Northwestern has had its way with Purdue in recent seasons, but the Boilermakers are up-and-coming under second-year head coach Jeff Brohm. In advance of what many feel is a toss-up season-opener Thursday in West Lafayette, we talked to Travis Miller of Hammer and Rails, Purdue’s SB Nation site, to get a better grasp on what we’ll see Thursday.
Inside NU: There’s been a lot of buzz surrounding Jeff Brohm’s second season in West Lafayette. What is your assessment of that hype?
Travis Miller: Part of it is well deserved because Brohm and Co. performed a small miracle last season. I have to give Nick Holt (defensive coordinator) a ton of credit for taking a defense that was merely a speedbump against the run for most of the last 10 years under multiple coordinators and making it an actual positive. The defense was the unsung story of last season. While Jeff Brohm is known for his offensive prowess, Purdue often struggled to top 30 points. The defense gave us a chance in many games where the offense came up a little short.
Now Brohm is starting to get many of his own recruits. If the 2019 class holds, it is currently a top 25 national class. Considering that Brohm went 7-6 in year one with multiple classes that rated in the 70s, there is a lot to be excited about. There will still be some growing pains this year. The defense has to replace seven starters, but as long as a few receivers emerge from several options the offense should be even better than last season. Now we just have to lock down this 2019 class and hold onto Brohm for a few years. If he can win games with Hazell recruits, imagine what he can do with a lot more talent like what is coming.
INU: What’s the story on the quarterback position? Should Northwestern expect to face Elijah Sindelar, David Blough or both?
TM: It is a neck-and-neck competition and Brohm has yet to tip his hand. He has stated that both might play in a similar system to last year, where if the offense stagnates the other comes in to jump start it. If I had to wager I would go with Sindelar because he was impressive to finish last year all on a torn ACL. Still, Blough is more mobile. He graduated already and could have transferred to start anywhere else (including for about half the Big Ten, it seems), but stayed to fight for the top job.
I would say unless one just has an outstanding game both will play at least a series or two.
INU: What are the strengths and weaknesses of the defense?
TM: The weakness is experience and depth. We return both starting safeties in Jacob Thieneman and Navon Mosley, as well as defensive tackle Lorenzo Neal (son of the 16-year NFL fullback) and Markus Bailey. Bailey is excellent and is an all-Big Ten caliber linebacker that will play all over. Neal is solid up front, and both Mosley and Thieneman are good. Everyone else is pretty new. Antonio Blackmon and Tim Cason may start at the corners, but a pair of redshirt freshmen are pushing them.
We also do not have a ton of depth. We’re sitting at five scholarship linebackers and only Bailey has any extensive experience. Three played as true freshmen last fall as reserves or on special teams. One is a true freshman. We need to develop a pass rush and just get guys experience up front.
That said, I trust Holt. He really did a great job last year taking guys that had not performed well as a unit and getting them on the same page. Purdue’s points per game allowed dropped from 38.2 to 20.5 just because Holt came on board. He has to be doing something right and many of the new starters were at least around last year as reserves or redshirts.
INU: What kind of atmosphere are you expecting on Thursday night? How is this game being treated?
TM: I am expecting a pumped up crowd because there is actual excitement around the program again. Last year we had more total attendance at 6 home games than we did at 7 in 2016. This year it should be even more. We sold out the Michigan game (our first sellout in many years) and had a great crowd for the Indiana game. Personally, as a dirty secret, I am kind of more excited about Purdue football than I am about Purdue basketball for the first time maybe since Coach Painter’s first season. Brohm (and new athletic director Mike Bobinski) have truly resuscitated a program that would have needed improvement to be moribund under Hazell and Morgan Burke.
INU: What’s your prediction for Purdue’s record this season?
TM: I feel like we have a lot of toss-up games. I think we beat Eastern Michigan, Illinois, and probably Minnesota. I think we lose to Michigan State, Ohio State, and Wisconsin. Anything else is a toss-up. Can we win nine games? Well, if the offense gets together and the defense has new guys step up, yes. Could we struggle to 5-7 because of an inexperienced defense and tough schedule? Yes.
I am thinking we go somewhere in the neighborhood of 7-5. There are too many questions out there for me to have a ton of confidence beyond that, but with some breaks, who knows. We will see early. I love a four game stretch at home against Northwestern, EMU, Missouri, and Boston College. We’re capable of winning each of those four games individually, but we could also lose three of them pretty easily.
INU: What’s your prediction for the game?
TM: It is hard to say without knowing about Thorson. If he plays, I see Northwestern having an edge. If not, I think Purdue gets it done and feeds off of what should be a really good crowd even on a Thursday night.