So a lot has changed...obviously. Heck, a lot has changed for Purdue in just the last year. Head coach Jeff Brohm left Western Kentucky for the Boilermakers and turned them into a top-tier defense and bowl eligible team in his first year in charge of a Big Ten program.
To learn about what Brohm has done there and what makes this team tick I turned to my counterpart over at Hammer and Rails, Travis Miller, to ask him a few questions about his team to get ready for the bowl game.
If you want to read what I told him about Arizona, check out the other half of our Q&A here.
Jeff Brohm has obviously been successful at Western Kentucky and now in his first year at Purdue. What's the biggest thing that changed from last year?
Miller: We actually have a defense now. Yes, Brohm is known as an offensive innovator, but our offense has truly been up and down. Until Anthony Mahoungou came on late in the last three games we lacked consistency at receiver. Our offensive line has often been held together with duct tape, bailing twine, and prayer. We lost two of our best running backs (Tario Fuller and Richie Worship) for the season. The bottom point was scoring just 12 points at Rutgers in a game we really should have won. The next week we dropped a home game by one to Nebraska that we let go in the final minute.
Through it all the defense has been impressive. The run defense especially has been light years better by putting our talented linebackers actually on the field as opposed to running the ridiculous 4-2-5 we ran in 2016. They have been aggressive and have gotten after the ball. Only one team scored more than 30 on us and it took a defensive score and Lamar Jackson to do that. The defense has managed to keep us in every game thanks to coordinator Nick Holt, who was grossly overlooked for postseason honors as an assistant. They have at least given us a chance every week.
Lamar Jackson threw for 378 and ran for 107 against Purdue, but that was the first game of the year. How do you think the defense has improved that they'll be able to handle someone with a similar skillset in Khalil Tate?
It will be interesting. Jackson was just so good and elusive. Many of those 378 passing yards came after he broke containment and made an amazing play with his feet first. There is no question Tate is a similarly talented player. I see he isn’t quite the passer that Jackson is, but man, he put up some huge numbers on the ground. Since our run defense is our strength (something I have honestly not been able to say for more than a decade) it will be fun to watch.
Who is the offensive player that you think is best suited to have a big game against a terrible defense like Arizona's?
Running back Markell Jones. He had a big freshman season in 2015 and a disappointing year last year. He missed some time with a knee injury this year and then was down on the depth chart, but after Fuller and Worship were out he stepped up, especially in the last two games. He rushed for more than 200 yards in the last game against Indiana and it was the first 200 yard rushing game we have had against a Big Ten foe in 17 years. He is probably our most complete back on the roster, but he didn’t really show the same flashes from 2015 until the last two games.
What is the biggest reason that Purdue is only allowing 19.3 points per game this year, and do you see them keeping a team like Arizona near that mark?
Again, it is the run game. A common phrase I have used is that Stephen Hawking could have gone for 150 and three scores on us the past few years. Basically, any running back with a pulse would have a big day with us. The worst was last year at Maryland when we gave up 400 on the ground total, including 200+ on only 7 carries to Ty Johnson.
Now we can actually stop teams on the ground and we’re getting much better 3rd down defense. We’re pretty much doing the exact opposite of what we have done defensively for more than a decade. Giving up a 3rd and 18 no longer seems pre-ordained. We actually get some pressure on 3rd and long now as opposed to not giving up any pressure and refusing to cover the middle of the field. It’s kind of nice!
Our two conferences both missed out on the CFP. How mad were B1G fans about Ohio State getting left out?
Meh, I could care less. We’re not quite ready to compete with OSU for conference titles, so as long as we’re better I’ll take it. The last four years of Purdue football were abysmal. We only won three conference games total under Hazell and we took four this year alone. Right now we’re a little more focused on getting better and digging out of the crater Hazell left. Just reaching a bowl game is a fantastic first step and exceeded expectations.
For Purdue to beat Arizona, they must....
...have to stay strong against the run and have our offense generate some points. Really, the offense struggled most of the year. It never consistently put points on the board. I am hoping that with a month to heal up and get things more in sync it will help. Elijah Sindelar spent most of the year in a QB derby with David Blough and neither really pulled ahead (nor was either particularly bad). Since Blough dislocated his ankle against Illinois and missed the rest of the season Sindelar has done extremely well. He is basically auditioning to be the full-time starter next year as a junior with Blough being a senior. If he has a big game it might be his role for good.