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How Purdue (yes, Purdue!) became one of college football’s most entertaining teams

New head coach Jeff Brohm’s offense seems to have clicked even more quickly than expected.

Ohio v Purdue Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

It was only a matter of time before Jeff Brohm’s creative offensive designs had the previously plodding Boilermakers playing football that was pleasing to the eyes, but man, was that quick. Purdue opened 2-1 with a near-upset over Lamar Jackson’s Louisville and blowout victories over Ohio and Missouri.

Purdue’s days of ranking in the 90s and 100s in scoring — four years in a row, to be exact — appear to be done.

Main RB Tario Fuller is averaging 6.1 yards per carry, QB David Blough is No. 3 in the Big Ten in passer rating, and the Boilermakers already have five receivers over 100 yards each. Even the defense has been vastly improved, giving the offense a chance against Louisville by forcing and recovering three fumbles.

It appears as though the Boilermakers are no longer a Big Ten doormat and could even make some noise in the West Division. For the future, they have a fairly young nucleus on offense and a recruiting class that could be close to adding a huge piece, four-star Texas WR commit Rondale Moore.

Here’s how they’ve been doing their damage.

NCAA Football: Purdue at Missouri Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

1. The basics

If the Tiller-Chaney offense that Drew Brees directed at Purdue 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 former XFL QB 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.

2. Pro-style, in the truly modern sense.

Like an NFL team, Purdue spends most of its time in 11 personnel (one RB, one TE), often with the tight end flexed out a bit, to give him room to run routes. The Boilermakers prominently feature two good tight ends, sophomore Brycen Hopkins and junior Cole Herdman.

They are primarily used in a pro-style fashion, meaning they run routes and don’t have too much blocking on their plates. When they are blocking, it’s frequently on plays like this outside zone run, with the TE flexed out and blocking down on a DE, while the tackle pulls outside to lead for the RB:

They spend a much greater amount of time doing NFL things, such as running vertical routes up the seams to attack safeties.

Missouri blew the coverage here, but Purdue seems to get a lot out of having 6’4 guys running loose in the seams. Throwing over the middle can be difficult, and it’s nice to have some latitude in a big target. These TEs are first and third on the team in receiving yardage thus far.

3. Misdirection in all things.

Brohm never wants the game to be a contest of straightforward execution, always looking to attack mentally. Some teams do that by being simple and mixing in tons of formations at a dizzying pace. Brohm likes to do it with misdirection and lots of route fakes and variations.

Here’s an example on a four verticals play against Louisville.

The idea with four verts is that you create maximal stress by flooding the deep field with targets. Purdue has a few other wrinkles mixed in here, though, to ensure the secondary isn’t in position to handle it all.

  • On the twin receiver side, the wideouts switch, with the slot (H) running an out-and-up and the outside receiver running a sort of sluggo (slant-and-go) to try and create confusion or even a rub on the free safety and cornerback.
  • To the flex TE side, the TE (Y, Herdman) uses an outside fake to cross the strong-side linebacker’s face and get inside leverage on the safety ($) who’s responsible for matching him deep.
  • The RB runs a quick stab route at the middle linebacker, pulling him out of the passing window to the TE or becoming a checkdown option, if Louisville’s handled the TE’s route fake.
  • So Blough checks the weak side to see how Louisville handles the switch verticals before coming back and throwing inside to the TE.

Here’s another example of the little things Brohm will do to create easier reads.

The Bobcats seem to have borrowed Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi’s defense, playing his main empty formation coverage. Purdue motions its running back out wide, to get Ohio to check into this coverage and prevent the safety to that side from rolling over to the three-receivers side.

Now the field side safety (toward the bottom of the GIF) has to play deep over the TE and the slot receiver simultaneously, which is ordinarily difficult. It’s impossible here, with the slot running a deep out toward the sideline and the TE running a skinny post down the middle.

The QB checks to make sure the safety doesn’t roll to the TE, then turns and flips it over the linebacker’s head.

4. Oh yeah, the trickery.

If a defense figures all that out, it’s still got to contend with some really creative tricks. You’ve probably seen the reverse flea flicker to Herdman ...

... but what about the fake flicker from the spring game?

As Brohm showed at WKU, there’s plenty more where that came from.

5. Big Ten, beware: the Boilermakers will likely only get better as the season progresses.

So far they’ve identified both tight ends and slot receiver Jackson Anthrop as key weapons, but they may find more as Blough becomes increasingly comfortable. Their offensive line can also get better, with a young left side that depends on a redshirt freshman at left tackle.

Brohm has gotten players up to speed in his basic philosophies and found some real weapons. The biggest challenge on defense in college football is getting linebackers and safeties up to speed on both run fits and coverage matchups against a wide variety of offenses. Against Purdue, they’ll face a balanced team that employs a lot of misdirection and TEs that are involved in both the run and the pass. It’s a unique mental challenge that often concludes with the need to cover, beat, or tackle a 6’4, 240-pound human being with momentum.

That part alone isn’t new in the Big Ten, but it’s been a long time since Purdue’s arrived at it creatively.