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Q&A with Hammer and Rails

Will there be a Bucket Game, after all? Hmmmm. Well, let’s just pretend for a moment, shall we?

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Purdue
Purdue receiver David Bell carries the ball downfield after making a catch in the Nov. 14 game against Northwestern.
Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

We’re not confident there will be an Old Oaken Bucket game this week. It’s Monday morning and, to our knowledge, IU’s football program remains on pause. So yeah. Do the math. But we’d be happy to be wrong, and in the event that we are incorrect, we’ve gone ahead and stolen some time from Hammer and Rails’ Travis Miller, who stopped by to chat about Purdue and offer a diagnosis of things in West Lafayette.

Here’s our conversation:

I’ll be honest, I haven’t watched much (read: hardly a single second) Purdue football this year. But I glanced at the box score from last Saturday and it looked like the passing game was at least competent, if not pretty good. How are folks feeling about that part of the offense going into a game against an IU secondary that’s been really, really good this season?

It is hard to say. While the passing game has been pretty consistent and the run game, when we have committed to it, has been pretty good, there still feels like something is off on offense. We’re consistently scoring 25-30 points, but there are often a lot of points left on the field. Penalties were a part of it last week, which killed several drives. Purdue had to play from behind the entire day last week so that inflated passing numbers a bit too.

A lot of people are screaming for Jeff Brohm to put the playcalling in the hands of his brother, and just be the head coach. There is some reason for that too. Brian called a very balanced game, stay committed to the run, and it led to a really good win in the opener over Iowa. Zander Horvath was a difference-maker even on the drive where Purdue was trailing and came down for the win. When we have stayed committed to the run good things have happened. Horvath was over 100 yards three times this year, but against Northwestern and Nebraska, we rushed for a combined zero yards total.

Purdue just needs to get into a rhythm. Its best game was against Illinois and even then there were mistakes in finishing drives that left points on the field. We were pretty good at Minnesota too, but two missed field goals and an absolute theft of a call at the end cost us.

On a somewhat similar note, it’s the season of joy. Is there anything about this Purdue team right now that brings you joy — anything or anyone that you’re looking forward to watching on Friday?

David Bell. He has been the one consistent part for Purdue. He’s been over 100 yards receiving four times, has 8 touchdowns, and it would be five games if not for a rough Northwestern game where he had some drops and Greg Newsome II got pretty physical with him. Can he get to 10 TDs in just seven games? He’s just a joy to watch because he is so consistent and effortless.

As for everything else, it is just a question of consistency. Purdue can look great offensively for long stretches, but they have stagnated in the fourth quarter. The defense has really only given up one gigantic play all year (a 62 yard TD to Rutgers), but it so committed to avoiding the big play it takes no risks and it leads to drives like the last two against Rutgers. Rutgers took over with 1:47 left in the third quarter leading only 34-30. They would have the ball for 28 plays, have the ball for 15 minutes and 4 seconds, gain only 94 yards, score only three points, and pass just three times. One of those passes was also erased by a penalty. Meanwhile, Purdue had the ball for three plays and 1:43. It was maddening, especially when it was just simple read option stuff.

All that said, somehow Purdue has been in every game in the fourth quarter and at least had a chance. It is 2-4, but had one win stolen and in the other three games, it had at least a chance in the final period. It simply hasn’t gotten it done.

How does Bob Diaco keep getting Power 5 work, and will he remain a Purdue University employee after the season concludes?

I pray he doesn’t. Jack Tuttle will have no issues on Friday. Diaco refuses to generate any type of pass rush at all unless it comes from the individual efforts of George Karlaftis. Big George was great in the first game and a half, then sprained an ankle against Illinois. He missed the Northwestern game, was limited against Minnesota, and has since been out with COVID.

It is quite simple to generate drives on Purdue. Run read option on first and second down, usually getting 4-6 yards per carry. If we do force a third and 7 or longer just relax. Your offensive line will give Tuttle all day to throw to one of your excellent receivers and convert easily. There will be no pressure at all. The longer the third down, the more likely you will convert. Most of our third down stops have been mostly due to the opponent ignoring this formula and not looking downfield.

Purdue has talent on defense. Derrick Barnes and DaMarcus Mitchell are having good seasons. We just have guys playing out of position and not to their strengths because of this idiotic 3-4 scheme. If you do run on 3rd and short Lorenzo Neal has been decent in making a play in the second half, but I doubt it will matter by then unless the offense really starts clicking.

