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Music City Bowl: 7 questions on Purdue with Hammer and Rails

Syndication: Journal-Courier Nikos Frazier / Journal & Courier / USA TODAY NETWORK

The Vols drew Purdue for their matchup in the Music City Bowl, and I think the pairing is kinda fitting given context of each squad’s season.

Both teams finished middle-of-the-road in pretty strong conferences — Tennessee gets a nod for finishing 7-5 overall and 4-4 in the always-daunting SEC. But then Purdue has two dubs against top-25 teams to go with its 8-4 (6-3 in conference) record while the Vols have just one. It’s fair to say both programs might have snuck up on teams this year: UT is hunting eight wins after getting three last year, and Purdue already four times as many wins this year than it had last season.

I’m certainly not up to speed on Purdue — or any team in the Big 10 for that matter — and I figured most of y’all probably aren’t either. So I got in touch with Travis Miller, the manager of SB’s Boilermaker site, Hammer and Rails, for a Purdue crash course.

1) Jeff Brohm led Purdue to quite the season this year. Going 8-4 (6-3 in the conference) had to be a breath of fresh air, considering Purdue was 6-12 in the last seasons combined following a 13-13 total record after the first two years.

How antsy had Boilermaker fans gotten, and how far was Brohm from a hot seat this preseason? Did this year silence the critics?

I don’t think it was ever too hot, mostly because we are paying him so much money. I thought it would take something catastrophic in order for him to be fired this year, but there was definitely a feeling that the progress of those first two seasons had stalled. The 2019 went off the rails due to injuries, including starting QB Elijah Sindelar (who was red hot at the time) and Rondale Moore getting lost for the season on the same play. Purdue is probably not 4-8 if they stay healthy.

Then you have last year, which was really weird for everyone. Until early October it didn’t even look like there would be a season. Purdue was absolutely robbed of a win at Minnesota on an awful call, and that deflated the team for the final two games. I don’t think you can take a lot from that year for anyone. Indiana a top 10 team? That’s how you know it was bizarre.

This year was definitely a surprise. Purdue was infinitely better in every phase. The defense kept us in it early on while the offense was struggling. Then Aidan O’Connell caught fire in the second half and we started scoring 30+ per game. This was the first season since 2006 that Purdue won eight regular season games, and it really outplayed Minnesota in a loss. We just couldn’t finish drives that game. It’s been a lot of fun.

2) The more I’ve looked into Purdue, the more impressed I’ve become. That 8-4 record is pretty strong — I just don’t see any “bad,” losses. 6-3 in a good, though maybe a bit top-heavy, Big 10 is solid, and if I mathed right, the combined record of the four teams that beat the Boilermakers (Notre Dame, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Minnesota) is 37-11. Those two wins against then-ranked top-25 teams (Iowa, Michigan State) stand out, too.

So, what clicked? How did y’all flip from six wins the past two seasons to being on the precipice of a nine-win season with a top-50 (per football outsiders) offense and a top-30 defense?

Yeah, and really Ohio State is the only team that flat out walloped us. Wisconsin and Notre Dame were one possession games in the fourth quarter before getting out of hand late. Against Minnesota Purdue threw the clinching interception inside the 20 as it was driving to tie.

The rest has been fun. Purdue was dominant against Iowa and Michigan State. We successfully beat the teams we should beat, which is something that had been an issue under Brohm (who had lost to Rutgers twice, Eastern Michigan, Nevada, and a bad Nebraska team). There were a lot of other milestones to. The 49-0 win at UConn was our first road shutout in 40 years. Getting ranked 25th after beating Iowa was our first top 25 ranking in 14 years. We also won four true road games for the first time in 78 years. I knew we could be a bowl team, but 8-4 was a very pleasant surprise.

What worked is Aidan O’Connell seized the starting job after the offense struggled in the first few games and the defense did mostly a good job all year. It was excellent against the pass and, for the most part, gave Purdue a chance every week. If the offense had not struggled so much in the first five games we might have even beaten Minnesota and Notre Dame. The defense has thrived with George Karlaftis demanding so much attention and the offense has been very diverse through the air.

3) Last question that’s sorta-centered around the schedule: that Illinois game looks a bit suspect. Wins all count the same, but the 13-9 score, at home, against the 5-7 Illini caught my eye. What happened? Was it just a bad game?

That was when the offense was really struggling and we scored exactly 13 points four times in five games. Jack Plummer, a long-time starter was moving the ball, but not finishing drives. Aidan O’Connell came in to provide a spark and immediately threw two interceptions, but led the game-winning drive in the closing minutes (his fourth such drive in his career).

