With kickoff to Northwestern’s season opener in Dublin, Ireland under 25 days away, it’s time to begin examining the Wildcats’ opponents during their 2022 season via the Know Your Opponent series. We’ll be breaking down the teams that NU will face each week, discussing their 2021 campaigns, season outlooks and more.
Up today are the Purdue Boilermakers, a team the ‘Cats have had some iconic encounters with in the past few years.
Returning Production: 70% overall (offense 68%, defense 72%)
2021 Record: 9-4 (6-3 B1G)
Head coach: Jeff Brohm
The following metrics are courtesy of Bill Connelly and Football Outsiders (and now ESPN!). You can read more about the rankings and theory behind them here.
2021 SP+ Overall: 35th
2021 SP+ Offense: 44th
2021 SP+ Defense: 25th
Following a 2-4 finish in his fourth year conducting the Boilermaker program, Jeff Brohm’s long-term future was under scrutiny heading into 2021. He had yet to break the seven-win mark or finish higher than fourth in the division, so it was really now or never for him. The media didn’t think he was going to turn things around, voting for Purdue to finish 6th in the Big Ten West in the preseason poll, the same position it had finished the prior two years. However, based on its performances, the team wasn’t impacted by the uncertainty surrounding it.
Purdue opened the year with wins over Oregon State and Connecticut before traveling to South Bend to face in-state opposition Notre Dame. While they lost by a pair of touchdowns, the only team to give up fewer points against the Fighting Irish was eventual playoff team Cincinnati. After a narrow, 13-9 win at home against Illinois to open conference play, Brohm abandoned the two-QB system he had been using, naming Aidan O’Connell the starter.
Although the rewards from that decision didn’t come immediately, as the offense didn’t score more than 24 points over the next three games — a stretch which did include an upset win of No. 2 Iowa at Kinnick Stadium — it became a completely different proposition for opposing defenses for the remainder of the year. A 28-23 win at Nebraska, the last time the Boilermakers failed to reach the 30-point mark last year, put Purdue at 5-3 at the end of October.
Their start to November wasn’t easy, with games against Michigan State and Ohio State scheduled for the first and second Saturdays of the month. Behind a stellar offensive display, the Boilermakers pulled off their second win over an AP-Top 5 team with a 40-29 win over then unbeaten Michigan State. While the Buckeyes asserted their superiority over Brohm and co. a week later, Purdue finished the year with dominant displays against Northwestern and Indiana to finish 8-4.
The Boilermakers were awarded a place in the Music City Bowl, and would face one of the best offenses in the country in Tennessee. A shootout followed, with Purdue prevailing 48-45, capping off its best year during the Brohm era, and dispelling most doubts over whether he was the right man to lead the team going forward.
Offensive production was heavily predicated on the success of the passing game for the Boilermakers last season. They averaged just under 85 yards per game on the ground — fourth fewest in the FBS — while throwing for 355 yards per game, the fifth highest in the country. Continuing that balance into 2022, however, might be easier said than done.
Purdue’s top three receivers last season, David Bell, Milton Wright and Jackson Anthrop, have all left the program, after putting up 2500 yards and 18 TD’s through the air. That leaves senior TE Payne Durham and senior WR Broc Thompson as two names who will have to step into greater roles in the passing game this season, but they’ll have help from Iowa-transfer wideouts Tyrone Tracy and Charlie Jones. Tracy also has the ability to line up in the backfield, and alongside Purdue’s leading rusher in 2021, junior King Doerue, the rushing attack shouldn’t miss a beat.
In the trenches, the Boilermakers return three of their five starting linemen from a season ago, and given that the offense was one of the least penalized units in the country, having a good level of returning experience should keep it relatively mistake-free once again.
While the offense got a lot of the plaudits for the Boilermakers’ success last year, it was really the improvement of the defense that moved the needle. They finished Top 25 in defensive SP+ and return a lot of production from a year ago, but there are still some holes that have to be filled to keep this unit at that high of a level.
First off, Purdue has to replace a massive void on the defensive line left by first-round selection George Karlaftis, who led the team in TFL’s and was second in sacks in 2021. Everyone else returns from last year’s group, but without Karlaftis’ gravity, it remains to be seen whether it can be as productive as it was.
Jaylan Alexander, who led the team in tackles with 113 last season, is gone, but the two other starting LB’s, Kieran Douglas and Jalen Graham, are back. There’s plenty of depth in the LB room, but it’s not exactly known who will be the guy to replace Alexander and start in the heart of the defense.
The secondary returns last year’s leader in interceptions, senior Cam Allen, who will be the group’s leader from the safety position. He’ll start with his partner from 2021, junior Marvin Grant, while senior Jamari Brown, will start at one of the outside cornerback positions, leaving the second CB spot as the only question mark around a very experienced group.
Three Players to Know
QB Aidan O’Connell
The sixth-year senior’s name has already popped up multiple times in this article, but that speaks to how important he is to this team. He threw for 3700 yards, with 28 TD’s and just 11 interceptions last year, and with Purdue’s offense being so pass-heavy, it will only be as good as he is. While he won’t have an All-American to throw to in 2022, he is talented enough to make do with a less experienced receiving group.
WR Broc Thompson
Thompson was the third wide receiver in most pass sets in 2021, but now may be thrown into the primary wideout role as a senior. He does have the size to play there, but the question then becomes whether he can handle having the opposing defense’s top corner covering him. With the amount of targets he’s going to receive, he might be able to double his 457 receiving yards from a year ago.
LB Jalen Graham
With Karlaftis gone, Graham becomes the heartbeat of this defense given his ability to get to the ball and disrupt the offense. The Detroit-native logged 64 tackles, seven passes defended and two interceptions, one of which was for a touchdown, in 2021, and will continue making plays in his hybrid linebacker/defensive back role.