The Bucket Game always seems to be at least moderately competitive, regardless of the late-season trajectories of the teams on the field. If Purdue is to make this interesting, where does the turnaround have to start on Friday?

It has to be on defense. Last week was slightly skewed because a blocked punt, then a good punt returned combined with a penalty meant Nebraska only had to gain 18 yards for 14 points on its first two possessions. For the rest of the last two weeks, there has been too much ball control by opposing offenses. There have been far too many converted third and longs. I am positive our offense can at least score more than the six Wisconsin had and with guys like Bell and Rondale Moore you have someone who can just bust a play (and Rondale hasn’t really done that yet). We can move the ball, but our defense has not gotten needed stops each of the last two weeks. Facing your receivers I have very little confidence unless Tuttle plays like a backup. Even then, Backup QBs for Illinois, Rutgers, and Nebraska have had moments against us.

We also need improved special teams. The two missed field goals (one was blocked) were huge at Minnesota. Last week we had a punt blocked handing them seven points and a few dumb penalties. Rutgers returned a kickoff for a touchdown that changed the game. When you struggle on both sides like we tend to you can’t have glaring special teams mistakes too.

Are there any unheralded players that folks on the IU side ought to know about going into this weekend?

I mentioned Horvath above and he really has been pretty solid. He has been over 100 yards rushing against Iowa, Illinois, and Rutgers and had 100 yards receiving against Northwestern. He also had a really good game out of nowhere against you guys. If we can get him going early, stay committed to the run, and keep your offense safely on the sideline then maybe we have a chance. Purdue has had to play from behind for the entire game against Northwestern, Minnesota, and Nebraska, so maybe if it gets an early lead it gets some confidence, but we just blew a 10 point halftime lead against Rutgers for crying out loud.

Jack Plummer has generally been okay since taking over at Minnesota. He only has two interceptions against 8 TDs, but again, if the horrible Minnesota call doesn’t happen it is 9 TDs and one pick (albeit a bad one against Rutgers). He has been consistent, is more mobile than Aidan O’Connell, and has done more than enough to win each of the last three games if even half of the litany of issues we have were fixed.

There is a good game in this team. I saw it against Iowa, and arguably that is the best win either of these two teams have. Purdue was pretty solid defensively then, made some big plays like a late fumble to set up the winning drive, was balanced on offense, and played with confidence. That game showed what we are capable of. Dedrick Mackey, our top corner, seems to encapsulate good Purdue in that game from bad Purdue. Against Iowa, he made a huge play by chasing Mekhi Sargent and forcing a fumble inside the Purdue 30 that set up our winning drive as Iowa was driving to put it away. Last Saturday against Nebraska, Adrian Martinez threw a sailing pass that was well over the head of his receiver on 2nd and 21 after Purdue had cut it to 7. Purdue could have had Nebraska at 3rd and 21, down only 7, with 9 minutes left and a chance to get the ball back to tie. Instead, Mackey needlessly lowered his shoulder and popped the receiver in the back as he was landing from his jump.

Nebraska, rewarded the first down, went down for the clinching field goal.

That’s Purdue this year, just getting worse each week it seems, and I can’t explain it. It is just frustrating because we easily could be 6-0 and probably should be, at worst, 5-1 with a loss to Northwestern. We could be playing DOUBLE BUCKET GAMES FOR THE B1G TITLE, but had shot ourselves in the foot time and again.

How do you see this one playing out (including score prediction)?

You will have very little trouble in winning. This team seems broken right now because it cannot play with any consistency. Rondale hasn’t really gotten on track and we seem stuck with trying to get him the ball too much while teams are bracketing and containing him. We have had success when he has been a decoy and Jack Plummer has been pretty good. Purdue is going to have its offense going like it did in last year’s Bucket game, where a furious comeback (and a dropped pass at the end of regulation that would have gotten us in field goal range) was almost enough.

I have very little confidence in our defense slowing your receivers down because 1. They are very good, and 2. We are completely averse to having a pass rush. You should score 35 points with ease unless Tuttle just collapses. We might make it close in the fourth quarter and get within a possession (because that has happened in all six games), but I haven’t seen the consistency that makes me think we’ll win. The fact we beat Iowa gives me a small amount of hope because it turns out they are one of the closest examples of a good team in the Big Ten (there are only four, and you’re one of them), but that was weeks ago.