As we appriach Saturday’s Old Oaken Bucket game, the 123rd matchup between the two programs, it’s becoming more and more apparent that we won’t be bailed out by any miraculous cancelation like Purdue was last year. Tom Allen reported that Mike Penix, Stephen Carr, Jack Tuttle and even Tiawan Mullen have been trying to get healthy enough to play this weekend, but we heard something similar last week and none of them ended up seeing time against Minnesota. By all appearances, this is a team that has given up.
Heading into the the Bucket game last year, Purdue was in the midst of a similarly painful season that also included a home loss to Rutgers. Like every team that struggled last year, Purdue fans have dismissed their two-win 2020 season as a COVID-19 related anomaly, ignoring the fact that they only won four games in 2019. Until this season, the Boilermakers had won fewer games every year since Jeff Brohm’s 7-6 campaign in his first year on the job. Even in that 2017 season, the highwater mark of Brohm’s tenure in West Lafayette, Purdue played just two Big Ten East opponents outside of Indiana, Rutgers and Michigan, and lost both games.
I’m telling you (and myself) these things in hopes that they’ll help counteract all of the narratives we’re sure to hear during the broadcast about the way Indiana and Purdue’s 2021 seasons have gone. Rivalries are great fodder for this kind of program evaluation, but to say the teams’ records this season are representative of broader trends would be a misrepresentation of the facts, at best. Tom Allen and Jeff Brohm took over as head coaches in the same season, have nearly identical records in that timespan (26-31 and 26-29 respectively), and Allen has coached in one more Bowl Game. And a simple look at records ignores the fact that Indiana plays Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State, and Penn State every single year while Brohm gets an annual date with Scott Frost.
Anyway, onto the preview:
Purdue is 7-4 on the year, a fact that any Purdue fan in your life is unlikely to let you forget. Twice, they’ve knocked off teams that were ranked in the top five at the time of their matchup, Iowa and Michigan State. The Boilermakers lost their other two matchups with ranked teams dropping an early matchup with Notre Dame 27-13 and losing to Ohio State 59-31 on November 13th. In games against unranked opponents, Purdue is 5-2, with wins over Oregon State, UConn, Illinois, Nebraska and Northwestern and losses to Wisconsin and Minnesota.
Looking past what their opponents were ranked at the time makes Purdue’s schedule a bit less impressive. That Wisconsin is now 8-3 and ranked 14th certainly helps explain that loss, but Michigan State and Iowa were not top five teams. Ohio State, the one (maybe) appropriately ranked team that the Boilermakers have seen, got out to a 52-17 lead before giving up a few scores late in the third quarter. Purdue has also struggled with some of the more mediocre teams on their schedule, eking out a 13-9 win against Illinois and beating Nebraska by just five points.
For the first three games of the season, Brohm was using some combination of the top two quarterbacks on his depth chart, Aidan O’Connell and Jack Plummer. Both have been in the program for a while and have plenty of experience, but since the Minnesota game, it’s been basically all O’Connell. He’s completed 72.7% of his 362 attempts so far this year for 19 touchdowns and eight interceptions. He’s not much of a running threat though, with a long run of eight yards this year.
O’Connell has definitely benefited from the year his receiver David Bell is having and has been finding him more of late. Bell has double-digit receptions in each of the last three games and no fewer than six receptions in a game all year. Twice, he’s had over 200 receiving yards, with his career high (240) coming this season against Iowa. Bell also has seven games with more than 100 yards receiving this year. Bringing back a half-healthy Tiawan Mullen for this one might be ill-advised, all pride set aside.
Purdue loves to pass and they are, unfortunately, pretty damn good at it. They average 346 passing yards a game, good for second in the conference and much closer to first (Ohio State, 362.3) than third (Maryland, 306.6). Predictably, their rushing offense is dead last in the conference in yards per game as they average just 75.9 yards per game on the ground. This unbalanced attack has led to them averaging 26.0 points per game, tied with Penn State for eighth in the conference.
The Boilermaker defense has also been a bit lopsided this year, coming in with the fourth-best passing defense and third-worst rushing defense in the Big Ten. Even when Penix and Tuttle were healthy, Indiana didn’t have much of a passing game to speak of. Adding Stephen Carr this week could be a big boost for the Hoosier offense though, since Purdue has been allowing 155.2 yards per game on the ground. This depends on Nick Sheridan figuring out how to get him the ball in scenarios that aren’t first down handoffs up the middle; maybe a big ask at this point in the season.
We are 60 minutes of football away from what could be a program-defining offseason. If the team had shown any signs of life over the last few games, I may be excited about the opportunity to add one final blemish to Purdue’s resume before bowl-selection. Maybe playing Penix or Tuttle will be the morale boost they need, but who knows. Crazier things have happened in rivalry games, and Indiana probably needs to rely on something wild like that if they want to cover the 16 point spread this weekend.