Tom Dienhart, BTN.com Senior Writer, December 20, 2017
The rise of Purdue under Jeff Brohm from the rubble of the catastrophic Darrell Hazell regime to a bowl in just one season is one of the best stories in the Big Ten. Few envisioned this. But, here is Purdue, in a bowl for the first time since 2012.
Brohm has given the Boilermakers an identity, which the program has lacked since Joe Tiller retired after the 2008 season. This is a team that can be dynamic on offense, looking to build around quarterback play. The defense has an edge, looking to be aggressive. And special teams are huge, as gimmick plays often provide a spark.
Brohm?s biggest challenge during his maiden voyage was on offense. The unit was largely devoid of a star. In fact, the only offensive player to earn consensus All-Big Ten honors was tackle Dave Steinmetz, a grad transfer from Rhode Island. The attack lacked quality wideouts. And the line was-to put it nicely-a work in progress. But Brohm cobbled together an offense that relied on the run at one point and then shifted to the pass later. Bottom line: Brohm squeezed out just enough from an offense that saw David Blough and Elijah Sindelar deftly juggle the quarterback job.
The defense of coordinator Nick Holt was one of the biggest surprises in the Big Ten, ranking fourth in scoring (19.3 ppg) and 10th in total defense (370.9 ypg). Last year, the Boilermakers ranked last in the Big Ten in scoring defense (38.3 ppg) and 13th in total defense (445.8 ypg). Tackle Gelen Robinson-a third-team All-Big Ten pick by the coaches–leads a stout line that also includes monster tackle Lorenzo Neal and end Danny Ezechukwu. Ja?Whaun Bentley paces an underrated linebacker unit that also includes Markus Bailey, while former walk-on Jacob Thieneman is the ultimate overachiever in a secondary that has two solid corners in Da?Wan Hunte and Josh Okonye.
Record: 6-6 overall; 4-5 Big Ten/T3rd West
Bowl: Foster Farms vs. Arizona
High point: Coming off a 23-13 loss at Northwestern, Purdue was 4-6. It had to win its last two games to go bowling. The pressure was on with a game at Iowa looming followed by a visit from Indiana. The Boilermakers delivered by first shocking the Hawkeyes, 24-15. Then, Purdue dispatched the Hoosiers, 31-24, to win the Old Oaken Bucket for the first time since 2012 while clinching a bowl.
Low point: Purdue got off to a 3-2 start, creating a bit of a buzz across the nation. But that buzz died in a three-game losing streak that followed. The 17-9 loss at Wisconsin wasn?t tough to swallow. But subsequent defeats at Rutgers (14-12) and vs. Nebraska (25-24) were gut-punches that cast doubt over Purdue. Was this really a bowl team? Was that fast start a mirage? The Boilermakers responded by going 3-1 in November.
Offensive MVP: Let?s go with both QBs, sophomore Elijah Sindelar and junior David Blough. The starting job pin-balled between the two-and both handled the situation with aplomb. The 6-1, 205-pound Blough-who made five starts–is a gutty leader who's equal parts savvy and skill. His leadership is without peer, so it was a blow when he was lost for the season with an ankle injury in the ninth game of the year. The 6-4, 230-pound Sindelar-who has made seven starts–is the better passer of the two and assumed command during the critical November run to a bowl bid after Blough was lost.
Defensive MVP: LB Ja?Whaun Bentley. The 6-2, 260-pound senior is a three-time captain who ranks sixth in the Big Ten in tackles with 89. Bentley is a force vs. the run but also has underrated quickness. Witness his game-clinching 76-yard interception return for a TD vs. Minnesota.