Purdue football: Healthy Aidan O'Connell shows he can carry Boilermakers
Purdue won 4 games in the 1st half of the season without its offense looking like its typical self.
Win No. 5 on Saturday night, a 43-37 thriller over Nebraska, saw the Boilermakers — and quarterback Aidan O’Connell in particular — come to life, and it gives hope to Purdue that it can indeed make a run in the Big Ten West this season, as it joins fellow favorite Illinois atop the division standings at 3-1 in the league.
O’Connell, the 6th-year senior QB who came to West Lafayette years ago as a walk-on, was great, even brilliant at times, in throwing for 391 yards on 35-of-54 attempts with 4 touchdowns and a 1st-drive interception. The game was reminiscent of the Boilermakers’ back-and-forth Music City Bowl victory over Tennessee in December, when O’Connell threw for more than 500 yards in helping Purdue outlast the Volunteers. (Purdue, still, is the last team to have beaten the Volunteers.)
When Purdue needed O’Connell Saturday night against the Huskers, he delivered, especially late in the game when the Boilermakers were trying to keep their visitors at an arm’s length. In the 4th quarter, O’Connell was 11-of-16 for 99 yards as Purdue chewed up the clock by twice converting 4th downs, and it scored 9 points.
“He probably had 5 or 6 throws that I don’t think anybody [self] can make,” coach Jeff Brohm said after the win, Purdue’s 4th straight. “He throws with anticipation that’s off the chart and he knows that’s his strength. He can anticipate and throw right in a window that no one else would do. … Without question, Aidan’s play, in the 4th quarter especially, was off the charts, and that was an elite level of playing quarterback.”
Two passes in the 4th stand out: On a 2nd down with about 8:30 left, as Purdue was looking to build on a 37-30 lead, O’Connell dropped an 18-yard dime to Mershawn Rice on the left sideline, putting the ball where only the receiver had a chance between the inside defender and the outside sideline. It led BTN color analyst Matt Millen to call O’Connell “Picasso.” The 2nd moment of perfection came at the end of the drive, when O’Connell hit Charlie Jones on a ridiculously sharp angle, with the receiver running almost straight down the goal line to the quarterback’s left. From the 2, O’Connell tossed the ball directly into Jones’ arms, just past the defender. After the game, Brohm thought the window to complete the pass was only about a quarter inch.
“You’ve just got to pat him on the back and say, ‘That’s a great throw,’ ” Brohm said. “It’s risky, but that’s a great throw. When he’s feeling that, you’ve just got to let him go play.”
Later in the 4th, as Purdue was milking out the last 6 minutes of clock — something the Boilermakers weren’t able to do in a season-opening loss to Penn State — O’Connell kept the sticks moving not only with his arm, but with his feet, a rarity for the pocket-passer. On a 4th-and-short from the 50, O’Connell took a shotgun snap and looked first for Jones on a short cross, then for Payne Durham near the left flat. Both had been tackled to the ground by Cornhuskers defenders (how there was no pass interference is bizarre, especially since both Boilermakers were left in pain on the turf). Seeing no where to go with the football, O’Connell raced for the 1st down after springing himself with a juke move.
Then on a 3rd-and-11 at the 2:28 mark, O’Connell ended the game by standing in the face of pressure and tossing a perfect strikes to Jones across the middle for the 1st down. O’Connell absorbed a big hit (and a roughing penalty that tacked on 15 more yards).
Purdue had been waiting for this version of O’Connell. The veteran had been injured during the loss to Syracuse last month, forcing him to miss the next week. Then when he returned vs. Minnesota and Maryland, he wasn’t yet 100-percent — although Purdue never released details of the injury, it’s thought O’Connell was suffering bruised ribs — and it was evident. His passes lacked their typical zip and he threw 3 interceptions, yet still found a way to help the Boilermakers hang on for one-possession victories.
But Saturday, he was back to his former self, playing with confidence, slinging the ball into tight windows and taking calculated risks. It has the Boilermakers atop the Big Ten West, with Illinois, and thinking they can stay there.