In last season’s first road game at Nevada Purdue was cruising. Through most of three quarters the Boilers were dominant with a three score lead, but you saw some of the warning signs. It could have been more. A slew of turnovers prevented Purdue from having more than a 31-14 lead late in the third quarter, and a complete disaster of a fourth quarter led to a stunning 34-31 loss.
You’ll excuse me if I was having flashbacks to that game today. When Jalen Graham recovered a fumble inside the one and scored Purdue’s first defensive touchdown of the season Purdue led 31-10, but again, it probably should have been larger. A questionable Zander Horvath fumble in the first half ended a drive where Purdue was threatening to go up 21-0 and instead the Illini went down to make it 14-7. Twice Purdue turned it over inside the five yard line, but immediately got the scores anyway thanks to a Cam Allen interception and the Graham recovery. The Illini were sloppy, but so was Purdue.
The game still felt in hand at 31-10, but then it started slipping away just like at Nevada. The Illini got a pair of fourth quarter touchdowns and, despite what Horvath did last week and that he was running hard again, Purdue’s questionable playcalling led to Illinois getting the ball back with 2:45 left down only seven. A 17 yard completion to Josh Imatorbhebhe and a pass interference had Illinois in business at the Purdue 15 with two minutes left and it was beginning to REALLY look like Nevada all over again.
After two incompletions we had another Nevada-adjacent moment. Dedrick Mackey dropped what would have been the game-clinching interception on third down, much like last year when Kenneth Major was (incorrectly) ruled out of bounds on what would have been the game-clinching interception. Fortunately, Illinois inexplicably ran on a six yard route on 4th and 10. an incompletion on an ill-advised pass on second down put behind the eight ball on 3rd and 11 with Illinois still holding a timeout, but Aidan O’Connell lofted a pass to David Bell in excellent coverage and the All-American came down with it to seal the game.
Yes, it was ugly. Yes, Purdue almost blew it. Yes, the Boilers should have cruised to victory. A win is still a win and Purdue is 2-0 for the first time since 2007. Even in the ugliness there were still a lot of positives around:
Aidan O’Connell - He’s not going to dash for a 15 yard game when receivers are covered. He still forces some throws. Even then, the former walk-on is now 4-2 as a starter and has already thrown for more than 600 yards this year. He had no interceptions today and with Bell and Milton Wright he has two receivers he really likes.
Zander Horvath - Purdue had no running game last year. Now, with another former walk-on, it has one. Horvath is a load to bring down and has three straight 100 yard rushing efforts. He also added 50 more yards on eight receptions as a safety valve. He is basically it right now with King Doerue hurt, Tirek Murphy informally suspended, and Da’Joun Hewitt not getting carries.
Milton Wright - Bell has been amazing, but Wright has been really good too. he had his first 100 yard receiving day today and continues to be steady in taking the pressure off of Bell to do everything. When you have guys like Amad Anderson Jr and Jared Sparks being solid in their own right it allows Bell and Wright to be playmakers.
DaMarcus Mitchell - Hands down Mitchell has been the best newcomer on the team. He is all over the field and finished with 11 tackles today with a big pass batted down too.
Derrick Barnes - Barnes is one of the most critical players in the Diaco 3-4 defense because he needs to play linebacker in space on some plays while also needing to get up to the line as an end. In our virtual season he has been the MVP of the defense, but in real life he has been really good with eight tackles and his first career interception.
Gus Hartwig - How about this young man today? It is extremely difficult to come in as a true freshman and play on the offensive line right away in the Big Ten, let alone at center. After Sam Garvin was forced to leave today’s game Hartwig came in an played at center like a veteran.
Jalen Graham - Solid outing today. He had a pair of fumble recoveries a week after forcing a fumble. He was also rewarded with his first career touchdown on his second recovery, all set up on a nice hit from Marvin Grant.
David Bell - I mean, what else can you say at this point? He became the first player in Purdue history to notch five consecutive 100 yard receiving games. The school record for 100 yard receiving games is 14 by John Standeford. Bell already has eight. He has only played 14 games. He has reached the coveted, “If you had to throw your baby from a burning building and needed someone to catch it you would look for Bell, throw said baby, and go look for the cat,” level of play. He might have a 100 catch, 1,000 yard season in a year where we only play nine games (or less). He is absurd.
There is an awful lot to clean up still. There were way too many dumb penalties that helped Illinois get back in it. Also, Illinois got back in it and had a great chance to tie despite being down three touchdowns with 12 minutes left. Given where our program has been over the last 15 years or so I will take 2-0 any day of the week.
It also makes the coming week extremely interesting. It certainly looks like if there is a game on Saturday against Wisconsin it will be against an extremely shorthanded Badger team. It is our best chance to end the 14 game losing streak we have against Wisconsin short of only the game two seasons ago where we should have gone for two in the second overtime. It is hard to be somewhat confident when Illinois just pushed us with a fourth string QB, but there is that little voice that says “if we win this, we’re in full control in the West.”
If anything, we now have a great opportunity at 2-0.