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Purdue matters again! But it might take time to top 2017’s turnaround

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Jeff Brohm pulled off a mini-miracle, but Purdue’s going to need to score even more this time.

NCAA Football: Indiana at Purdue
Jeff Brohm
Thomas J. Russo-USA TODAY Sports

Bill C’s annual preview series of every FBS team in college football continues. Catch up here!

We overthink things during coaching hires, especially when our team has been losing for a while. We need to find a guy with experience at our school and in our conference. We need our version of [guy who has succeeded at a rival school recently]. We need an [our school] guy.

Sometimes you just need to find a good coach. The rest will take care of itself.

Last year, Purdue brought in Jeff Brohm. And poof, the Boilermakers were interesting and competitive again. I wrote in last year’s Purdue preview that I liked the hire a lot, both because Brohm seemed like a good coach and because his offensive identity was something that has worked in West Lafayette before. But the former mattered more.

The Boilermakers had won seven or more games in a year just once in the previous nine seasons under Joe Tiller, Danny Hope, and Darrell Hazell. Hope was a “hire a Tiller guy” hire, and Hazell was a “let’s find someone very Big Ten-y” hire.

Brohm wasn’t exactly a foreigner. Kentucky and Indiana are basically 80 percent the same state and are only separated by the Ohio River, and most of Brohm’s experience — graduated from Louisville, coached as an assistant at Louisville and WKU, then was head coach at WKU — took place within three hours of Purdue. But it felt like a bold direction on paper.

And it looked like one on the field. Purdue bolted out of the gates, scaring the hell out of Louisville and beating the hell out of Missouri, then giving Wisconsin fits in Madison. The offense reverted to Hazell form during an ugly loss to Rutgers, and the Boilermakers blew a lead to Nebraska, but they won three of four to reach bowl eligibility, then they beat Arizona in a Forest Farms Bowl thriller.

All it took were some fresh ideas and astute tactics, and a program in an existential crisis began to look like the Tiller era again.

Now what? The Big Ten West is getting its act together — Minnesota and Nebraska have made intriguing hires in the last 18 months, Wisconsin is looking more Wisconsin-like every year, and Iowa and Northwestern have never been more Iowa and Northwestern — so both Purdue and its schedule are getting more competitive.

Brohm made the most of last year’s personnel and will undoubtedly do so again, but the defense, the driving force of last year’s surge (it went from 99th to 35th in Def. S&P+), is starting over in the front seven and at cornerback. The offense should be ready to carry more weight, but with a schedule that features six projected top-40 opponents (including three 12th or better), plus trips to Minnesota, Nebraska, and Indiana, it might take another magic act to top about 6-6.

Of course, I only saw about four regular season wins last year, too, and Brohm delivered six.

Offense

2017 Purdue offensive radar

The defense, with its highest Def. S&P+ ranking since 2004, stole the show, but the offense had its moments. The bar was low enough that even at 60th in Off. S&P+, it was still Purdue’s best since 2009, Hope’s first season.

The Boilermakers’ biggest strength: general competence. Purdue was bad at fewer things than before.

  • They were 62nd in success rate, 64th in IsoPPP (my explosiveness measure, which looks at the magnitude of your successful plays), and 75th in points per scoring opportunity (first downs inside the opponent’s 40).
  • They avoided negative plays (33rd in stuff rate, 53rd in Adj. Sack Rate), and they did a perfectly decent job of both avoiding passing downs (66th in standard downs success rate) and converting them (52nd in passing downs success rate).
  • They were terrible in short-yardage situations (120th in power success rate) and didn’t produce much explosiveness through the air (82nd in passing IsoPPP), but you can overcome that with every-down competence.

Purdue survived a QB platoon, too. Elijah Sindelar threw at least 20 passes in eight games, and David Blough, 2016’s starter, did so in four.

It was revealed after the season that Sindelar played the last few games with a torn ACL. He still went 33-for-53 for 396 yards and four scores in the bowl win, and his passer rating over those final four games improved from 114.7 to 132.3. Damn.

