The last few days have been slow for Purdue fans sports-wise, but they get to start picking up again in the coming days. We’re just four days away from our bowl game with the Tennessee Volunteers. That means it is blogger interview time, and Nick Carner of SB Nation’s Rocky Top Talk is here to talk about the Vols, who are a 4.5 point favorite.
T-Mill: It’s year one for Josh Heupel after a disappointing 3-7 during the weird COVID season. Were things pretty much along with expectations, or did you exceed them?
Nick: I think everybody here in Knoxville has been surprised with the 7-and-5 record. I was looooww on Tennessee prior to the season — like I picked them to go 4-and-8 low — but given the Vols’ recent history, the new coach and the depleted roster, I was pretty comfortable with that presumption.
But just about everything went better than I expected. The offensive guys picked up the new scheme, and the defense was good enough and aggressive enough to let the offense outscore teams.
Some folks were more optimistic than me, sure. But nobody expected Tennessee to field a top-10 offense. Nobody.
T-Mill: Hendon Hooker has been a tremendous addition to the Vols. How much has this turnaround been on him?
Nick: He’s been a driving force — there’s no doubt about that. This season doesn’t go as well as its went without him. Just look at Tennessee’s first two games of the year — Bowling Green and Pittsburgh — when Joe Milton started.
Milton had won the job in camp but went just 18/35 for 190 yards and one TD before getting hurt and exiting the game early in the second quarter of the second game. The same issues he had at Michigan, like overthrowing *wide-open* receivers, caused the offense to be erratic.
Hooker came in and really took the job more than Milton lost it. By the time Milton was healthy again, a few games later, Hooker was playing too well to get benched again.
It can be kinda difficult to differentiate who should get what credit between a quarterback and his offensive-minded head coach. Heupel’s system and play calling are definitely part of the equation here, but there’s no doubt that this season looks much different with a QB other than Hooker under center.
T-Mill: Aside from being “Alabama” or “Georgia”, what have defenses done in order to slow down the Vols?
Nick: Well, like you mentioned, Tennessee was considerably out-manned against ‘Bama and UGA. Those games were always gonna end up how they did.
Offensively, this group’s been extremely opportunistic this season. If you look at the big plays, a lot of them come off broken tackles. The Vols have been good in the screen game — the WRs have blocked great on the perimeter, and then it’s one missed tackle and nothing but green grass and a touchdown.
Teams that do well against the Vols defensively have done well at just keeping the game manageable, so to speak. Don’t let WRs behind the DBs for long bombs, and don’t miss open-field tackles. If Purdue can do those things, and make the Vols nickel-and-dime them down the field, they’re taking some of the air out of the offense’s sails. Tennessee wants to go fast and score fast — don’t let ‘em.
T-Mill: How effective is the diverse running game at moving the football?
Nick: I feel like people think of fast-paced offenses and they think the magic happens through the air. But the run game is integral to what Josh Heupel wants to do, and Tennessee finished in the NCAA’s top 20 for rushing yards per game. Earlier this year, it was a three-pronged attack with Hooker under center and RB duties split between Tiyon Evans and Jabari Small. Evans seemed to struggle staying healthy, and has since transferred out, but there was no question the run game was better when he was part of it. He added a dynamic, big-play volatility that Small doesn’t have.
With the RBs splitting time, Hooker actually ended up leading the team in rushing attempts. I’m not a huge fan of the designed QB runs just because Hooker’s so important to the offense’s proficiency. But whatever. I’m not the coach. As is with any mobile QB, the threat of him tucking and running creates problems for defenses. Something to watch: early in the year, Hooker had a bit of a fumbling issue. He’d be a bit loose with the football, and sometimes instead of sliding, he’d try to extend the play further and it burned us a couple times. Keep an eye on that.
Tennessee uses a mixture of zone and gap schemes in the run game and is particularly good on counters or powers when they get an OL pulling and moving in space. If I was gonna watch out for something in the run game, that’s where I’d be looking.
T-Mill: Defensively, Tennessee has struggled against the pass. Does this give a lot of concern facing a great passing offense in Purdue?
Nick: Most definitely. I haven’t watched any Jeff Brohm-coached team in some time, but I know he put up some crazy numbers at Western Kentucky and used a lot of motion, play fakes and trick plays to try and jumble up the defense. The Vols are aggressive on defense, 94 tackles for loss on the year, and I could see Brohm trying to turn that aggression on its head and using it against us.
Like everything else in football, though, everything’s so intertwined. I don’t like the idea of the Vol DBs having to cover for three and four seconds, so if the pass rush can get to Aidan O’Connell, then that should help the DBs survive.
T-Mill: Who are your own impact players and how much of a virtual home game will this be?
Nick: Offensively, it’s obviously Hendon Hooker, but WRs Velus Jones and Cedric Tillman are guys to watch, too. Velus can run by a DB on a go route or house a screen pass, while Tillman is most effective when Hooker throws it up and lets him go get it.
On defense, MLB Jeremy Banks, who is a former RB converted into a LB, led the team in tackles, but he’s also caught more than his fair share of 15-yard, unsportsmanlike conduct penalties (something else I’d tell y’all to watch for). Byron Young and Tyler Baron are both LB/DEs and are Tennessee’s best pass rushers. Super senior Matthew Butler has been the key piece for Tennessee’s DL, despite playing 80-plus snaps in multiple games.
T-Mill: Any anger left over from the Purdue win in the 1979 Bluebonnet Bowl?
Nick: Uhh, no? It’s hard to be mad about something I didn’t know happened 8^)
But I’m more of a hoops guy, and there’s definitely some residual ill from watching Carsen Edwards and Ryan Kline rain in a million 3s against Tennessee in the 2018-2019 Sweet Sixteen. That was a GREAT basketball game, though. While we’re here — what a team y’all have this season. I watched Jaden Ivey in the FIBA World Cup this offseason and just *knew* Purdue was gonna be something serious again this season. Enjoy it!
T-Mill: How do you see things playing out?
Nick: I’m a Tennessee fan, and I’m inherently a bit cynical, so I’m always waiting for the other shoe to drop. With that said, the Vols have pleasantly surprised me most all year. I think some Vol fans are overlooking Purdue to an extent, mostly because of the bias that comes with playing in the SEC, but I’m not. The Boilermaker offense is the real deal, and it’s impossible for me to overlook the quality dubs you notched this season.
I think the Vols probably win, especially with Purdue being minus David Bell and George Karlaftis, but I’m expecting a close game. I’ll call it 42-38 Vols.