I watch too much college football, and I’ve seen this story repeat over and over again. A coach takes over a struggling program, invigorates the fan base in the first year with a few wins, struggles when the roster turns over, the previous coach’s recruiting deficiencies become clear, and he fizzles out by year 5 or 6 without ever regaining momentum. It looked like Jeff Brohm was headed down that well-worn path at Purdue.
A victory over Notre Dame would give Purdue and Coach Brohm the spark this program desperately needs. It’s not often you get a shot to beat what appears to be a vulnerable top 15 ranked “blue blood” from your home state on national television. Rarer still, is going into the game with arguably the 2 most talented players on the field (Karlaftis and Bell) wearing your jersey. It would be nice if this were a home game, but that would be almost a little too perfect.
Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a “must win” game for Purdue. It’s not even a “need to win” game for Purdue. Losing to Notre Dame doesn’t knock out any objectives for Purdue’s 2021 season. A victory over the Fighting Irish, however, would instantly catapult the Boilermakers into the national conversation. Beat Notre Dame and we’re talking about a 3-0 ranked Purdue team heading into what should be a walk-over against Illinois, followed by a showdown against a Minnesota team missing their best player. At 5-0, with a win over Notre Dame, Purdue would be firmly in the top 15, looking at a currently top 5 ranked Iowa team that Jeff Brohm, for reasons unknown to everyone including Jeff Brohm, has dominated during his tenure at Purdue. I won’t go any further beyond that, because I’m not sure I can handle the excitement, and beating Notre Dame tomorrow is an epic task.
Notre Dame has an “on paper” talent edge over the Boilermakers at virtually every spot on their roster. If we’re talking about high school rankings, Purdue has the talent advantage at one defensive end position. That’s it. Notre Dame has several wide receivers that came in ranked higher (although none as good on the field) than David Bell. They consistently finish around the top of the recruiting rankings, and Purdue consistently finishes...well...no where close to the top. This Notre Dame team is loaded with talent, and normally, that type of talent advantage can win a game on its own.
Fortunately for Purdue, they’re short on talent in a few key spots. I have no faith in quarterback Jack Coan leading Notre Dame to a shootout win over the Boilermakers. He wasn’t that type of quarterback at Wisconsin, and he’s not that type of quarterback at Notre Dame. To compound matters, the Fighting Irish are dealing with serious issues at left tackle. Blake Fisher, a 5* freshman left tackle out of Avon, started the year at left tackle, but was lost to injury. His replacement, Michael Carmody, went down in last week’s escape against Toledo, and although he’s listed as the starter on the depth chart, who knows if he’s ready to go tomorrow. They’ve got a stationary, “game manager” quarterback, lined up behind an offensive line with a gaping hole at left tackle, and Purdue happens to have a 1st round talent ready to exploit that hole at defensive end. Notre Dame’s biggest question marks will have to line up against Purdue’s biggest answer. That doesn’t happen often for an underdog.
For Purdue to pull this upset, they have to turn this game into a shootout. Brian Kelly is going to pound the ball early and often to star running back Kyren Williams. He’s off to a slow start this season, but I watched him carve up Clemson in their first match up last year. Purdue’s defense is better geared to stop a power running game than any time in the Brohm era, but they’re going to need help. The Boilermakers have to get out to a hot start on offense. If this stays close, and Kelly isn’t compelled to throw the ball to keep up, Williams, with a heaping side of stud tight end Michael Mayer on third down, will eventually grind down the Boilermaker defense. That’s the type of game Brian Kelly wants to play. He wants Notre Dame’s big offensive line to lean on Purdue’s defensive line all game. He wants to protect Coan with play action and let him pick Purdue apart with short/intermediate passes to Mayer over the middle. If Purdue comes out guns blazing, that game plan is hard to follow. If this turns into a Jack Coan vs Jack Plummer show down, I like the Boilermakers’ chances. It’s up to Jeff Brohm to make that happen.
Another benefit to a hot Purdue start is Notre Dame’s seemingly fragile psyche. The team I watched squeak by a legitimately awful Florida State team and struggle to overcome the mighty Toledo Rockets, didn’t look all that confident in their ability to pull off either task. This Notre Dame team came into the season with CFP expectations, and they’ve looked like a team destined for a trip to Shreveport in mid December. They know they’re not living up to expectations, and that sort of pressure builds. If Purdue can come out and punch them in the mouth early, I’m not 100% convinced they don’t fold, or at least stagger a bit before getting their footing. By that time, with Purdue’s offense, it could be too late for them to mount a comeback.
This game isn’t just about Notre Dame’s struggles this year. It’s also about a confident, talented Purdue team that has played well on both sides of the ball to start the season. Oregon State and UConn aren’t exactly world beaters (UConn should be demoted to FCS), but we’ve seen Jeff Brohm teams struggle against inferior opponents before. None as inferior as UConn, but that’s not a terrible Oregon State team and Purdue did what it needed to do to win. Karlaftis and Bell bring a swagger to this team that shows up on the field. Those two guys aren’t “just happy to be here” and they’re capable of changing the game at any moment. The rest of the guys know that if they can keep it close, George and David can take them across the finish line.
I wouldn’t bet the house on a Boilermaker win (remember folks, never, ever bet on Purdue athletics), but it wouldn’t shock me if they pulled the upset. They’ve got a puncher’s chance, and I think the Irish have a questionable chin. If they can land a few haymakers early, this game could get extremely interesting late. Pull this off, and this win would be the cornerstone for Brohm to build upon. We’ve seen what Brohm can do, in terms of recruiting, when he has momentum. The only reason Purdue has a chance in this game is the 2019 recruiting class that was a direct consequence of the momentum and excitement he built in 2017. You don’t get many chances like this as a college football coach at a program like Purdue. It’s tough to pull a program out of muck twice. Coach Brohm knows this, the players know this, and I fully expect the team and coaches to come out tomorrow and leave it all on the field.
If nothing else, I’m excited to be excited about Purdue football again. Tomorrow should be fun.
Boiler Up and stay safe out there.