Danny Hope did not make it to year 5.
Darrell Hazell was canned in the middle of year 4.
With Jeff Brohm, Purdue has finally some continuity at the head coaching position, and there is a measure of job security since his contract alone dictates he is most likely around through 2022 (at minimum) unless he is framed for a crime or something. Still, this year needs to be a turning point.
The 2017 season was a blessed surprise. After four years of drudgery Purdue got a 7-win season with a bowl win out of nowhere. It was the first winning season since 2011 and everything looked great. We even fended off Tennessee to keep Brohm, establishing an investment in the program that seemed solid.
2018 was the Rondale Moore experience, but there were still some troubling signs. Purdue beat three ranked teams, their first wins since over any top 25 teams in seven years. The magical night in October where Purdue absolutely beat the brakes off of Ohio State, denying them a playoff spot, was fantastic. It is still the most recent loss to a Big Ten team for the Buckeyes. Unfortunately, we still had the ugly loss to Eastern Michigan. Of Purdue’s seven losses, three were on the final snap of the game. Then there was the bowl game vs. Auburn, which was an unmerciful beating where Purdue didn’t even belong on the same field.
The 2019 season started with a collapse at Nevada, leading to another final snap defeat. then Elijah Sindelar and Rondale Moore, the two best offensive players, were lost for the season on the same damn play. They were not the only injuries as Purdue closed the year with a fourth string walk-on at quarterback. Still, Purdue was competitive. Even at 4-8 it was about 2 plays from 6-6 given the nature of the Nevada and Indiana losses, and 6-6 with all those injuries would have been a decent accomplishment.
Then COVID hit.
I honestly have no idea what to think of last season. I have said many times that it felt like six glorified scrimmages. Three of the nine games were called off completely due to COVID. Purdue started hot, but once George Karlaftis and his individual brilliance went down the entire defense collapsed, exposing Bob Diaco. Still, Purdue was close. It couldn’t engineer a final drive against against Northwestern in a close game. It was absolutely robbed of a victory at Minnesota by a horrific call in a game I mentally count as a win. Against Rutgers those defensive failures cost Purdue a very winnable game, and against Nebraska Purdue fought back and had a chance late, but a boneheaded roughing penalty denied them a golden chance to get a stop and get the ball back down 7 with 10 minutes left and momentum.
Do things change if that call doesn’t happen in Minneapolis, leading to a win vs. Rutgers? Was the season merely a product of COVID, where available personnel seemed to change week-to-week or even day-to-day? I think ultimately you have to throw out just about every result for any team last season, with the playoff being the three teams (Alabama, Ohio State, Clemson) that were going to go anyway plus a good Notre Dame team. I mean, was Indiana really a top 10 team or did they take advantage of finally being able to beat the teams they should and Penn State, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Michigan State all being their worst in years? I don’t think I am exaggerating that at 2-4 Purdue felt a couple of plays and breaks away from 6-0 given how close the games were. It was at least different from the Hazell era when being down 4 touchdowns in the third quarter was the norm.
All that said, the numbers still don’t lie. It is year five and Brohm is 19-25 at Purdue with one winning season. Of those 25 losses 15 have come by 8 points or less, so a single score. Five have come on the game’s final play. There is very little question Brohm has been a huge improvement over Hazell )mostly because it is very hard to do worse), but the program is still at a crossroads. It is still losing games (Rutgers and Nebraska 2017, Eastern Michigan 2018, Nevada 2019, Rutgers 2020) it has absolutely no business losing. It is still snakebitten in close games.
Seeing Indiana at 24-22 under Tom Allen in the same time is troubling, especially with them as a preseason top 25 team. Seeing PJ Fleck at 26-19 at Minnesota with an 11 win season is troubling. These are Brohm’s measuring sticks given that both programs hired coaches at the same time we got Brohm and both are programs that are often on the same level as Purdue. Even worse, Brohm is 3-4 against them head-to-head (but a single play and a bad call from being 5-2).
What are reasonable expectations for this year? Well, Vegas has the over/under win total at 5, but we’re not paying Brohm to be 5-7. There needs to be improvement. We need to be better than that and make a bowl game to get back on track. I think this needs to be a 6-7 win season or better, and there is at least a chance. Diaco is gone. Yes, it is bad to be on a third defensive coordinator in three years, but Diaco was a terrible fit and needed to go. Purdue has dipped heavily into the transfer portal, especially on defense. That could pan out and has in the past. It is a risk, but one with a chance at a high reward.
Then there is the schedule. Purdue absolutely must start 2-0 before going to Notre Dame. We get a struggling Pac-12 team coming across the country at home then a road trip to one of the worst FBS programs in America. Dropping either of those games (while Oregon State is much tougher than UConn) would feel like a major setback. After a likely loss at Notre Dame we get Illinois and Minnesota at home. Purdue probably has to get one of those, but it should have at least a decent chance of getting both.
If Purdue can be 4-1 at that point that is where the season can really turn. Going to Iowa and hosting Wisconsin in consecutive weeks seems daunting, but Brohm has done very well (3-1) against the Hawkeyes and he has at least been competitive against Wisconsin. That losing streak has to end sometime, right? Going to Nebraska and hosting Michigan State (who was way down last year) are games that feel like toss-ups. In this four game stretch I can absolutely see Purdue splitting and going 2-2. We’re not winning at Ohio State because we can’t bring them to their house of horrors in West Lafayette, but the Northwestern game at Wrigley will be interesting and I feel we can beat Indiana at home.
Does that mean we’re going 10-2? Absolutely not (though if they want to do that I am fine with it). But if Brohm really is worth the money we’re paying him the schedule is there to find a way to 7-5. The key will be those first two games. We can’t afford to drop either one.
I mentioned yesterday that the Oregon State game feels like the biggest crossroads game since at Marshall in 2015. In that one, Purdue faltered late in a game it was leading and it ended up ruining any momentum the Hazell era had. It feels like we could see a similar effect if we lose to the Beavers.
I am still willing to believe in Brohm. The last two seasons were extraordinary circumstances with the injuries in 2019 and COVID in 2020. It is fully his program now though. All but a handful of Hazell recruits are gone (and he secretly did better with a mostly Hazell roster). He has two exceptional players in Karlaftis and David Bell. He has worked to address the offensive line and the defense. He has two experienced quarterbacks who should both be better behind and improved line.
The pieces are at least there. Let’s see what happens in 100 days.