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2021 Old Oaken Bucket Game: Shifting Elevators

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Indiana and Purdue flew past each other some time in October.

NCAA Football: Purdue at Northwestern Jon Durr-USA TODAY Sports

Just two years ago it seemed like Purdue’s dominance over the last few decades in the Old Oaken Bucket series was in danger. Entering the 2019 edition of the rivalry Purdue was in some trouble during Jeff Brohm’s third season. Purdue was just 4-7. There would be no bowl game for the first time under Brohm. The momentum gained from the Ohio State upset a year earlier was dead. Injuries had a large factor in that 4-7. You don’t lose a red hot starting quarterback in Elijah Sindelar and an electric talent in Rondale Moore on the same play and get better, but there were other factors. Moore and Sindelar were healthy when Purdue collapsed at Nevada. Purdue had still lost to Eastern Michigan in 2018 and to a bad Nebraska and Rutgers in 2017. Those games, and a few others, raised some questions about Brohm’s overall body of work.

This was compounded by Indiana playing very well at the time. The Hoosiers came in at 7-4 and had been briefly ranked for the first time in a quarter century. They had finally risen to the level of “beat everyone you should”, a perch that has eluded Purdue for some time and had eluded Indiana for longer. Tom Allen had made football relevant in Bloomington, and the Hoosiers were ascendant with #9Windiana as a legitimate possibility.

Last year didn’t help, either. Obviously COVID was a gigantic curveball no one would have predicted. Spring and summer training was virtually non-existent. Fall camp was limited. The season was shortened, then cancelled, then brought back. Games were cancelled days in advance. Indiana benefitted by surprising Penn State in the first game, then riding a wave of momentum to a 6-1 record and top 10 appearance. Was it mostly because traditional East heavyweights Penn State, Michigan, and Michigan State all sucked? Maybe, but Indiana still got it done.

Purdue… didn’t get it done. After a nice win over Iowa to open the year and a win in Champaign, the Boilers fell apart. Four close losses followed, but they were games where Purdue never really felt close to winning (save the robbery in Minneapolis). The defense was awful. The offense was playing catch up. By the time the scheduled 2020 edition of the Bucket game came around it looked like Indiana would win in a walk. The dual cancellations (remember, they did try to play it during the “Champions week”) felt merciful, as it stopped us from seeing Indiana beat Purdue like a drum.

Just three months ago these programs were in complete opposite spots from where they are now. Purdue was not projected to qualify for a bowl game by most experts. Indiana began the season in the top 25 for the first time in 52 years. Purdue was riding the infamous streak of “longest active unranked stretch for a Power Five team” that it had inherited from Indiana in 2019. Some publications even had Indiana as a dark horse contender for the college football playoff, which seems preposterous in any situation.

It is amazing to see how fortunes can change so quickly. We enter the Bucket game in almost the exact opposite spots from 2019, and even from August 2021. This time Purdue is the ascendent program that could win nine games. This time it is Purdue that has cracked the top 25 to break a long drought. Indiana is staring a 10 loss season and winless campaign in conference play in the face. I knew they were overrated to start the year, but no one could have predicted this. Both schools even faced very similar tough schedules.

Both played (and were destroyed by) Ohio State. Both played at Iowa, and Purdue won by 17 while Indiana lost by 28 when fully healthy. Both played Michigan State at home, where Purdue won and Indiana lost. Both lost to Minnesota. Cincinnati was their equivalent to our Notre Dame. Their Michigan was our Wisconsin. Their Penn State was our Oregon State. In fact, Purdue’s schedule comes out as tougher than Indiana’s.

So how did we get here? How did this dramatic flip happen in just three months?

· Injuries – Like Purdue in 2019, Indiana has been decimated by injuries. They were playing a fourth string walk-on at quarterback last week. Michael Penix Jr. suffered his annual injury. Tiawan Mullen has been out a lot. Stevie Scott has missed a lot of time. Several others have missed time, those were three of their best players and three guys that were projected to be some of the best in the conference. Purdue has lost a few guys, but not like in 2019. It has been relatively healthy.

· Offense – Purdue is still completely incapable of running the ball, but the passing offense has been lethal since Aidan O’Connell settled in. David Bell has been awesome. Milton Wright is an excellent number 2. Sheffield, Thompson, Durham, Miller, and Anthrop have been great. It is an offense that has adapted on the fly and the offensive line has improved greatly. Indiana, on the other hand, threw a pick six on its third offensive play of the season and has been downhill ever since.

· Defense – Purdue started very strong and had a defense that kept it in games while the offense grew. It has had some bad moments since, but give them a fourth quarter lead and they are going to close the game with turnovers. Indiana’s defense has completely collapsed because its offense is doing them no favors.

· Momentum – Indiana’s season turned on that pick-six and its failure to capitalize on Cincy’s slow start in that game. If the Hoosiers get either of those, maybe things are different. Dropping both sent them to 1-2 and they never really recovered. Purdue, meanwhile, won the critical opener over what turned out to be a pretty good Oregon State team (that could still win the Pac-12). It then used the bye week after the Minnesota loss to prepare perfectly for Iowa, which turned the entire season.

· Playing well away from home – Indiana has been bad, but it has been worse on the road. It barely escaped Western Kentucky with a win. At Iowa, Penn State, and Michigan it scored 13 points total. In the one game where its offense was functional, at Maryland, it gave up 419 passing yards. Purdue did the opposite. It won four regular season games away from home for the first time in 78 years. Sure, UConn, Northwestern, and Nebraska are bad, but we took care of business. As mentioned, the Iowa win changed everything.

· A “normal” year – Absolutely nothing was normal last year. You can almost throw out everything except the playoff because it was always going to be Clemson, Ohio State, Alabama, and random fourth sacrificial lamb. Indiana put some things together in a strange year and benefited from Michigan, Michigan State, and Penn State being down. When you’re one of the few teams that has any sort of consistency whatsoever you’re going to look a lot better than everyone else. Indiana had the opposite this year and their opponents swung back to “good”. For Purdue, we went through our two years of injury hell and COVID weirdness. When we finally got some consistency of our own it resulted in Jeff Brohm’s best season to date as his improved recruiting a few years ago matured into a pretty good team.

So will this hold? Historically, we have very rarely seen both Indiana and Purdue be up at the same time. Since 2007 there have been a lot of years when they have been equal right in the middle, but you have to go back to the late 60s for the last time the Bucket Game was a game of national importance for both sides. It is never going to consistently be there as long as Ohio State, Michigan, et al exist, either.

Right now Purdue is definitely on a higher floor, while the Hoosiers are in the same freefall we felt last year. We have a chance to sustain the success that Indiana was unable to sustain. Purdue should win the Bucket back, but even if it does and it wins its bowl game to finish 9-4 Jeff Brohm will still be under .500 at 28-29 in his West Lafayette tenure. Tom Allen, who has been at Indiana the same amount of time, would be 26-32. Both would have secured large contracts in that time as well based on success that, at least so far, has not been sustained. At least in this case Brohm would have two “up” cycles to Allen’s one.

Brohm probably got job security through at least 2023 with this season. Allen’s new contract signed a year after Brohm’s big payday probably has him through 2023 as well. History says both Indiana and Purdue can’t both be good at the same time. That means it is up to Brohm to sustain the momentum his year created and keep the Hoosiers back down.