Rutgers and Purdue meet for the first time ever this Saturday at High Point Solutions Stadium at noon in what is the Homecoming game. While Rutgers (2-4; 1-2) is looking to build off their first Big Ten victory of the "Ash Era", Purdue (3-3; 1-2) enters this game after a hard fought, one score loss at #5 Wisconsin.
The Boilermakers are much improved this season under first year head coach Jeff Brohm. In an effort to find out more about Purdue football ahead of this weekend's game, I was fortunate to speak with Travis Miller, the founder and managing editor for SB Nation's Purdue site, Hammer And Rails. Let's kick it off!
The Jeff Brohm era is off to a good start. What is the mood like with the fan base and what are realistic expectations for the rest of this season?
TM: It is night and day different. Before Brohm came Purdue was a dead program. Darrell Hazell won 9 games in 4 years and only 5 of them were against FBS competition. He had one home win over a Big Ten team, and it took a freshman walk-on quarterback making five turnovers for that to happen. Attendance was down, we were saddled with an AD that did not know how to run a modern football program, and we had the worst facilities in the conference by a wide margin.
Things are different this year. We just finished the first year under new AD Mike Bobinski who has responded with a new commitment to the program that was badly needed. We just opened a new $65 million football performance facility that now has us on par with the rest of the conference. Finally, Coach Brohm has this team overachieving.
Before the season I felt a bowl game was possible, but only if everything went absolutely perfect. Now, 6 weeks in, we’re halfway there and we have been competitive in every game. In fact, we feel like we may have let games against Louisville and Wisconsin get away. Hazell would almost certainly be 1-5 at best right now. There is no way his team would have responded to adversity like we did against Minnesota. He would have been completely unprepared at Missouri. We probably would have lost at home to a good MAC team in Ohio. Brohm has not only given Purdue an offensive identity, he has completely changed the attitude of every player.
How has the offense and particularly, the passing game, jump started the rebuild in year one under Brohm?
TM: In reality, I don’t think it has entirely awoken yet. Wisconsin and Michigan both contained Purdue, but they are both really, really good defenses in almost every category. In the other four games Purdue has spread the ball around to a variety of receivers. At first it was Jackson Anthrop, who had four touchdowns in the first three games. Tight Ends Cole HErdman and Bryson Hopkins have been devastating over the middle and up the seam. Terry Wright has given us a speed element, while Gregory Phillips and Anthony Mahoungou have been steady producers after being overlooked for much of the Hazell era.
There is still a lot more that can be done. David Blough was virtually perfect in the first three drives at Missouri, but threw bad interceptions against Missouri. He has platooned with Elijah Sindelar and somehow coach Brohm has made it work. Sindelar has the bigger arm, but Blough has been a little more accurate. Sindlear played most of the game against Wisconsin, but struggled some against a stout defense.
Each has started three games, and I would bet both play at least some against Rutgers.
Purdue has allowed 20 sacks through 6 games, which is the most in the Big Ten. Is that more a product of throwing as often as they do or are their real issues with the offensive line?
TM: I think a little of both. The offensive line was probably my biggest concern coming into the season and it has actually performed better than I suspected. Grant Hermanns, our redshirt freshman left tackle, has done well in his first season, but he may miss Saturday’s game. The line itself is held together with a redshirt freshman, two graduate transfers that weren’t here a year ago, and two starters from last year.
I do think some of the problems come from Sindelar being a young quarterback and holding on to the ball a little too long. Also, Michigan and Wisconsin are really good and had 8 of those sacks. They just overpowered the front line. Another four came against Louisville in the first game where they were coming together. Those were the three best teams we have faced and they had 12 of the 20.
How likely is Purdue to stack 8 in the box to try and shutdown the Rutgers ground game? Have they struggled against the run because of who they've played or is it a legitimate weakness?
TM: I think much of it is because of who we played. Wisconsin is going to run for what they did on almost anyone. Louisville has Lamar Jackson, who is a stellar talent that is going to go off on people. Minnesota lacks much of a passing game and attempted 25 passes to 47 rushes. The best performance was really against Michigan, where Purdue only gave up 139 yards and 49 came on their final touchdown against an exhausted defense because it had been on the field most of the game.
Even with the numbers where they are (175 yards per game) that is still significantly better than in previous years. I think we can have a similar performance to the Minnesota game. For the most part we held the Gophers in check. They had two big plays in the first half when two of our best defenders were sitting due to targeting calls against Michigan, but they returned and things tightened significantly in the second half.
How has special teams play been this season?
TM: We haven’t had much in the return game, but Joe Schopper has been decent as a punter. We have actually used a two kicker system where J.D. Dellinger and Spencer Evans alternate kicks even on PATs. It has had mixed results. Dellinger is 8 of 8 on PATs, but 4 of 7 on field goals. Evans is 9 of 10 on PATs and 4 of 6 on field goals. Evans has the bigger leg and has been a touchback machine on kickoffs.
Are there any names Rutgers fans should know that you haven't already mentioned?
TM: Purdue’s linebackers have been excellent so far. Danny Ezechukwu leads the country in fumble recoveries and has been all over the field playing as a hybrid DE/LB. Ja’Whuan Bentley is having a great senior season and he leads us in tackles. He also had a pick-6 to seal the Minnesota game. Markus Bailey has been great on the outside and makes a lot of plays, including a nice interception at Missouri. T.. McCollum, a grad transfer from Western Kentucky with Brohm, is likely going to miss Saturday, but he has also been very good. They come up and play the run well. Also, for the first time in ages, we cover the middle of the field on third and long. It is refreshing.
What is your prediction for this game?
TM: This is a big game for Purdue because it is the first time we have been a road favorite in five years. We also now have expectations. Through 6 games we have exceeded expectations. Before the season started most people looked at Rutgers as one of the few chances for a win even before we showed the improvement we have made. Now we definitely need to take this game. I know the perception of Rutgers throughout the league is not good. The only thing that cures that is winning, and beating a terrible Illinois team doesn’t move the needle much because even Hazell did that twice in Champaign.
I think a lot of Purdue fans would see it as a big step back if we dropped this game, especially after fighting as hard as we did at Wisconsin and still taking the game to the wire. I’d like to say Purdue wins comfortably, but I am an old Purdue fan. I know to take nothing for granted. Also, I am coming to the game and Purdue is 1-10-1 when I see Purdue play in a Big Ten venue for the first time. I am bad juju.
Thanks to Travis for giving us great insight on Purdue football ahead of Saturday's matchup. You can follow him on twitter here and for the best coverage on Purdue, visit Hammer And Rails here. To read my answers to questions from Travis on Rutgers football, click here.