For the first time since 2016, Penn State and Purdue will meet on the gridiron. On Saturday, the Boilermakers look for a major upset victory over the Nittany Lions, entering the game as four-touchdown underdogs.
Both teams are coming off important week five games with the Nittany Lions dominating Maryland 59-0 in a game where they needed to make a statement victory while Purdue fell to Minnesota in a game where they saw the loss of both quaterback Elijah Sindelar and wide receiver Rondale Moore.
To learn more about the Boilermakers and what to expect on Saturday, we were able to catch up with Travis Miller of SB Nation’s Purdue site - Hammer and Rails.
Black Shoe Diaries: Purdue during Jeff Brohm’s tenure has looked like a program that is ready to turn the corner and at other points it looks like the program many are used to it being? What’s the story behind the up-and-down stretches the Boilermakers go through under Brohm?
I think a lot of it is depth. We have seen in several moments where the terrible recruiting of the Darrell Hazell era has been a major factor. Brohm is 14-16 in his career at Purdue with 10 losses by 8 points or less. He has at least gotten us competitive, and four of those losses (Missouri, Eastern Michigan, and Wisconsin this year plus Nevada this year) were decided on the game’s final play.
What we have seen in the Auburn bowl loss and in some of them this year is a lack of depth and experience. In the bowl game an already thin defense was missing three starters and got smoked. Against TCU this year we had to start a true freshman at quarterback while missing our best offensive lineman and top linebacker.
Hazell’s recruiting classes per 247 were rated 61, 70,67, and 80, with none being higher than 13th in the Big Ten. Brohm’s first class, made up mostly of Hazell holdovers and WKU flips in 2017, was at 72, but his 2018 class (currently redshirt freshmen) was 52 and 2019 was 25 (current true freshmen). His 2020 class is now sitting at 31. In the Big Ten that goes from 14 to 11 to 5 with his 2020 class sitting 7th.
He was able to band-aid a few things over with some graduate transfers that filled holes in the first two years, but this is the first season where we only added one grad transfer in linebacker Ben Holt. We brought in a full 25 member freshman class and have just 20 scholarship players that are juniors or seniors. Basically, that’s all that is left of the Hazell era, because other guys saw what was coming and transferred our just left. Of those 20 players, 6 are currently hurt, putting a severe dent into our experience.
I know that is a bit of a long-winded answer, but it really is a matter of cycling through years of bad recruiting, running out of the quick fix grad transfers, and finally getting some improved talent only to have it be very young. I felt this season from the beginning would max out at 8-4 if everything went perfectly. It obviously has not because of so many injuries. I also felt the real leap would come in 2020 or 2021. We bet a lot on Brohm financially last winter to keep that 2019 class signed and the momentum going for 2020 recruiting. That will hopefully bear fruit in the next few seasons because in terms of sheer talent both of these classes are significantly better than we have had since probably about 2005.
Black Shoe Diaries: Purdue has been a pass heavy offense this year at least success wise, what has been the Boilermakers biggest issues when it comes to running the ball where they’re averaging a nice 69-yards per game? Is the passing success and yardage per game (351) a result of strong quarterback play or just a result of game planning / play calling?
A little of both, plus an extremely green offensive line. Right guard Matt McCann and left tackle Grant Hermanns are the only two returning starters from last year. Everyone else had little to no experience. In the first three games they struggled to open any holes even against Nevada (that game really sucked, BTW). McCann also got hurt against Vanderbilt and missed the TCU game. You can combine that with Purdue having to go with walk-on Zander Horvath and true freshman King Doerue at running back because Tario Fuller and Richie Worship, our two most experienced backs, have yet to take a snap this season.
Against Minnesota we finally got something going. Doerue had a breakout game with 94 yards and 2 TDs. Purdue had 123 yards rushing against the Gophers after having only 150 total through 3 games. Hopefully that is a sign of things to come, but running on Penn State is something else entirely.
Black Shoe Diaries: With Sindelar out for the foreseeable future if not the season, what should Penn State fans expect out of Jack Plummer?
Plummer showed significant improvement from the TCU game to the Minnesota game. Against TCU you could tell the game was going a little too fast for him. Against Minnesota he settled in and especially in the second half, had a nice outing. As Brohm’s first hand-picked QB recruit he has a lot of promise. He is more mobile than Sindelar (8 rushed for 29 yards against Minnesota) and he showed a lot of growth. In time I think he is going to be pretty good. He doesn’t have the arm strength that Sindelar had, but he is a bit more like David Blough. Considering that Blough finished his career with just under 10,000 yards of total offense and is now backing up Matt Stafford in Detroit as an undrafted free agent, that is a nice comparison. He is still a redshirt freshman making his first road start and just second ever start, however.
Black Shoe Diaries: Penn State heavily recruited wide receiver David Bell before Bell committed to the Boilermakers last January, how has Bell performed so far this season? Is he likely to see a step up in production with Moore out?
Bell is going to be a star. He only had one catch in the opener, but it was for a long TD that should have put the game away before Purdue just completely fell apart in nearly every area. He has battled some nagging injuries, but he looked really good against Vanderbilt and Minnesota. It is nice having him as a big, tall, athletic receiver on the outside and having him paired with Rondale is going to be fun when Rondale gets back. We also have a couple of other promising freshmen receivers that we can pair around him. TJ Sheffield and Marvin Grant came in with almost the same hype and we haven’t even played Mershawn Rice yet. If these four, plus Moore and redshirt freshman Amad Anderson Jr. can keep connecting with Plummer Purdue’s offense is going to be lethal in a year or two.
Black Shoe Diaries: Who are some players for the Boilermakers that may fly under the radar to most people outside the Purdue faithful?
True freshman defensive end George Karlaftis has been impressive so far. He came to Purdue from West Lafayette HS as probably our highest rated recruit in a very long time and was a five-star according to 247. He probably would have been our best pass rusher last season if he wasn’t busy leading his high school to a state championship and he basically became the starter on day 1 when he enrolled early in January. He only has three sacks so far, but he is among the nation’s leaders in QB hurries and so far (at least from what a lot of fans have seen) the only thing holding him back is a bunch of uncalled holding penalties he is not getting because he is a true freshman. He is going to be a stud, and he has a younger brother that we’re already recruiting for 2021.
Tight End Brycen Hopkins is one of the few seniors that is still healthy and playing a major role. He has been banged up and Minnesota held him without a catch, but he has almost 90 catches, more than 1,200 yards, and 12 touchdowns in his career. He is an NFL caliber TE that can make big plays and really helps the offense when he gets involved.
Black Shoe Diaries: What is your final score prediction for this one? Who do you think will be Purdue’s player of the game?
It is really hard to see Purdue winning this unless the Nittany Lions have the same struggles that Ohio State did last year in the game against us. The Buckeyes put up a ton of yards, but really struggled in the red zone to score points. On five trips they managed two field goals and that is it. Our secondary has been bad and was a disaster last week. Going against a very good passing offense this week I don’t like our chances all. I am just hoping that with six freshmen starting on offense and several on defense we can at least keep it competitive for a half or so. Be within a score or two at halftime and keep it from getting out of hand like the Auburn game. Penn State 45, Purdue 24