Purdue football: Handing out team superlatives for the 2021 season
Purdue has 8 victories before its bowl game, the best regular-season win total since 2006.
But it might be a few years before that, in 2003, that the Boilermakers last had such a well-rounded team that was capable of beating some of the best teams in the country. This year, Purdue knocked off top-5s Iowa and Michigan State, plus won at Nebraska and in Wrigley Field vs. Northwestern.
It was a great year.
Following, let’s hand out some awards.
Team MVP: David Bell
David Bell made the Boilermakers believe they could win every time they stepped on the field.
The junior wide receiver, a Biletnikoff Award finalist, was frequently unstoppable; just ask the defenses of Iowa and Michigan State, each of which he burned for more than 200 yards while helping the Boilermakers score 2 of their biggest upsets in program history. It’s easier to win when you’re team has the best player, and Bell made that the case frequently. And Bell’s attitude — he wanted to turn Purdue into a winner after the Indianapolis native watched the Boilermakers labor as a youth — was infectious.
Bell finished his regular season with 93 receptions for 1,286 yards (the second-most single-season yards in program history) and 6 touchdowns.
Offensive MVP: Aidan O’Connell
Purdue’s offense was stuck in the mud for a few games in the first half of the season.
Aidan O’Connell solved those problems. Once the veteran became Purdue’s starting quarterback, the offense started to find a groove. The Boilermakers won 4 of their last 5 games, with O’Connell averaging better than 300 yards per game with 15 total touchdowns and no interceptions.
It wasn’t as if O’Connell was a complete unknown before he replaced Jack Plummer in Week 5. He had beaten out Plummer a year ago, then started the first 3 games before an ankle injury put him on the shelf. But O’Connell has never been better than how he ended the season, and now there’s intrigue about whether he could return for a super senior season in 2022, when he’d be one of the best signal-callers in the Big Ten.
Defensive MVP: George Karlaftis
Purdue needed its leader to embrace the new defensive scheme installed by first-year co-coordinator and play-caller Brad Lambert.
George Karlaftis complied with a complete buy-in, as the junior defense reveled in the Boilermakers’ move to a more aggressive four-man front that took advantage of his — and his teammates’ — strengths. Karlaftis finished the year with 5 sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss, but more than even the statistics, he had his teammates believing that they could battle week in and week out.
True Freshman of the Year: Jack Ansell
Probably a good sign of the Boilermakers’ depth — Purdue is far from a finished product, but is building toward having more experience in its 2-deep — Jeff Brohm didn’t have to play true freshmen on offense or defense, other than a few instances for minimal snaps on the offensive line.
Punter Jack Ansell was the most impactful true freshman, and he came through the season only OK. The Australian booted the ball for an average of almost 38 yards per attempt. Brohm repeatedly said that Ansell was great in practice, but hadn’t always seen that translate to Saturdays, where inconsistently too frequently struck, and the Boilermakers had a couple weeks this season in which the competition to punt was opened back up.
Two others also punted this season for the Boilermakers.
Transfer of the Year: Tyler Witt
When Tyler Witt transferred to Purdue in the offseason, it was though that the former Western Kentucky offensive guard would be joining a deep Boilermakers line.
But attrition took its toll over the months, with Purdue losing the services of 4 likely backups (although backups who had previous starting experience). That meant that Witt would need to be ready to go from Day 1. The 6-foot-2, 305-pounder was a mainstay at right guard, helping an offensive line that, despite having limited depth, performed well in the second half of the season.
Most improved: Jalen Graham
Purdue might have been in big trouble had it not had a play-maker at linebacker. And although Jalen Graham had shown signs of being a potential star in previous seasons, he’d not yet done so consistently. But in 2021, the junior blossomed into probably the Boilermakers’ second-best defender. He finished with 52 tackles (the fifth-most at Purdue) but more than that, he also had 6 pass breakups and 2 interceptions, one of which he returned for a touchdown.
Biggest surprise: Jackson Anthrop
About a million years ago — give or take — Jackson Anthrop led the Boilermakers in pass receptions (it was 2017, in Brohm’s first year). But in the years since, Anthrop had been only a role player, mainly because Purdue had recruited more athletic, talented players, mainly fellow slot man Rondale Moore.
But with Moore now playing for the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals, Anthrop’s role was set to expand once again. Having used his Covid year to come back for a 6th season, the first half of the year was rather ho-hum. But once Brohm decided he was going to start using Anthrop as a utility man — playing him in the slot and in the backfield — the veteran came back alive. He might be one of the biggest reasons why Purdue is back bowling this season after a 2-year absence.
Anthrop finished with 48 receptions for 496 and 5 TDs, all the scores in the second half of the year, plus he had an additional 81 yards rushing.
Play(s) of the Year: 3-and-out vs. Iowa
Purdue led at 2nd-ranked Iowa late in the 3rd quarter, when a pass to TJ Sheffield appeared to give the Boilermakers a 17-point edge and a likely victory against the previously undefeated Hawkeyes. But on review the replay official correctly ruled that Sheffield had lost control of the football moments before the ball hit the near-right pylon, changing the play from a touchdown to a touchback. Iowa took possession, suddenly with a bit of momentum that might help the Hawkeyes get back in the game.
Karlaftis and the defense made sure that didn’t happen. On Iowa’s ensuing drive, D-linemen Branson Deen and Jack Sullivan combined on a first-down sack, then Karlaftis brought Spencer Petras to the ground for a sack on second down. On third down, Graham broke up a pass, as Purdue’s defense dominated to force a 3-and-out and keep momentum with the Boilermakers. They went on to win 24-7.
Win of the Year: 40-29 vs. Michigan State
Purdue followed the victory at Iowa with a home loss to Wisconsin, and so any good will gained by the upset in Iowa City was lost again.
But the Boilermakers got another chance, first going to Nebraska to pull out a hard-fought win in Lincoln, then returning home to welcome another top-5 opponent in Michigan State.
Behind O’Connell and the offense, Purdue raced to a 16-point 4th-quarter lead, then held on late in the game for a 40-29 victory. The win marked the Boilermakers’ second over a top-5 opponent in the same season for the first time since 1960.