purdue won 6 of its final 8 games for a 9-win season, its 1st in nearly 2 decades.
This year, the Boilermakers were 1-2 after 3 weeks, and would soon be staring at a 2-game road trip to Minnesota and Maryland, before they reeled off 4 straight Ws to reposition themselves for a November run.
Maybe being on the road helps Brohm close his ranks. Purdue has now scored 3 road upsets this season, winning as underdogs at Minnesota, Maryland and Illinois. Add that to last season’s slate, when it won at then-No. 2 Iowa, Nebraska and vs. Tennessee in a heavily-slanted-toward-the-Vols neutral site game in Nashville, and it’s a trend.
Purdue is a flawed team, but it’s a flawed team that can win when it plays with a purpose. And the Boilermakers had rediscovered that after it’d been missing — for whatever reason — the previous 2 outings. Against Illinois on Saturday, it would have been an easy escape to not punch back, especially after falling behind yet again. But unlike the deficits vs. the Badgers and Hawkeyes, when they were down 21-0 and 17-0, respectively, the touchdown deficit in Champaign didn’t seem too big a hill.
After a shaky start, Aidan O’Connell found his groove again, seemingly for the 1st time in a month. Tight end Payne Durham was back as a focal point of the offense. Charlie Jones was sizzling once again. And the defense, maligned in almost every way imaginable lately, came up with gigantic game-changing plays, the biggest being Kieran Douglas’s late interception. And place-kicker Mitchell Fineran hit a late field goal in a swirling wind in Champaign that helped seal the victory.
It was a win for all.
Now, Brohm and the Boilermakers have to find a way to keep it rolling and do so in situations where they are expected to win, and that’s not always been easy for them. But Purdue gets the worst team in the West, then the worst team in the East, these last 2 weeks, while it keeps an eye on Iowa City and keeps hope alive for a short trip to Indianapolis.