If you look at Illinois’ season that is pretty much what they did to everyone, too. They loved to get into ugly defensive struggles and hope their meager offense could do just enough to win. It worked against Minnesota and Penn State, but didn’t against Purdue, Rutgers, and Maryland.

4) WR David Bell and EDGE George Karlaftis will not play in this one after declaring for the NFL Draft. What did they bring to the table?

Bell is just a complete receiver. Rondale Moore was excellent. He was a guy that could turn any five yard loss into a 60 yard gain. He was pure electricity. Bell is just a complete receiver in every aspect and worthy of his All-America honors. He has good size, plays the ball great in the air, has great hands, blocks, runs perfect routes, and just gets open. He needs 21 yards to be our single-season yardage leader, and that is after missing the Illinois game with a concussion. He has all the tools to have a long NFL career as a possession receiver.

Then there is Karlaftis. The stats are not eye-catching, but they hide a lot. He demands a double team or even a triple team on nearly every play. He just draws attention on every snap. That doesn’t show up in the stat sheet, but when you have two or three guys paying attention to him it makes it easier for the defense because now they are playing 10 on 9 or 10 on 8. If anything, I wish Purdue had been a little more consistent on the other end of the line to take advantage of that.

5) I imagine I’m in the majority here with Tennessee fans as I haven’t seen a live Purdue game yet this year. Hit us with a couple impact players on each side of the ball, and if you don’t mind... boil.. down Purdue’s offensive and defensive schemes and/ or approaches.

Receiver Milton Wright has done a great job of being Robin to Bell’s Batman. He had a 200+ yard, 3 TD game against Northwestern at Wrigley Field and has been close to or over 100 yards a lot of other times. Jackson Anthrop is also a fan favorite. He is a 6th year guy who grew up in West Lafayette and had one brother play basketball for us and another who was a receiver. He is your typical gritty former 2-star that does everything. He lines up in the slot, returns kicks, returns punts, and has even come out of the backfield here to provide a spark in our awful running game. This is his final career game, and we’re going to miss him.

Defensively, Jalen Graham has been really good as a hybrid DB/LB all year. He had a huge pick-6 at Nebraska and has been really good in the middle of the defense. Cam Allen and Marvin Grant have also been very good and keeping things in the middle of the field in check. Again though, a lot of that is due to what Karlaftis does.

6) What can Tennessee do to slow down Aidan O’Connell and the Purdue offense?

Well, O’Connell is on a heater right now, but earlier in the year he really struggled with interceptions. His first significant action was to try and ignite the offense at Notre Dame in the 4th quarter and he threw two picks. He had two against Illinois, one against Minnesota plus a fumble, and three against Wisconsin. When they come, they come in bunches. He hasn’t thrown one since the Wisconsin game though, so you could argue he is due. Also, he is not mobile. At all. Like, Peyton Manning looks like Lamar Jackson next to him. He scrambled for an 8 yard TD in the Iowa win and I was shocked.

I am also concerned because our running game is not good. It worked against Indiana because Indiana had stamped their season in a long time ago, but we have by far the worst rushing game in the Big Ten. Part of that is because Zander Horvath, our starter, missed several games with a fracture in his leg, but most of the time it is not a factor. The 150 or so yards against Indiana was 15% of our season total.

7) Let’s lose some money! The betting line for this game has looked more like a seismograph reading — Purdue opened as 2.5-point favorites, quickly moved to favoring the Vols by three points and now is anywhere from a push to -4 for Tennessee. So, if you’re a betting man, where are you lying your monies down at? Also, if you’re into predictions, feel free to hit us with one of those, too.

**note: This answer was provided before the news broke on Karlaftis and Bell, but the answer is still very relevant.**

So much of it depends on Bell and Karlaftis. I think the offense can make do if Bell sits out, but it is not ideal, especially with two promising young receivers that looked good early on out for the year in Abdur Rahmaan-Yaseen and Mershawn Rice. Karlaftis just makes so much work for us defensively that I am concerned if he sits out. You guys have a really good offense, and if he is not doing what he does you guys have a really big advantage.

I think we see a shootout. A lot of Purdue fans remember what happened the last time we played in Nashville. They are still cleaning blood out of the stadium after what Auburn did to us three years ago. We don’t want to embarrass ourselves again. I think if Bell and Karlaftis sit you guys win pretty handily. If they play, we can have a fun 35-31 game. Dealer’s choice on the winner there.