Purdue football: What's at stake in the final game of the 2021 regular season
Before the season, Purdue fans would have overwhelmingly accepted a 6-win regular season and a trip to a bowl game after a 2-year absence.
They would have doubled down on the choice midway through the season, when Purdue dropped an Oct. 2 home game to Minnesota that it was favored in by a few points to drop to 3-2 on the eve of the bye week. The Boilermakers were sunk. The climb to 6 had become more difficult because they lost a game they could have won. And in the 5 weeks after being idle, the Boilermakers were set to face 3 teams ranked in the top 5 plus Wisconsin, whom they seemingly never beat, and a potentially difficult road trip to Nebraska.
At that point, not only would fans have gladly accepted 6 wins, Purdue itself — even though Jeff Brohm likes to say the program plays 1-game seasons — might have been secretly eyeing the total as well.
But here we are.
With their convincing 32-14 win over Northwestern in Wrigley Field on Saturday, the Boilermakers slammed past the 6-win threshold. Now they can zero in on 8, which would represent their highest total since the 2007 season in Joe Tiller’s 2nd-to-last year as the Boilermakers’ head coach. And Saturday’s win kept hopes alive that Purdue could reach 9, which it hasn’t done since 2003.
Of course, it wasn’t all that long ago that Purdue won 9 games — across 4 seasons — during the abysmal Darrell Hazell Era.
Brohm helped to put those years quickly in the rearview mirror during his first 2 seasons in West Lafayette, when he led Purdue to bowl games in 2017 and ’18, winning the 1st before losing the 2nd. Although the 13-13 record might have seemed pedestrian to an outsider, those close to program, and its fans, knew the truth. Hazell had left a sorry state of affairs for Brohm to clean up.
But as quickly as Brohm put a bandage on the myriad issues, the bandage slipped free, with the Boilermakers winning only 4 games in 2019 and 2 in the 6-game pandemic-shortened ’20 season. It raised questions, rightfully so, about whether the first 2 seasons were a flash or more than that.
Seems answered now.
Brohm has rediscovered his playcalling magic, with the offense playing an aggressive, fun style behind a hot quarterback in Aidan O’Connell, who can get the ball to the Boilermakers’ weaponry. And Brohm’s offseason moves to dump the old defensive leadership for new has paid off.
Starting with those defensive changes — the hiring of Brad Lambert to run the defense as co-coordinator and play-caller and the addition of veteran assistants Mark Hagen and Ron English — Brohm has made all the right moves. Or at least most of them. He had to make the not-at-all clear decision to go away from opening day starter Jack Plummer to O’Connell before the Minnesota game, then stuck with O’Connell through his so-so performance in the loss to the Golden Gophers, then again despite a 3-interception day in a home loss to Wisconsin.
That has paid off. O’Connell has revived the Boilermakers during their run to 7 wins. The veteran has been dialed in the last 3 games, throwing for 1,349 yards (449.7 per game) on 109-of-145 (75.2 percent) passing with 10 TDs and 0 turnovers. Since becoming the starter, O’Connell is 231-of-314 (73.6 percent) for 2,528 yards (361.1 per game), with 16 touchdowns and 4 interceptions.
Now comes Indiana.
A year ago, these teams were in different places, with the Hoosiers fighting for a spot atop the Big Ten East — and as the primary challenger to Ohio State — and the Boilermakers having lost 4 straight to end the season. IU went to its 2nd straight bowl game; Purdue missed its 2nd straight.
But the resumption of the Old Oaken Bucket game, after it was COVID-canceled last season, gives the Boilermakers a chance to cap their comeback year. And the hapless Hoosiers, who have lost 7 straight, might be ripe for being picked off.