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2021 Purdue Football: Is Just a Bowl Game Enough?

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Would a postseason berth calm everyone down a bit?

NCAA Football: Foster Farms Bowl-Arizona vs Purdue Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports

#5 Michigan State (8-0)

At #6 Ohio State (7-1)

Northwestern (3-5) at Wrigley Field

Indiana (2-6)

As long as Purdue wins just one of those games it will play in a postseason bowl game somewhere. ESPN currently projects them at the Pinstripe Bowl in Yankee Stadium against Clemson or Louisville, so they are confident that there will be one more win. The Las Vegas Bowl, Redbox Bowl, Music City Bowl, Cheez-It Bowl, and QuickLane Bowl are also possibilities. Regardless of destination, Purdue enters the final month of the season not only alive for a bowl game, but favored for one.

On paper, the Northwestern game looks to be the most likely case for a sixth win. The Wildcats are 3-5, have struggled to score all year, have been very slow out of the gate in games, and in general it looks like a “Bad Northwestern season”. Indiana has been an enormous disappointment and will likely be knocked out of bowl contention by the time they come to West Lafayette (and probably even by Sunday), but it is a rivalry game and their defense is still dangerous. Purdue likely has a puncher’s chance against Michigan State this weekend, while a win at Ohio State feels extremely unlikely.

I would say we’re favored to get one more win. We have seen that Purdue’s offense isn’t great, but as long as it avoids turnovers the defense will keep it in games. Even a 2-2 finish to go 7-5 would be significant. It means that we clinch bowl eligibility before the Indiana game for the first time since 2007. It would also guarantee a winning season and open the door to an eight win season for the first time since 2007.

Clearly, it is a significant sign of progress. In the last full season Purdue was riddled by injuries and went 4-8. Last year was just weird for everyone. Is it enough to silence some of the detractors of Jeff Brohm, however?

I know the goal is to be better than merely bowl eligible each year. Purdue has been trying to take that next step since about 2004, and it has struggled mightily in doing so. Purdue is also a very tough place to win with one conference title in the last half century and only one 10-win season ever. Still, some credit has to be given to at least showing significant improvement from one season to the next. Let’s see what has happened:

· The Purdue defense has shown significant improvement. Part of it is having a full season of George Karlaftis simply causing problems. Part of it comes from a vastly improved secondary and defensive line. Another large part is basically competency in coaching. Coach Brohm saw this was a major problem a year ago and fixed it. It is a lot easier to win game when you’re only giving up 17 points per game as opposed to nearly 30 like the last two seasons.

· Purdue’s defense has held two teams without a touchdown, a first since 2007. It got its first road shutout in 40 years at UConn. It half of its games now Purdue has held a team to 7 points or less entering the final quarter. That is significant.

· Purdue won a road game over a ranked team. Say what you will about Iowa, but they are still ranked even after two ugly losses. Purdue had not beaten a ranked team away from home in 11 years and hadn’t beaten a top 5 team away from home in 47 years.

· Purdue has faced adversity and recovered. It looked bad offensively going into the bye week after the Minnesota lost, but fixed things for a great win at Iowa. It looked bad offensively against Wisconsin, but recovered to win at Nebraska. So far it has avoided a real losing streak. Things have not completely snowballed unlike in previous years.

· Related to the last point, as long as Purdue beats Northwestern in a game in which it will be favored we will avoid having a losing streak of at least three games for the first time since 2011.

· Brohm has shown ability to adapt. From the three QB system that baffled Iowa to Jackson Anthrop out of the backfield to wildcat snaps for Zander Horvath to adjusting a thin offensive line on the fly, the Boilers are at least trying some new things. It has generally played well when it has the momentum, especially in the second half of games. We may not be trying all kinds of trick plays like 2017, but when Brohm has a favorable matchup he exploits it.

· Purdue has won three road games and will likely be favored in a fourth. It last won three road games in 2018, but before that it was 2006. If you’re looking for the last time Purdue won four road games (and if you consider the Wrigley game a road game) you have to go back to 1943, when Purdue went 9-0, should have been the national champs, and was 5-0 on the road (though Purdue did go 3-0-1 away from home in 1955). If you count bowl games Purdue won four away from Ross-Ade in 1979, 1980, and 1997. A win at Wrigley and in a bowl game means Purdue has five wins away from home in one season for the first time in nearly 80 years.

· Finally, recruiting has improved significantly. Hazell’s best class was 68th per Rivals. Brohm has gone 49, 26, 33, 77, and now 34th there. We’re not bringing in 5-stars with reckless abandon, but we’re not fighting to get out of the Big Ten basement either. He is consistently at least in the top half of the Big Ten, which helps a lot. He also has brought things back up with a decent class this season after a low number in 2021.

These are modest accomplishments compared to many other teams to be sure, but for Purdue? We’re looking at program heights that haven’t been seen since many current players were toddlers. If that is not significant improvement I don’t know what is.

We’ve been here before though. The late Tiller years were there. The Danny Hope years were there. Even the first two Brohm years were there. How do you take the next step? Going 6-6 or 7-5 this year is progress, but how do you turn that into 8-4, 9-3, or even better? Coach Brohm’s record in one-score games is still concerning. He was 8-15 coming into this year there, but has improved it to 10-16 with the wins over Illinois and Nebraska plus the loss to Minnesota.

That question won’t be answered until next year. Indiana State (FCS), at Syracuse (currently 5-4), and Florida Atlantic (Currently 5-3) present a challenging, but not overwhelming non-conference schedule. Going to Maryland and Indiana from the East are huge breaks, while getting Penn State in West Lafayette to start the year is a very curious matchup. I may be looking way too far ahead, but eight (or more?) wins next year is a very real possibility given Purdue’s dominance of Kirk Ferentz, Nebraska’s Nebraska-ness, and Illinois and Northwestern both having disappointing years. When the toughest games appear to be Penn State, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, that is a good place to be.

The largest impediment to that is the offensive line. If we can protect the quarterbacks and generate something from the running game Purdue is a lot better. We saw the difference from Iowa to Wisconsin in that regard. I am encouraged, however, that Brohm saw a major deficiency (the defense) and fixed it this offeseason. This is year five for the line being a concern, and it is hard to improve overnight. A couple of freshmen got their feet wet on the line at Nebraska in Josh Kaltenberger and Mahamane Musa. Cam Craig, Spencer Holstege, and Gus Hartwig are starting as sophomores. It is a line that is at least growing and improving. That gives a measure of hope. I think the loss of four contributors to medical retirement over the summer was significant, but that depth is building in redshirts now. it should be better next year, and if this year’s line is the low point that is exciting because so far it has been “enough”.

I never thought Jeff Brohm would be fired following this season barring a complete 1-11 like disaster, mostly because of the terms of his contract. Through eight games there is very little doubt he will be the coach in 2022 barring something unforeseen. Does a bowl game in 2021 buy him 2023 automatically? I think it makes it a lot more likely, but again, 2022 can’t be a step back. At minimum, one more win at least gets Brohm back to the level he was at the end of 2018 and with a shot of sustaining that success next year. Two more regular season wins gives him his best regular season in West Lafayette and raises the expectations big time for next year.

Let’s just enjoy being at five wins entering November for the first time since 2007 for a moment.