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2023 Know Your Opponent: Purdue Boilermakers

Can the new-look Boilermakers run things back in the Big Ten West?

Big Ten Football Media Days Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Over the past week, Inside NU’s team has looked at each of Northwestern football’s upcoming 2023 opponents. Nearing the end of Northwestern’s Big Ten schedule, let’s take a dive into NU’s second-to-last opponent in 2023: the reigning Big Ten West Division champion Purdue Boilermakers.

The Basics

Returning Production: 51% overall (50% offense, 52% defense); 109th

Record: 8-6 (6-3 B1G, lost in the Big Ten Championship Game and the 2023 Cheez-It Citrus Bowl)

Head Coach: Ryan Walters (1st season)

The Stats

The following metrics are courtesy of Bill Connelly and ESPN. You can read more about the rankings and theory behind them here.

2023 SP+ Overall: 58th

2023 SP+ Offense: 53rd

2023 SP+ Defense: 55th

2022 Capsule

Ending 2021 feeling good after a heart-pounding 48-45 victory in the Music City Bowl over Tennessee, Purdue had high expectations for 2022.

However, a Penn State touchdown with just under a minute remaining in the Boilermakers’ season opener at home handed Purdue its first loss of the season. And even after a 56-0 thumping of Indiana State in its second game, Purdue surrendered a touchdown with seven seconds left on the road against Syracuse, moving to 1-2 early in the 2022 campaign.

Yet thanks to a flurry of defensive stops in crunch time against FAU the next week, the Boilermakers not only came away with a 28-26 victory, but picked up steam heading into the thick of conference play. Against the No. 21 Minnesota Golden Gophers, Purdue’s defense led the way, intercepting three passes on the way to the Boilermakers’ first victory in Minneapolis since 2007. A week later, Purdue’s defense came up big again, allowing its offense to compile back-to-back fourth quarter touchdown drives, lifting the Boilermakers to a 31-29 victory over Maryland. And against Nebraska at home, the offense exploded with QB Aidan O’Connell throwing for four scores and RB Devin Mockobee racking up 178 yards, leading Purdue to another one-possession victory over Big Ten Competition.

But the next two weeks weren’t so kind to the 5-2 Boilermakers. Although Mockobee and WR Charlie Jones combined for over 200 scrimmage yards against Wisconsin, O’Connell’s three interceptions were too much to overcome in the 35-24 loss. And against one of the strongest defenses in the country, Purdue’s capable offense was stymied to only three points versus Iowa.

Sitting at 5-4, Purdue responded with three convincing wins against No. 21 Illinois, Northwestern and Indiana, securing a bowl appearance as well as the program’s first ever Big Ten West Division title and trip to the Big Ten Football Championship Game. But a date with No. 2 Michigan in Indianapolis for the Big Ten’s crown was too much for the Boilermakers, who, after a close first half, were unable to find the second half juice to stay with the Wolverines. And without a couple crucial cogs playing on both sides of the football in the 2023 Cheez-It Citrus Bowl, Purdue ended its campaign with a 63-7 loss to No. 17 LSU.

Offensive Overview

Last season, Purdue’s offense ranked fifth in the Big Ten in total offense per game, second in passing yards per game and 11th in rushing yards per game. Yet without last year’s head coach Jeff Brohm — who’ll coach at his alma mater Louisville in 2023 — and starting quarterback in O’Connell — who after throwing for 3,490 yards, 22 touchdowns and 13 interceptions in 2022 got drafted by the Las Vegas Raiders — Purdue has big shoes to fill in 2023. The Boilermakers also lost their top two receiving threats in Jones, a Cincinnati Bengals draft pick who hauled in 110 catches for 1,361 yards and 12 touchdowns, and TE Payne Durham, who after racking up 101 catches for 1,027 yards and 14 touchdowns the past two seasons, was drafted by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Luckily for the Boilermakers, the pieces are in place to find offensive success under new offensive coordinator Graham Harrell. Harrell, whose offense at West Virginia last season posted nearly 400 yards and 30.6 points per game, ran a balanced attack, something that should translate well to Purdue’s personnel with a solid ground game headlined by Mockobee and a capable passing game thanks to Texas transfer Hudson Card.

