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How Jeff Brohm’s unique offense can make Purdue fun again

Brohm will need time to install his system, but Purdue’s not that far from being an enjoyable watch.

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CUSA Championship - Louisiana Tech v Western Kentucky Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

The Purdue Boilermakers football program has had 37 coaches in its 130-year history. Twelve of those have come since 1950, and only three of them have had winning records in their time with the program. The first was Jack Mollenkopf (1956-69), who only ever coached at Purdue (in a different era) and whose only losing season was his first in West Lafayette. He secured one Big Ten title for the Boilermakers, in 1967.

Then came Jim Young, who had a nice stretch from 1977-81 before resigning after a 5-6 season, later resurfacing as the head coach at Army in 1983.

Finally Purdue got the Joe Tiller era of 1997-2008, which featured the pinnacle season of modern Purdue football. That was the 2000 campaign, when the Boilers went 8-4 and won the Big Ten behind senior quarterback Drew Brees.

The secret sauce to this championship team was a then-revolutionary shotgun spread offense coordinated by Jim Chaney. It featured a short QB in Brees, who had escaped the notice of schools down South. And it had a small but speedy Florida wideout, Vinny Sutherland, who went over 1,000 yards with double-digit receiving TDs.

Watching highlights of that team is like getting a peek into modern football before anyone realized it.

Since then, Purdue has finished above .500 in the Big Ten exactly two times. That’s the same number of double-digit loss seasons it’s had since 2013.

Purdue justifiably determined this was unacceptable for a Big Ten institution and responded with two major investments. The first was a $60 million facility upgrade, the second a six-year, $20 million contract for new head coach Jeff Brohm. His mission: to make Purdue explosive and fun at football again, and to win.

The Jeff Brohm offense is creative and different.

If the Tiller-Chaney offense that Brees directed was the forerunner to modern spread offenses, the Brohm offense is at the cutting edge of what it means to be “pro-style” in the modern era.

The 2016 Western Kentucky Hilltoppers that Brohm coached put up some jaw-dropping numbers on offense. Despite not having highly rated talent, even for Conference USA, they went 11-3 overall and 7-1 in their conference, thanks largely to an offense that ranked 14th in S&P+ and No. 1 in scoring (45.5 points per game).

First-year starting QB Mike White threw 416 passes for 4,363 yards (at 10.49 yards per attempt), with 37 TDs and seven interceptions. Lead Hilltoppers RB Anthony Wales got 237 carries that produced 1,621 yards at 6.8 yards per carry, with 27 TDs. The WR corps included two going over 1,000 yards, with Taywan Taylor and Nicholas Norris combining for over 3,000 yards and 31 touchdown catches between them.

It was a balanced, up-tempo, explosive offense that blew away every defense on the schedule, save for one scrappy unit at the University of Alabama.

The offense comes from the school of Bobby Petrino, a former boss of Brohm’s. Every play features layers of misdirection and options, real or decoy, that divide the attention and the leverage of the defense before hitting the weak spots.

Under Brohm, the Hilltoppers liked to run “trick plays” in the traditional sense, but they successfully fooled defenders on a large percentage of their play calls.

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That confusing deployment of players is a run-pass option that combines a standard zone run with a WR tunnel screen. It’s standard practice across the nation, including at Purdue and Western Kentucky, to combine zone runs with quick-hitting bubble screens.

It’s a good constraint in case the defense tries to sneak DBs into the box to stop the run. But releasing your left tackle to block for a tunnel screen that may or may not be coming? That’s not a standard practice.

The Brohm offense is filled with packaged concepts, play fakes, motions, and formations that all serve to obfuscate the pretty standard concepts they’re running underneath. What’s more, his teams are running it all at tempo, making the entire thing a coordinated, multi-front assault on the minds of their opponents.

It makes it rather difficult to play team defense against featured skill players, as evidenced by the absurd numbers WKU’s guys posted last year under Brohm. Alabama survived a guarantee game against WKU because it could play man coverage and dominate all of the one-on-one matchups. It could do so to the extent that Western Kentucky could only hope to execute the first part of its divide-and-conquer strategy.

Another favorite trick of Brohm’s Hilltoppers for weaponizing their speedy but small receivers was the whip, or pivot, route. Watch a Western Kentucky game tape under Brohm, and you’ll see many examples of this concept, particularly on the goal line.

On one play, the Hilltoppers were in a trips formation, which left the Bulldogs with a question of whether they’d shade help to the three-receiver side or to Taywan Taylor, isolated on the weak side. Tech ended up bringing a man blitz, which the Hilltoppers picked up with help from the RB. The precise timing of the pivot route beat the defense’s inside-shaded coverage. Touchdown, WKU.

It’s a good route to master if you need ways to help create separation and passing windows for your receivers in the red zone. Speaking of which ...

The situation at Purdue is crying out for Brohm’s help.

The 2016 Purdue roster was made up of five years of recruiting that ranked 65th on average nationally and 13th out of 14 in the Big Ten. While that’s at least one tier above the rankings of the Western Kentucky classes Brohm signed, there’s not much evidence that the Boilermakers actually had more raw talent than WKU on offense. They certainly didn’t have more skill.

Purdue was simply awful in 2016. QB David Blough was forced to throw regularly despite the fact that RB Markell Jones was probably the most talented skill player on the roster. Blough’s 25-to-21 TD-to-INT ratio speaks to how ineffective the Boilers were in trying to divide and conquer Big Ten defenses with their own spread tactics.

They lacked talent, particularly across an offensive line that was regularly bested up front by stronger or more athletic defenders. They had a knack for execution errors that negated any positive plays they would make.

Consider a power run, with the slot receiver running a quick route to hold the weak-side linebacker and hopefully give the offense a numbers advantage at the point of attack. Everything is going pretty well until the pulling guard tries to reach the outside linebacker on the edge, rather than turning upfield to find his actual assignment. The result is Purdue’s running back being crushed in the backfield on a third-and-1.

The fix at Purdue probably won’t be quick.

Brohm is accustomed to getting lower-ranked players to punch above their weight. But his means of doing so involve teaching them a variety of skills and tactics that Purdue’s current roster hasn’t shown it can execute.

Long-term, though? That picture looks better. Purdue has an innovative and explosive offense, which is designed to make the most of players other schools didn’t want.