NCAA Football: Foster Farms Bowl-Arizona vs Purdue
Elijah Sindelar
Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports

Sindelar should be healthy — and apparently, all you’ve got to do is injure his knee for him to round into form — and he’s got most of last year’s weapons back, too. Granted, Anthony Mahoungou, easily PU’s most explosive threat, is now a Philadelphia Eagle, but of the 12 players targeted at least 19 times last fall, 10 are back.

That includes a tight end duo that most of the conference would kill for. Brycen Hopkins and Cole Herdman combined to catch 45 passes for 680 yards and six touchdowns providing some big plays up the seam; plus, aside from Mahoungou, sophomore wideouts Jackson Anthrop and Jared Sparks (66 combined catches for 645 yards) provided the highest levels of marginal efficiency despite inexperience (and despite Sparks being a quarterback until 2017).

Both Sindelar and Blough did a decent job of using their safety valves — backs caught 43 passes for 287 yards and four scores. And they’ve got some safe senior options in WRs Terry Wright, Jarrett Burgess, and Isaac Zico. But for big plays, they’ll have to either find the tight end up the seam or look to a younger option. Brohm is bringing in a quartet of exciting freshmen in four-star Rondale Moore and mid-to-high three-stars Amad Anderson Jr., Kory Taylor, and Jordan Bonner. If one clicks, the passing game should be fine.

NCAA Football: Indiana at Purdue
Markell Jones
Thomas J. Russo-USA TODAY Sports

Brohm’s WKU passing game was the glittery item on his résumé, but his Purdue run game carried a lot of weight. Despite short-yardage problems, the Boilermakers ranked 27th in rushing success rate and 17th in opportunity rate (the percentage of carries that gain at least five yards). There again weren’t many gashing runs, but the ground game was the efficiency engine.

In seniors Markell Jones and D.J. Knox and juniors Richie Worship and Tario Fuller, Purdue brings back a four-headed RB rotation. The foursome combined for 300 carries, 1,645 yards, and eight touchdowns, basically all getting chances to shine.

  • Fuller had 16 carries for 142 yards against Ohio before missing the last 10 games with an ankle injury.
  • Worship had a combined 33 carries for 184 yards over a three-game midseason span before tearing his ACL in mid-November. (He’s expected to be 100 percent by fall camp.)
  • Jones had 31 carries for 217 yards to drive the rivalry win over Indiana and finished with a team-leading 566 yards despite not getting his first carry until October.
  • Knox had 16 carries for 149 yards in the last two games of the year and finished with a team-best 6.2 yards per carry.

If all four are ready, I’m not sure how the rotation plays out. Fuller began atop the totem pole, but Jones and Knox did well too.

The line should be as good or better. Six returnees (including honorable mention all-conference center Kirk Barron) have combined for 77 career starts, and that’s before we mention Dennis Edwards, a three-year starter at WKU who’s coming as a grad transfer.

In his second year at WKU, Brohm’s offense lurched from 74th to ninth in Off. S&P+. It’s hard to predict that, due to an uncertain level of explosiveness. But the Boilermakers have experience now, and a surge wouldn’t be surprising.

Defense

2017 Purdue defensive radar

The Boilers better see an offensive surge, at least, because the defense will probably need some more help.

Co-coordinators Nick Holt and Anthony Poindexter couldn’t have had a better first year.

Purdue defensive improvement

Category 2016 Rk 2017 Rk Improvement
Category 2016 Rk 2017 Rk Improvement
Success Rate 107 21 86
IsoPPP 105 64 41
Pts. Per Scoring Opp 116 29 87
Rushing S&P+ 123 6 117
Passing S&P+ 109 76 33
Stuff rate 41 18 23
Adj. Sack Rate 82 65 17

Purdue got better against the pass and infinitely better against the run. When you improve by that much, it’s not all about the personnel — the coaching found its mark, too. Still, having the pieces helps, and the Boilermakers must now rebuild a front seven from scratch: only one of last year’s top six tacklers on the line (tackle Lorenzo Neal) and one of four linebackers (Markus Bailey) returns.

