And In That Corner … Purdue’s return to Notre Dame comes at key point in Jeff Brohm’s tenure

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 11 Purdue at UConn
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Notre Dame may be a bit unfamiliar with Purdue at the moment; they last met in 2014 and the Boilermakers have switched coaches since then. Before that hiatus, the in-state rivals had met every year since World War II, 69 years in a row.

This unfamiliarity will not last through the decade. This weekend’s matchup (2:30 ET; NBC) is only the first of a six-game series, with the subsequent five rattling off from 2024 to 2028.

But for now, the No. 12 Irish (2-0) need to study someone unknown. Then again, they might need to in three years, as well, if Purdue head coach Jeff Brohm does not reverse his current trend lines soon.

To get a better idea of Brohm’s status and the Boilermakers’ best players, let’s chat with Mike Carmin, of Lafayette’s Journal & Courier.

DF: Thanks, Mike. To be honest, a few weeks ago I was hardly thinking much of this game, but given how Notre Dame’s season has started, this weekend suddenly carries some hefty intrigue.

Purdue, meanwhile, did not struggle too much with Oregon State and then shut out Connecticut this past weekend. One of those results tells me more than the other, no offense intended to the Huskies. The 30-21 season-opening win does not look dominant, and the Beavers were within two points late in the fourth quarter, but the Boilermakers did not trail after tying the game at seven and outgained Oregon State by 38 yards. Maybe more notably, they had a 24-15 advantage in first downs, one team able to sustain drives and the other not.

What surprised you in Purdue’s first two games, specifically in that opener? Again, anything revealed against Connecticut comes with a hefty disclaimer.

MC: Nothing surprised me but there were unknowns going into the first game. The No. 1 thing was the defense since Jeff Brohm made wholesale changes with four new coaches and a new scheme in the offseason. The defense is playing more aggressive, challenging routes and disrupting the running game. The Boilermakers gave up some big plays but stepped up when they needed to. Most of the starters played only a half against UConn.

On Monday, Brian Kelly argued Boilermakers defensive end George Karlaftis is the best pass rusher in the country. Whether the best or one of the best, he has no sacks and only half a tackle for loss this season. Sure, two games is a small sample size, and without checking the snap counts against Connecticut, he likely played only a part-time role in that exhibition, but I would have expected Karlaftis to start the season quickly against the Beavers. How has he been slowed down? Or am I reading too much into two games?

This is a situation where numbers don’t tell the story. Through two games, Purdue has one sack. Go back and watch the games and see how many times Karlaftis pressured Oregon State’s quarterback and again Saturday at UConn. Karlaftis has nine quarterback hurries (sportsinfosolutions.com) this season but no sacks. He’ll get there eventually, and it may not be this game. The point — I think Purdue has been close to dropping quarterbacks several times and has come up short for a variety of reasons. Last year, they barely got close to the quarterback and the numbers reflected the performance.

Kelly also mentioned junior receiver David Bell by name, deservedly so with 14 catches for 255 yards and three touchdowns in two weeks, but Kelly made it a point to say that offense is not only Bell (pictured at top). Most notably, junior tight end Payne Durham also has three touchdowns, along with 11 catches for 174 yards. (And given my shots at UConn, I’ll follow up with, both Bell and Durham did most of their work in the opener against Oregon State.) Those two make up the vast bulk of the passing offense. First of all, for Notre Dame fans who have not watched him, what sets Bell apart from so many other receivers?

Secondly, if the Irish focus coverage on Bell and Durham — conceivable with junior safety Kyle Hamilton always lurking — who from Purdue would be most likely to break yet another big play against Marcus Freeman’s defense?

Bell’s route running is smooth — think Jerry Rice — and his ability to win one-on-0ne battles. They’re called 50-50 balls but with Bell, they’re more like 80-20. He’s going to come down with most of those catches because of his strength and his athletic ability.

While attention should be on Bell and Durham, the Boilermakers have other weapons. Milton Wright can step up and Jackson Anthrop is more of a possession receiver, but you can’t ignore him. TJ Sheffield should see more time at the slot receiver and is dangerous in the open field. 

Maybe good news for Freeman, the Boilermakers have struggled running the ball, gaining only 96 yards on 32 carries (sacks adjusted) against the Beavers, an even 3.0 yards per carry. Even against the woeful Huskies (how many shots can I take at Connecticut in this Purdue-Notre Dame preview?), they ran for only 4.45 yards per rush. And now leading rusher senior Zander Horvath is out for the next month or two. Is there big-play ability in this ground game? The longest non-Horvath, non-Bell rush I am seeing was a 23-yard dash by junior King Doerue. Will he become the primary back?

Doerue is the No. 1 back during Horvath’s absence, which could be anywhere from 4-8 weeks for a broken fibula. Purdue doesn’t have a burner at running back and it will try to grind out its yards with Doerue and backup Dylan Downing. Don’t be surprised to see a receiver or two jump in the backfield and add some pop to the running game. The key, though, is the offensive line and the unit hasn’t asserted itself in the first two games, and I am not sure how much it will be able to do against the Irish. 

I suppose I am spending so much time on Purdue’s offense because at least I know what to expect from Notre Dame’s defense: Overall good play, a whole lot of havoc and a few big plays allowed. The Irish offense could go either run-heavy or pass-heavy this week, a week to determine its identity. Which would give the Boilermakers more trouble?

Run-heavy attack. Purdue’s defensive line is pretty good on the edges but up the middle is where it is vulnerable. If the Irish can establish a running game inside the tackles, they’ll control the game.

From a macro viewpoint, I have lost track of Jeff Brohm’s status. That 2018 upset of Ohio State was one to remember, and then he has pretty consistently struggled since then. I doubt this 2-0 start has restored complete faith in him. What does Brohm need to do in 2021 to once again be on firm ground in West Lafayette?

He’s accomplished two goals — win the first two games. Everyone outside the program expects a loss Saturday but the next two games are big. Illinois and Minnesota at home. If Purdue could be 4-1 heading into the open week, that sets up the Boilermakers for the second half of the season where there are some winnable games. To me, just getting back to a bowl game is the No. 1 objective for this season. 

Saturday could certainly help Brohm’s cause. As 7-point underdogs, beating that in-state behemoth would resonate around Purdue, no matter how Notre Dame has started 2021. What do you expect this weekend?

I think Purdue can stay in this game, but Brohm will have to scheme around the deficiencies on the offensive line to move the ball. The talent of the Irish should make enough plays to be the difference. Notre Dame has too many players who can take over while the Boilermakers have only a handful. The Irish have played two close games, but I see them pulling away down the stretch.