Twenty years later, Jeff Brohm is channeling Joe Tiller magic
WEST LAFAYETE, Ind. — With each passing week, it looks like a special season is brewing for Purdue.
The latest ray of hope: A rain-soaked, weather-delayed, turnover-drenched, pulsating 31-17 win over Minnesota in a game Purdue had no business winning. But, it did win. Special seasons are built around victories like this. And 2017 could end up being a memorable one in West Lafayette.
What makes this story line even more delicious is the fact it is shaping up as a 20-year book end to the magical debut of Joe Tiller in 1997. Back then, Tiller inherited a moribund program that hadn’t been to a bowl game since 1984. And he promptly flipped the script by going 9-3 with an Alamo Bowl win over Oklahoma State. A big early season home win vs. Notre Dame created a spark of belief that turned into an inferno of fun reality.
Fast forward 20 years, and Jeff Brohm is in West Lafayette after eight of the worst seasons in school history–and, that’s saying something at a school that has seen a lot of bad football over the years. But five games into the his first season, Brohm sits 3-2 overall and 1-1 in the Big Ten with a big early-season home win that has created a spark that could become an inferno of fun reality.
If you peek around the corner at Purdue’s schedule, it’s not crazy to think it could win six or seven games. Really. You could have gotten more people to agree with you that the world was flat than the notion Purdue could go to a bowl in 2017. Now, not so much so.
The Boilermakers won Saturday despite committing four turnovers. The last time they won a Big Ten team with four turnovers was back in 2000, when Drew Brees engineered perhaps the greatest win in school annals (vs. Ohio State) during a run to the Rose Bowl under Tiller.
It was fitting this heart-stopping triumph came on a day when the school paid homage to Tiller, who passed away last week. There was a video tribute for Tiller, and many former players were in town, including Brees. And the teams wore decals on their helmets honoring Tiller.
“As I told our team after the game, this is for coach Tiller,” Brohm said. “This is how he taught us to play the game and we’re happy to win this on the day we honor him.”
But this win was for more than Tiller. This one also was for a fan base whose spirit has been broken too often, a fan base that witnessed just nine wins TOTAL the last four seasons.
This one was for hope, a much-needed commodity in West Lafayette.
If this team does end up in the postseason, fans will look back on this game as a key moment–maybe THE key moment. Purdue was coming off a bye after losing a hard-fought game at home to Michigan. The Boilermakers needed to protect their home turf vs. a Gopher team that was a lot like Purdue: A work-in-progress under a first-year coach. Each team thought it could win this game. Each team figured it probably needed to win if it wanted to go to a bowl.
Things started well for Purdue, which drove down the field and hit pay dirt. But it missed the PAT … and things went sideways from there.
The Boilermakers fought through myriad miscues to take a 16-14 lead on a 19-yard field goal with 9:58 left in the game. That’s when the heavens opened and the fans scurried, causing an 88-minute delay. And when the teams returned, the Gophers promptly marched 62 yards in 7:32 to take the lead on a 38-yard field goal with 2:26 left.
Game over? Nope. Game on.
That’s when Purdue sophomore quarterback Elijah Sindelar went to work, driving the Boilers to the go-ahead TD with 1:17 left as Markell Jones bolted in from 12 yards. It’s the kind of drive that can spark a season and build a career. Sindelar came on for ineffective starter David Blough, hitting 19-of-26 passes for 248 yards and a TD. The Boilers won. And they finally may have found a quarterback in Sindelar, who had been essentially sharing the job with Blough this season. Maybe no more.
Then Purdue iced it with a 76-yard interception return for a TD by linebacker Ja’Whuan Bentley, a fitting end on a day when the defense had yet another fine effort in holding Minnesota to 328 yards.
“We had a plan coming out from the weather delay, but Minnesota kind of messed that up and kicked a field goal,” Brohm said. “It’s not always perfect, but I think we have a group of guys who are going to find a way to win.”
Brohm is doing all of this with a roster filled with players he didn’t recruit. He was making no excuses in the offseason as he prepped. Brohm knew his challenges. He knew the offensive line lacked talent, the wideouts had just three gears and overall depth was shallow.
Didn’t matter. Brohm grit his teeth, put his head down and worked.
It’s going to be fun to see where this program is in November … and beyond.