NCAA Football: Foster Farms Bowl-Arizona vs Purdue
Markus Bailey
Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports

Bailey’s a good starting point. The junior-to-be led the team in tackles for the second straight year and was third in total havoc plays (tackles for loss, passes defensed, forced fumbles) with 15. He was also second on the team in run stuffs, with 17. He’s battle-tested.

And Neal’s a nice play-maker — 8.5 of his 29.5 career tackles have come behind the line, and he had 18 solo tackles to four assists last year. His ability to tackle in space is rare for a 315-pounder.

Here’s a full list of other front-seven returnees who made at least five tackles last year, though:

  • Sophomore linebacker Derrick Barnes (13)

End of list.

Brohm felt comfortable enough that he didn’t load up on JUCO or grad transfers. So that’s something. But this is still a total reset.

NCAA Football: Ohio at Purdue
Jacob Thieneman (41)
Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Holt and Poindexter have a reset at cornerback, too, with the losses of Josh Okonye and Da’Wan Hunte (combined: 87.5 tackles, 5.5 TFLs, 18 passes defensed). Sophomore Simeon Smiley saw playing time last year (but could end up at safety), and Tim Cason (15 tackles in 2016) should be ready after missing most of 2017. But neither has proven to be the same type of disruptive force that Okonye and Hunte were. Two redshirt freshmen — Dedrick Mackey and Kenneth Major — emerged this spring, but even when they look good, trotting out two redshirt freshmen at key positions is terrifying.

PU should be fine at safety, at least, as senior Jacob Thieneman and junior Navon Mosley return. Like Bailey, Mosley was leaned on pretty heavily as a freshman in 2016, and Thieneman emerged as a play-maker and play-preventer last fall.

Special Teams

For better or worse, basically everyone is back for a unit that ranked 90th in Special Teams S&P+ last year. Spencer Evans’ kickoffs were solid (43rd in kickoff efficiency), but the Boilermakers ranked 81st or worse in the four other efficiency categories.

J.D. Dellinger and Evans combined to go just 3-for-10 on field goals longer than 40 yards, Jackson Anthrop averaged 1.8 yards per punt return, and D.J. Knox averaged just 18 yards per kick return. Joe Schopper’s punts were mostly unreturnable, at least, even if they also weren’t very long.

It’s hard to imagine this suddenly becoming a great unit.

2018 outlook

2018 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
30-Aug Northwestern 38 -0.8 48%
8-Sep Eastern Michigan 96 11.8 75%
15-Sep Missouri 30 -3.2 43%
22-Sep Boston College 48 1.7 54%
29-Sep at Nebraska 60 -1.3 47%
13-Oct at Illinois 99 8.2 68%
20-Oct Ohio State 1 -21.3 11%
27-Oct at Michigan State 11 -17.3 16%
3-Nov Iowa 36 -1.5 46%
10-Nov at Minnesota 67 -0.1 50%
17-Nov Wisconsin 12 -12.1 24%
24-Nov at Indiana 58 -1.5 47%
Projected S&P+ Rk 54
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 48 / 60
Projected wins 5.3
Five-Year S&P+ Rk -2.5 (83)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 62 / 69
2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 4 / -7.1
2017 TO Luck/Game +4.3
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 59% (77%, 41%)
2017 Second-order wins (difference) 7.8 (-0.8)

Last year, S&P+ forecasted Purdue to win 3.4 regular season games, and the Boilermakers won six. So you can forgive Boiler fans for assuming overachievement again.

That doesn’t guarantee it, though. You have to have faith in a second-year offensive leap (which you can never really see coming in advance), or you have to believe that the defensive coaches are so good that they can produce similar results with eight new starters.

Depending on how you look at it, the home-road splits are either extremely favorable or damning. The Boilermakers face seven projected top-50 teams, and six have to come to West Lafayette. Meanwhile, they face three teams between 51st and 70th, all on the road.

If they play at a top-35 level (they were 41st last year), then about eight or nine of these 10 games could be within reach. If they’re only top-60 or so, then all 10 are losable. Seven are projected within 3.2 points, which ... guh. Good luck with that, Boiler fans.

Either way, we’re talking about a lively, interesting, and competitive Purdue again. That’s fantastic, and all it took was hiring an excellent coach instead of the mythical right one.

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