Purdue football: Grading the Boilermakers as they hit the bye
The Boilermakers head to the bye salty, having lost an opportunity to gain a half game on Illinois in the race for a Big Ten West title.
Purdue lost in all-too-familiar fashion at Wisconsin Saturday, being man-handled by the Badgers to the tune of a 35-24 loss, which broke a 4-game winning streak. However, not all is lost; Purdue still controls its destiny in the West, as it can sweep its final 4 games in November to earn itself a ticket to the Big Ten Championship game in Indianapolis.
Purdue (5-3 overall, 3-2 Big Ten) started the season 1-2 with heart-breaking last-minute losses to Penn State and Syracuse, but then reeled off the 4 consecutive, each by only a single possession. As the Boilermakers hit their bye, let’s hand out grades:
Purdue passing game
Quarterback Aidan O’Connell and the passing game have been good for the Boilermakers this season, although the unit probably hasn’t yet risen to the lofty expectation level of the preseason.
It was warranted back then, considering the way that O’Connell had ended last year, averaging about 375 yards per game with 18 touchdown and no interceptions in the last 5 games of the regular season. And O’Connell has largely been solid this season, as he’s thrown for 2,270 yards on a 66.3 completion percentage with 15 touchdowns and 8 interceptions while making 6 starts. He missed the FAU victory in Week 4, then was likely less than 100 percent in road victories at Minnesota and Maryland in subsequent weeks. Purdue ranks 12th in the country in passing offense (out of 131), averaging 314.3 yards per game.
O’Connell has at least a couple passes he’d like back, including pick-6s in losses to Syracuse and Wisconsin, but he’s made big plays in close games — as has often been his habit during his career — like 4th-quarter throws in wins over Minnesota, Maryland and Nebraska. He was likely at his best vs. the Cornhuskers, when he passed for 391 yards and 4 TDs.
Despite injuries to the top 2 right tackles, Purdue’s offensive line has held up, allowing 13 sacks.
Wide receiver Charlie Jones has had a breakout season, as he hoped when transferring from Iowa, becoming one of the best targets in the country. His 72 receptions for 840 yards and 9 TDs rank 1st, 2nd and 3rd respectively in the country. Tight end Payne Durham has been solid, too, with 39 catches and 4 scores. But the Boilermakers, who are missing veteran Broc Thompson, are still searching for a consistent secondary target on the perimeter, although TJ Sheffield and Mershawn Rice have had moments.
Purdue rushing game
Perhaps the biggest development of the season has been the inspiring play of redshirt freshman running back Devin Mockobee, who is giving the Boilermakers at least some balance in its offense.
Mockobee, a walk-on, might not have even gotten a chance had it not been for injuries to starter King Doerue, who missed 5 games with a calf injury, and backup Dylan Downing, who has been out the last couple weeks with an ankle problem. Purdue certainly is grateful it landed on Mockobee, who has done nothing but impress since moving into the rotation and then into the starting role. The Boonville, Ind., native has 561 yards rushing this season, averaging 5.4 per attempt, and has scored 6 touchdowns. He might have a chance at a 1,000-yard season, considering he’s gone for more than 100 yards in 3 of the last 4 games.
It’s made defenses at least have to respect Purdue’s ground game, which ranks 96th in the country at 130.4 yards per game. Perhaps it doesn’t sound like much, but last year the Boilermakers ranked 4th-to-last at only 84 yards per game. And in 2021, Purdue had only 7 rushing touchdowns — total — whereas it already has picked up double that this season. The rushing offense also ranks 10th in the Big Ten, after having been last for the last 3 years.
Purdue against the rush
Until its breakdowns against the Badgers Saturday, Purdue’s rushing defense had been a consistent highlight.
Probably still is.
Mostly because of its depth — and talent level — on the defensive line, where the Boilermakers are playing as many as 11 players, Purdue is 5th in the Big Ten (and 17th nationally) in rush defense, allowing 130.4 yards per game. Only Badgers back Braelon Allen has gone for more than 100 yards against Purdue this season, as he had 113 on Saturday.
Otherwise, the Boilermakers have been stout up front, forcing most of their opponents to go to the passing game more frequently than they’d desire.
Purdue against the pass
There’s little debate: Purdue’s pass defense has been the most disappointing aspect of the Boilermakers in 2022.
Purdue, simply put, is being regularly gashed by opponents’ passing attacks, to the tune of 242.8 yards per game (which puts the Boilermakers 87th in the country and 10th in the Big Ten). But worse than that statistic is Purdue’s propensity to give up big plays: It has allowed 15 pass plays of at least 30 yards; 8 of at least 40; 5 of 50; and 5 of 60. Each of which ranks among the worst in the Big Ten.
It’s frustrating too, because the Boilermakers have veterans in their secondary, like senior cornerbacks Cory Trice, Jamari Brown and Reese Taylor, plus senior safety Cam Allen. But Purdue hasn’t covered well — the Boilermakers have gotten decent pressures too, with 18 sacks, the 3rd-most in the conference — especially in man coverage. And defensive play-caller Ron English’s aggressiveness has put his defensive backs in compromising positions at times.
It’s been rough. Even after saying he planned to devote more time to fixing the problem after Purdue had been beaten for 4 plays of at least 40 yards vs. Nebraska, coach Jeff Brohm’s crew still suffered breakdowns vs. Wisconsin. And the pass defense, in particular, has been the culprit on the Boilermakers’ late-1st-half and late-game defensive breakdowns, of which there have been many.
Place-kicker Mitchell Fineran has made 9 of his 13 field goal attempts, but missed a gimme of only 26 yards Saturday at Wisconsin, at a point when the Boilermakers were desperate for points. But for the most part, he’s been consistent, as long as he’s inside 40 yards. Punter Jack Ansell has taken a giant step forward as a sophomore, upping his average to a robust 44.3 yards per attempt.
But the return game hasn’t amounted to much, even with Jones as the primary return man.
Brohm deserves a ton of credit for putting the Boilermakers in position for victories during the 4-game winning streak, then making the right decisions to hang on for single-possession Ws.
Maybe lessons learned after Purdue lost close ones vs. Penn State and Syracuse, each one due at least in part to the Boilermakers’ own mistakes, both mental and physical. The loss to the Orange was particularly disheartening — and Brohm takes part of the blame — for the multiple unsportsmanlike and personal foul penalties that undercut the Boilermakers chance to hang on for a win in the final minute.
But Brohm has been able to manage Purdue through a myriad of injuries, including at one point to as many as 6 starters. The bye will help, at least somewhat, to get the Boilermakers healthy for the last month. Most importantly, however, Purdue is in position during the last 4 games to make some real noise in the Big Ten West and get into the league title game, and that was likely the No. 1 goal before the season started.