Improved Boilermakers seek major road upset

Once a moderately successful program known for upsetting top-ranked opponents and producing NFL quarterbacks, Purdue football seems to have lost its way in the last few years.

The Boilermakers have never been a conference powerhouse, but their consistent competitiveness — 12 bowl game appearances in 16 years from 1997 to 2012 — stands in stark contrast to their abysmal results under head coach Darrell Hazell: 9-33 overall, with just three conference wins in four years. Suffice to say, there hasn’t been much to get excited about in West Lafayette for a while.

Enter Hazell’s replacement, former Western Kentucky head coach Jeff Brohm, who has done his best to disrupt that narrative and put Purdue back on the map of contenders in the Big Ten’s West division. In just five games, Brohm has equalled last season’s win total, given a scare to a top-20 team and reinvigorated a lost fanbase.

It started with a close game against then No. 16 Louisville, a back-and-forth affair that the Boilermakers led in the fourth quarter before ultimately losing 35-28. It wasn’t a win, but it was enough to get 45,633 fans to attend the home opener the next week, Purdue’s highest attendance in four years. Those in attendance were treated to a 44-21 win, followed by a 35-3 stomping of Missouri the next week that gave the Boilermakers some momentum heading into a home clash with Michigan.

The team’s on-field performance against the Wolverines was ultimately forgettable in a 28-10 loss, but there was a different number that mattered: 60,042, the game’s attendance and Ross-Ade Stadium’s seating capacity. Brohm’s reinvigorated team had played in front of a sellout crowd, the Boilermakers’ first in almost 10 years. Notching a 31-17 win over Minnesota for its first conference victory made it clear: Purdue football is on its way back.

The resurgence has been led first and foremost by the defense, which has gone from last in the conference at 39.9 points per game a year ago to just 20.8 this season. Most of that improvement has come from inside the program, as senior linebackers Danny Ezechukwu and Ja'Whaun Bentley have teamed up with T.J. McCollum, a Western Kentucky transfer, to hold opposing offenses to just six rushing touchdowns through five games.

A year after then-sophomore quarterback David Blough was given full control of the offense — leading the conference with 517 pass attempts, and 21 interceptions — Brohm has taken a more balanced approach at the position. This season Blough has split his time with sophomore Elijah Sindelar and the duo have combined for 13 touchdowns against just six interceptions.

Purdue’s 3-0 record against unranked teams this season is encouraging for the program’s present and future, but its 0-2 record against top-25 opponents appears more relevant against Wisconsin. An improved rushing defense and a quarterback — or two — capable of making big plays have been keys to upsetting the Badgers before, but a win at Camp Randall seems like too much to expect from the Boilermakers in this resurgent season.

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