A year ago, a Penn State team coming off a disappointing season headed into a tough road environment and escaped with a win against a Big Ten West team. The Nittany Lions hope to do that again on Thursday night at Purdue. Before we see what happens, we had a few questions for Travis Miller of Hammer and Rails. Despite both being Indiana high school basketball aficionados, we kept the focus on this season opener.
- Coming off a 9-4 season in 2021 that included an upset of Iowa in Kinnick (thank you), a beatdown of Indiana in the Old Oaken Bucket Game, and a three-game winning streak to close the year capped by a thrilling victory over Tennessee, I’m guessing you enjoyed Purdue football last season. What are the fan base’s expectations entering 2022?
First of all, last year was delightful. In fact, it was the complete opposite of basketball season. That was “Big Ten title and Final Four or Bust” and ended as a huge disappointment. For football, we just wanted to see progress with a bowl season after two straight down years. Instead, we got a 9-4 year, our first nine-win season in 18 years, a bowl win, and two top 5 upsets. Sure, it would have been nice to beat Minnesota (which probably happens if the game wasn’t played in a swamp) or Wisconsin, but no one was complaining, especially since we won the bowl game by throwing for 500+ yards with a JV receiving crew.
This year there is cautious optimism, and like last year, much of it rides on a night game opener. Last year I felt like Purdue absolutely needed to beat Oregon State on opening night to have a successful season. It did just that. Now we get a tougher Penn State team. You guys are our toughest crossover opponent (we also get Maryland and Indiana), so an opening night win means that we have the potential to win the Big Ten West. With a non-conference schedule of Indiana State, at Syracuse, and Florida Atlantic to follow any win over Penn State sets the stage for a great run. We have only won 10 games or more once in a season, and that was in 1979. If we win on opening night that becomes a real possibility.
2. Wide receiver David Bell and defensive end George Karlaftis made headlines throughout their careers in West Lafayette and both were drafted last spring. Who will Purdue miss more in 2022?
Karlaftis. As great as Bell was (and Rondale Moore before him), Purdue has a ton of solid receivers and it has never been a weakness under Jeff Brohm. Just look at the bowl game. By the end of the game the top four receivers on the roster were either hurt, suspended, or sitting out for the draft. Broc Thompson caught 200+ yards worth of passes and was playing on two bad knees. We had guys out there that hadn’t played all year and O’Connell threw for 500+. Bell is a tremendous individual talent, but Purdue should be okay overall at receiver.
On defense, so much revolved around Karlaftis though. When teams were foolish enough to block him one-on-one it often ended in disaster for them. He demanded a double or even triple team, and when the rest of the defense gets to play 10 on 9 or 10 on 8 that helps a lot. We don’t have a guy like that anymore, so the defense overall has to change.
3. Quarterback Aidan O’Connell has risen the ranks from walkon to one of the more highly touted signal callers in the Big Ten. What set him apart and allowed him to take hold of the job?
Jeff Brohm values the ability to throw the deep ball and he had an excellent rapport with Bell. Jack Plummer was okay in starting the first four games last year, but the offense just clicked once AOC got in there and got over his interception bug. By the end of the year he was slinging it all over the place and he completed a school record 71% of his passes. He is now the most accurate passer in school history. An improved offensive line also helped, as he is, in no way, a mobile quarterback. He had an 8-yard TD run against Iowa and that might have been the most shocking play of the season. It is really amazing he was able to do what he did with almost no running game, as Purdue was one of the worst rushing teams in the country.
4. Back in 2019 when Penn State last saw Purdue, the Boilers were near the bottom of the conference in defense (13th in yards allowed per game and 12th in points per game) and 2018 was even worse. Last year, Purdue was in the top half of the conference in those categories. What’s made the difference?
Again, Karlaftis helped a lot. Having some good injury luck helped too. Purdue’s 2019 season saw so many of Purdue’s key guys go down that we were playing a lot of freshmen by the end of the year. In fact, O’Connell made his career debut as a backup against Penn State that day. Last year we had depth and the secondary played a lot better than it has in years. Most everyone is back, too. Losing Marvin Grant as a surprise transfer to Kansas hurts, but getting top corner Cory Trice back from an injury helps. Jalen Graham is also an excellent S/LB that plays his role in the defense perfectly.
Purdue has depth at defensive tackle, but the linebackers are a question mark. The pass rush of Karlaftis needs to be replaced too. He didn’t put up all world numbers last year, but again, the fact he demanded so much attention helped everyone else. Losing defensive coordinator Brad Lambert to Wake Forest also hurts. Overall, I think the defense will take a slight step back, but it still has some very good pieces.
5. A Thursday opener under the lights in Ross-Ade. Should be a fun environment. Any predictions or keys that you’ll be focused on in this one?
Can Purdue get any semblance of a running game? Charlie Jones was a huge transfer in from Iowa and should help our dead-last punt and kick return game, and Tyron Tracy is also an Iowa transfer expected to play a big role all over the offense. If Purdue can get any run game at all the offense should be lethal.
Defensively I want to see what we can do without Karlaftis. The bowl game wasn’t great, but a lot of that was from Tennessee running a warp speed type hurry up. It was still a shootout we were very lucky to win. I think we will see a couple of solid offenses in similar fashion in the opener, and whoever has the sharpest early gets the win.
Thanks to Travis for sharing his insight. You can read more about Purdue at Hammer and Rails.