Normally the "Behind The Numbers" post focuses on a single player that stood out in the previous game. For this one, however, I think we have to focus on the defense as a whole. Yes, much was laid at the feet of Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook, who had a less than admirable game, but we have seen enough players, good and bad, move the ball with ease against the Purdue defense before Friday. For three and a half quarters Purdue's defense was actually out-playing (in terms of yards gained) Michigan State's vaunted unit.
A reason for this lies with defensive coordinator Greg Hudson, who saw that things were not working and switched things over to a 5-3-3 scheme with Ricardo Allen as more of a nickel back/linebacker hybrid and Ryan Russell alternating between being a down lineman and being a linebacker.
It was a look somewhat similar to what Purdue showed in the Little Caesar's Bowl against Western Michigan two years ago. In that game Gerald Gooden moved back to middle linebacker from defensive end for the suspended Dwayne Beckford and had a monster day with two interceptions and several stops.
Yesterday Jeremy Langford, who ran for 131 yards on 24 carries, was the only player that consistently moved the Spartan offense. Cook wasn't pressured much, but only threw for 107 yards on 13 completions. That is what made Purdue's secondary lead the game in tackles. Anthony Brown and Taylor Richards each had six tackles while Allen had five. There were some new names popping up that made plays though. Rueben Ibarra, a little used senior linebacker, shined with four tackles, one of them for loss.
Perhaps the biggest day of the newcomers came from Ra'Zahn Howard, who looked the part of a seasoned veteran in just his second career game as a true freshman. He had two tackles, but two pass break ups as well by sticking that big hand up and batting the ball in the air. One very nearly was intercepted by Bruce Gaston, who also had a good day with five tackles, two for loss.
Michigan State finished with 294 total yards, which is s season best for Purdue against an FBS opponent. Even better, 128 of those yards didn't come until Michigan State's final two drives, when a defense worn down from getting no offensive help gave up its only touchdown and Michigan State closed the game with a clinching drive to bleed the clock.
It was a big step forward for a team looking to improve all over the place. For one day, the defense did its job. If it continues to do so it will give a young offense every chance to steal a win or two the rest of the way. Now they have two weeks to improve the new scheme before a tough test in Ohio State comes to town.