Although the Boilermakers lost Jones and Durham in the offseason, they return TJ Sheffield, who caught 46 balls for 480 yards and four touchdowns in 2022, and Mershawn Rice, who added 23 catches for 283 yards and a touchdown a season ago. Plus, 6-foot-3 transfer Jahmal Edrine reeled in 39 catches for 570 yards and six scores for Florida Atlantic last season, production that should translate to red zone success for Card through the air.

Defensive Overview

With new head coach Ryan Walters, Illinois’ defensive coordinator from a season ago, taking over, defense will be a focus in West Lafayette. Under Walters, the Fighting Illini led the country in points per game allowed while also finishing second in yards per game allowed.

Running a 3-4 scheme, Purdue’s outside linebackers are a group to watch. Particularly, Kydran Jenkins, the senior who’s racked up nine sacks in his last two seasons, should be a threat off the edge. Additionally, sophomore Nic Scourton has become a name to watch for the Boilermakers after tallying two sacks in 2022 and showcasing his pass-rushing skills in the spring.

To beef up the front three, Purdue added Malik Langham, Isaiah Nichols and Jeffrey M’Ba in the transfer portal alongside corners Salim Turner-Muhammad and Marquis Wilson from Stamford and Penn State to help replace Cory Trice’s departure by way of the NFL Draft. Add in the fact that both of Purdue’s starting safeties — and two of its most talented players — in Sanoussi Kane and Cam Allen are returning, and the defense should be just fine in Walters’ first season in charge.

Three Players to Watch

QB Hudson Card

With O’Connell leaving for the NFL Draft in the offseason, Purdue dipped into the transfer portal, grabbing one of the best options available in the former Texas gunslinger. In five starts over 22 games in his last three seasons in Austin, the former four-star recruit posted 1,523 passing yards, 11 touchdowns and two interceptions on 65.5% accuracy. But more importantly, with Texas starter Quinn Ewers going down with injury last season, Card stepped up and showed he’s got everything it takes to be a successful starter.

With his mix of arm strength and touch from the pocket, Card has the chance to be Purdue’s best quarterback since Drew Brees, and that means a lot for a program that has seen guys like Kyle Orton, Curtis Painter and David Blough come through West Lafayette and start in the NFL. But Card has all the tools: he’s got pocket presence and escapability from pressure, the ability to expand the field with his big arm, the accuracy to find receivers at any level, while being able to scamper the ball forward with his legs. After losing a lot of talent in the offseason, Purdue remains competitive in 2023 thanks to Card under center.

RB Devin Mockobee

The former walk-on was an all around weapon for the Boilermakers last year, finishing the season with 968 rushing yards and nine rushing touchdowns alongside 32 catches for 274 yards. And as Purdue’s best returner on offense, expect nothing to change in 2023.

Listed at 6-foot, Mockobee possesses excellent speed, whether in the short passing game or as a runner. His ability to break things to the outside stretches defenses, but complimented with a mix of toughness and burst, Mockobee is effective running in between the tackles in short yardage situations. Elusive in the open field, Mockobee’s vision makes him dangerous in open space. Willing to cut away from defenders at a moment’s notice, look for the Boilermakers to lean on their bell cow in 2023.

DB Cam Allen

An honorable mention all-Big Ten selection a season ago, Allen has been a huge component to Purdue’s defense in his time in West Lafayette. The Virginia native has 10 interceptions, 12 pass deflections, four fumble recoveries and 173 total tackles to his name through four seasons and is looking to keep the mojo going in 2023.

With his athleticism and ball-hawking abilities, Walters will rely on Allen’s experience and playmaking in the back end of his defense. A true leader for this Purdue squad, Allen has NFL talent and is another good campaign away from showing scouts he’s got a legitimate future at the next level.