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Q&A with Hammer & Rails on Purdue Football

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Find out more on this weekend’s opponent

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Purdue Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

After suffering two painful losses at home, Rutgers football hits the road for the holiday weekend. The program visits West Lafayette, Indiana for the first time since joining the Big Ten. How this team responds remains to be seen, but Purdue is coming off a controversial and disappointing loss as well.

The only time these two programs have played each other on the grid iron was in 2017 when the Scarlet Knights defeated the Boilermakers 14-12. Despite Purdue having a lot more success since that game, this road contest is certainly one that Rutgers could be competitive in.

In order to find out more about this week’s opponent, I was fortunate to speak with Travis Miller, who is the founder and site editor of Hammer and Rails, SB Nation’s Purdue site. Here are his answers regarding the current state of the Boilermakers entering Saturday’s matchup against Rutgers.

AB: Purdue’s season has been a bit of a rollercoaster, especially after last week’s controversial heartbreaking loss. What do you think the mindset of the team is at this stage and how have they performed vs. expectations entering the season?

TM: It is really hard to say. I was really impressed by Jack Plummer last week, to be honest. Aidan O’Connell was fine of the most part except for relying on David Bell too much against Northwestern, but Plummer played extremely well at Minnesota and gives a different element to the offense because he is at least a threat to run at times. O’Connell is a good passer, but makes Peyton Manning in Denver look like Lamar Jackson. Plummer has already been named the starter this week, so that is a plus.

I hope this team is pissed off because, pardon my French, they were robbed by an absolute horseshit call. The Iowa win looks pretty good right now, but nearly blowing the Illinois game is concerning. Purdue had its chances against Northwestern, but couldn’t convert. The Minnesota game just angers me. Yes, there were two missed field goals that were critical, but we did enough to win and were robbed.

How does that affect the team going forward? The next two games are at home and Purdue is favored. I think they are critical for the program as a whole, however, because we need to have this year as a step forward. Jeff Brohm’s teams have often played to their level of competition, and against a Rutgers team that plays hard the entire game that concerns me. I can see us dropping this game and suddenly there would be a ton of questions.

AB: What are the strengths and weaknesses of this team entering the matchup against Rutgers?

TM: Purdue currently has the best passing offense in the Big Ten and showed no drop off going from O’Connell to Plummer. Also, getting that Rondale Moore guy back helps a lot too. We finally got to see what Moore and David Bell can do together and they can absolutely torch secondaries. When you through in Payne Durham (the TE robbed on the Minnesota play) and Milton Wright Purdue can chuck the ball all over the field as long as the line holds up. Zander Horvath, outside of the Northwestern game, has given us a consistent run game too. That was missing all season last year.

The defense has been a concern though. We just gave up 34 points to a team that barely managed seven a week earlier. There has been absolutely no pass rush whatsoever in the last two and a half games. George Karlaftis left the Illinois game with an ankle injury, didn’t play against Wisconsin, and was limited against Minnesota. He is the only one that has provided any kind of pressure. The Northwestern offensive line completely manhandled us in pass protection. Tanner Morgan had time to throw and his receivers won a lot of 50/50 balls. At least Lorenzo Neal has made some big fourth quarter plays in the last two games to give us a chance late.

AB: What is the quarterback situation heading into Saturday and who do you expect to start?

TM: Plummer has already been named the starter and I think he played really well at Minnesota. I don’t put the late interception on him because, again, it doesn’t happen without the OPI call. He was going for Moore who was interfered with in his own right on the play. I think he has a higher ceiling than O’Connell, but we originally went with O’Connell because of his consistency. Both have played really well and the passing game is over 300 yards per game with only three picks. Again, having Bell and Moore helps a lot.

AB: Who are key players on both sides of the ball that Rutgers fans should be aware of?

TM: As mentioned above, David Bell and Rondale Moore and incredible. They might be the two best receivers in the Big Ten. Bell has played like an All-American with 39 receptions for 425 yards and 6 TDs in four games. He makes the difficult catches, steadily moves the chains, and just gets open. Then there is Moore. In one game he had 18 touches 136 yards from scrimmage, a touchdown, and was a slight bobble from a second score. When he gets the ball in his hands there is a chance he will score from anywhere on the field.

Defensively I have really been pleased by DaMarcus Mitchell and Derrick Barnes. They have been solid at linebacker (though Mitchell missed the Minnesota game) and made some big plays in the first three games. A healthy Karlaftis gives an All-Big Ten caliber defensive end, but he will miss this game due to testing positive for COVID-19. Lorenzo Neal has played like the giant run stuffer in the middle he needs to be and he made some very big plays to get us the ball back in the fourth quarter in each of the last two games.

AB: What is the biggest reason for optimism and pessimism from a Purdue perspective against Rutgers?

TM: I have some optimism because an angry Purdue team will be playing at home against a team it should be able to move the ball against. All due respect, but statistically Rutgers has one of the worst defenses in the league and Purdue’s passing game has been really good outside of the Northwestern game. I expect to move the ball and score some points.

I am pessimistic however because I am a Purdue fan. We have an uncanny ability to have things go wrong right when it seems they are going right. You guys are 1-4, but you have played your asses off in every game. That’s quite impressive. Nothing is going to come easy and you’re not going to quit. The defense has had a lot of “not great” moments. All four games have been decided by a touchdown or less. We have had good luck and bad luck. I feel like we absolutely need to turn the corner and win the next two games against Rutgers and a reeling Nebraska or people will really start questioning coach Brohm because this was supposed to be a table setting year before a monster 2021.

AB: Emotions will be key for both teams on Saturday. What is your prediction for the game?

TM: I really expect a close game. You guys have impressed me by just how hard you play. That Ohio State game was impressive because the Buckeyes won comfortably, but there was an element of “dammit, these guys just won’t go away!” It remeinds me of our game with Illinois. Purdue had been sloppy and left points on the field (like against Minensota), but was still up 21 in the fourth quarter. The Illini were able to hang around, get two scores, and had a first down in the red zone in the final minutes before Purdue got a stop. I can see that happening again.

The biggest factor is “how shook is Purdue after getting robbed?” If we come out flat Rutgers can absolutely win.

Thanks to Travis for taking the time to give such great insight on Purdue football ahead of Saturday’s game. You can follow him on Twitter here and make sure to visit Hammer and Rails for complete coverage of Purdue athletics. For my answers to his questions on Rutgers football, click here.