It is no secret that the linebacker position has sucked at Purdue for some time. As we anxiously await Gelen Robinson and Drue Tranquill as possible saviors there, we remember the parade of under-sized, the walk-ons, the playing-out-of-position, and the position-switched guys that have manned the back of the defensive line since the awesome Johnson-Koutouvides line left in 2003.
On Saturday, however, one player stood out in what is hoped to be a building block game rather than the "same old Purdue" that I lamented about in yesterday's wrap. Now, two days later, I see that there were a lot of positive things we can take from the latest near miss against the Fighting Irish. One of those was the lay of linebacker Joe Gilliam.
In the Big Ten you're not going to have success unless you have linebackers that can play up against the run or back against the pass. This has been Purdue's biggest weakness because of the consistent inability to cover the middle of the field on third down in passing situations. That is the realm of the middle linebacker, who often has to serve as the "quarterback of the defense".
Gilliam, a junior who played at Southport High School on the south side of Indianapolis, is now in his second year as a starter and he provided a major boost in the first half as Purdue's defense baffled the Fighting Irish and limited them to three points. He would finish the night with six tackles, a tackle for loss, and a pass break-up. His pass break-up came on Fourth and 4 at the Purdue 39 as the Irish went for it midway through the second quarter.
For most middle linebackers those are pedestrian numbers. For example, Wisconsin's Chris Borland, who we will see this week, had 10 tackles and a sack against Arizona State, but I wanted to cite Gilliam because his play stood out to me in a positive way. Most of the time Purdue's linebacker play stands out in a negative way, but Gilliam was different.
Gilliam had a few other good plays on the night. Late in the second quarter he came up and stuffed Cam McDaniel on Second and Goal from the four, helping Purdue hold for a field goal just before halftime. His tackle for loss came with Purdue leading 17-10 and he was able to knife through to stop Amir Carlisle for a two yard loss.
There is still room for improvement, however. While Purdue was able to hold the middle in the first half well, in the second half Tommy Rees butchered Purdue on Third and long. The first came on Notre Dame's opening drive. Facing 3rd and 9 at the Purdue 47 TJ Jones was wide open over the middle for a 19 yard catch. Later in the quarter DeVaris Daniels converted a 3rd and 11 with a 12 yard catch over the middle.
Not to be outdone, Daniels tied the game at 17 a few plays later on 3rd and goal from the 9 on what was almost the exact same play Purdue broke up on First and goal. At least that was a fade to the corner. Finally, on the game's final drive that allowed the Irish to milk the final 7:22 off the clock Notre Dame converted a critical 3rd and 6, again over the middle, and again to Daniels. This time it went for 18 yards.
Gilliam may not be the unequivocal answer and the next great NFL middle linebacker, but he did show on Saturday that Purdue is improving. As painful as the loss was, Purdue showed it has taken steps forward and Gilliam was a big part of showing that the new staff is addressing concerns such as the long-vilified 3rd and long over the middle. Even the converted 3rd and longs in the second half were not entirely at the feet of Gilliam. For the most part, Gilliam was a huge improvement over past middle linebacker play, and that is a good sign for the future.