Purdue football: Bittersweet loss as Jeff Brohm, Aidan O'Connell near end of 6-year run together
INDIANAPOLIS — For Aidan O’Connell, the storybook ending would have been a Big Ten championship Saturday night and a trip to the Rose Bowl.
But as he knows — and the rest of us who don’t know already will learn soon enough — life isn’t a storybook. The senior quarterback is enduring the greatest of tragedies, after his older brother, Sean, unexpectedly died a week-and-a-half ago, adding heartbreak to the end of his playing days for the Boilermakers. It would have marked an incredible story to see O’Connell rise this week to lead the Boilermakers to an upset of the Wolverines at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. And for a half, it looked like he might do it.
“I knew what Aidan was all about,” coach Jeff Brohm said following the loss. “He’s always had strong faith. He’s always been a hard-worker. He’s always been able to figure out what was right and how to handle it. Of course, when something like that (tragedy) happens, we want to be there for him. There’s not a whole lot more we can do, other than just try to support him. It’s tough. No one wants to see that happen to anybody.
“But we knew Aidan. We knew what Aidan was all about, and I’m glad the whole country does now because he’s a terrific young man.”
Neither O’Connell, who passed for 366 yards, nor Purdue has reason to feel anything but pride about the way the Boilermakers handled their 1st-ever B1G title game appearance. The Boilermakers showed up, leading in the 1st half and trailing by only a point at halftime, as they’ve frequently done during their history against top-ranked opponents.
In the end, O’Connell and the Boilermakers ran out of heroics, losing 43-22.
Certainly, Purdue wants to win every time out. But let’s consider where the Boilermakers came from only half a dozen years ago, when Brohm was taking over as the head coach. In its previous 4 seasons, Purdue had won only 9 games, and only 3 of those came in the Big Ten (2 vs. Illinois and 1 against Nebraska), as the program had become not only to one of the worst in the Big Ten but in all of the Power 5. It was an embarrassment.
But Brohm saw promise.
One of his first moves then was to recruit an unheralded quarterback from Chicagoland to walk on, adding yet another player to the position group. O’Connell sat way, way down at 8th on the depth chart (out of 9 players), leaving him little opportunity even for scout team repetitions. Little did Brohm and O’Connell know then that they’d be tied together in Purdue’s rebirth.
Six years later, the Boilermakers clawed their way to a Big Ten West Division title and a chance in the conference title game. Purdue has won 17 games in a 2-season stretch for the 1st time since the 1997-98, when Joe Tiller had done similar work in reviving a dormant program. And the Boilermakers likely will go to a warm-weather Florida bowl, probably in Orlando or Tampa, for the 1st time since the 2006 season.
Brohm brought the energy back to the Purdue program, a characteristic that had been missing since the end of the Tiller Era. And O’Connell brought back its heart. His rise to starter — and one of the best quarterbacks in the Big Ten, if not the country — encapsulates this year’s team. Nothing was given. The 2022 Purdue squad features a former walk-on quarterback in O’Connell throwing to a one-time walk-on receiver in Charlie Jones, with a current walk-on, Devin Mockobee, at running back. All 3 were central to the Boilermakers’ fortunes this season and represented their best opportunity for an upset victory over Michigan.
But it wasn’t meant to be.
The Boilermakers had to be flawless, or darn close to it, to able to score the victory. And while Purdue played tough and smart, and matched Michigan’s physicality, it wasn’t perfect. The Boilermakers committed an offsides penalty that extended a Michigan drive, allowing the Wolverines to end with 7 rather than 3. It might have cost Purdue a chance to take the lead into the half. And Purdue had to settle for 5 field goals, rather than being able to punch the ball into the end zone, a trend that probably cost the Boilermakers an opportunity to be within a possession in the 4th quarter.
Still, there was nothing to be ashamed of in Saturday’s performance, especially when we consider where they were only a few years ago.
“I’m proud of our guys,” O’Connell said. “We did a great job of battling. Guys are playing hurt. Guys have their backs against the wall and are trying to find a way to make plays. Obviously, it wasn’t enough, but I’m super proud of our team.”