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Reliving the 2021 Purdue Football Season

A week after the bowl win Purdue fans are still buzzing.

NCAA Football: Music City Bowl-Purdue at Tennessee Steve Roberts-USA TODAY Sports

Remember those days in July and August when the offensive line was a major question mark and there were serious questions on if Purdue would even make a bowl game? I was one of the few who had faith, but even then I felt that a 9-3 regular season was an “everything goes absolutely perfect” ceiling and we were more like 6-6 or 7-5, squeaking into Detroit for another low level bowl. Much of that was built on assumptions that were not true. I thought Nebraska would be better. I thought Northwestern would be better. I thought Michigan State would be a lot worse. I was at least right in thinking Indiana was wildly, hilariously overrated.

As we sit in early January we’re now basking in the best season in 18 years. I wasn’t far off on my “everything goes perfect” assumption of 9-3, as int hat I felt we would lose to Notre Dame, Wisconsin, and Ohio State. That did happen, but only Minnesota (a game Purdue just pissed away) was missed. Finally, Purdue beat the teams it should beat and even pulled off some really good upsets along the way. The future, at least as of Janaury 6, 2022 looks very bright even though things can change very quickly (look at Indiana). The Boilers have an excellent chance at finishing in the top 25 of the final AP Poll and starting in the first 2022 poll. I liken it to the 2018-19 basketball season. Expectations weren’t high, especially after the first few games, but it ended as one of the most enjoyable seasons ever.

Let’s look back at each game of a fantastic year.

Purdue 30, Oregon State 21

Finally, we had fans back in Ross-Ade Stadium, and it was a great atmosphere for a night game of two evenly matched teams. At the time I felt it was the most important game of Brohm’s tenure. He desperately needed a win in the opener over a decent Power 5 team, especially with a gimme in week 2. We saw that Purdue’s defense came to play, as they held the Beavers to 7 points in the first three quarters while the Purdue offense struggled to finish drives. Three Mitchell Fineran field goals kept them at arm’s length, but a great playcall on third down led to a long Payne Durham TD with 2:09 left to seal it.

MVP: Durham - 7 Rec, 120 yards, 2 TDs

Purdue 49, Connecticut 0

This one was rarely in doubt. Purdue got sacked twice on the opening drive for a slightly slow start, but the Boilers were in control throughout and several players saw their only game action of the season. It was the first road shutout in 40 years for the program, which is nice even if it came at the expense of the worst FBS team in the country. It was just nice to see Purdue take care of business and leave no doubt.

MVP: David Bell – 6 catches, 121 yards, 3 TDs

#12 Notre Dame 27, Purdue 13

Purdue lost as expected, but it was a bit of a “what if” game. A lot of points were left on the field as Jack Plummer struggled to finish drives. The defense mostly held up, but was gashed for TDs of 39, 62, and 51 yards. Purdue at least entered the 4th quarter down only 4 points and had the ball down 7 with less than 10 minutes left. This was the first we really saw Aidan O’Connell as well, but he struggled big time in throwing two fourth quarter interceptions.

MVP: Cam Allen – 9 tackles

Purdue 13, Illinois 9

It was far from the prettiest win on the season, but it may have been the most important. Had Purdue lost to the Illini in an ugly, offensively challenged game it may have changed the course of everything afterward. David Bell was out, but the defense got its second game of the year where it held an opponent out of the end zone. Illinois couldn’t pass. Purdue couldn’t run. AOC threw two picks, but led his fourth game-winning fourth quarter drive as Purdue did just barely enough to win over an Illinois team that was tougher than expected all season. Abdur Rahmaan-Yaseen had three very large plays in the fourth quarter.

MVP: Abdur Rahmaan-Yaseen – 3 rec., 77 yards

Minnesota 20, Purdue 13

Just a miserable game all around, as most of it was played in a monsoon. Purdue had 8 drvies reach Minnesota territory but scored only 13 points, going fumble, touchdown, field goal, field goal, punt, missed FG, turnover on downs, interception. Much like Notre Dame, Minnesota hit on two big plays to score or set up touchdowns and did very little the rest of the time. This was O’Connell’s first start and it ended with an interception in the red zone as Purdue drove to tie, just one play after he missed seeing a wide open T.J. Sheffield.

MVP: King Doerue – 95 yards rushing, 39 receiving

Purdue 24, #2 Iowa 7

It was the game that turned around the entire season and, just maybe, Jeff Brohm’s tenure in West Lafayette. The bye week came at a perfect time as David Bell went crazy on the Iowa secondary and Purdue played keep away. The defense, after not causing many turnovers in the first five games, picked Iowa off four times. AOC even got a RUSHING touchdown! Purdue got its first road win over a top 5 team since 1974, and it wasn’t even close. Just a fun day all around, and it led to Purdue first top 25 ranking in 14 years.

MVP: David Bell – 11 catches, 240 yards, 1 TD

Wisconsin 30, #25 Purdue 13

A terribly frustrating game. Wisconsin only completed five passes for 58 yads and we even got a defensive TD from George Karlaftis, but the offense did nothing. O’Connell has four turnovers, Purdue rushed for -13 yards, and the defense eventually breaks as Wisconsin rushes for 290 yards. In other words, every Purdue-Wisconsin game of the last 20 years.

MVP: Jaylan Alexander – 15 tackles

Purdue 28, Nebraska 23

This one really should have been a double digit win, but Purdue had to hang on with a late onside kick recovery. The offense was better mostly by not screwing up, but Purdue left points on the field with two missed field goals. The defense came to play with four more interceptions, including a pick-six by Jalen Graham that turned the game early. Much like against Iowa, Purdue dominated time of possession, but the onside kick was too dicey.

MVP: Jalen Graham – 6 tackles, INT, TD

Purdue 40, #3 Michigan State 29

Purdue partied like it was 1999 again as the Spartans rolled into town undefeated with national title hopes, only to have them dashed in a double-digit loss. Again, this probably should have been worse, as Purdue had to settle for four short Mitchell Fineran field goals, but the final one was fine as it made it a two possession game with 41 seconds left. David Bell had another 200 yard game, but O’Cconnell was incredible in just taking apart the Michigan State defense. An early fumble by Heisman finalist Kenneth Walker III, his first of the year, changed everything.

MVP: Aidan O’Connell – 40 of 54, 536 yards, 3 TDs

#4 Ohio State 59, Purdue 31

The Purdue defense, much improved all year, got absolutely facemelted. Purdue tried to keep up, but a couple of costly fumbles prevented them from keeping pace. It likely doesn’t matter, as Purdue could get no stops all day. The fumbles only prevented it from being a 2 TD loss instead of 4. AOC still played really well.

MVP: Aidan O’Connell – 40 of 52, 390 yards, 4 TDs

Purdue 32, Northwestern 14

Another game where it felt like it could have been more, as Fineran kicked four field goals (and missed a short fifth one). Milton Wright was uncoverable as they paid so much attention to David Bell. It was weird game with slipping kickers due to awful turf, Northwestern struggling to throw, Purdue getting four sacks on four straight plays, and a game in a friggin’ baseball stadium. Hey Chicago, whaddya say? The Boilers have won today.

MVP: Milton Wright – 8 catches, 213 yards, 3 TDs

Purdue 44, Indiana 7

I have very little memory of this one, as my family and I were involved in a car accident coming home and it kind of took over my day. Purdue absolutely rolled the Hoosiers to get the Bucket back. After a first quarter 75 yard TD drive the Indiana offense got 128 yards over the following 3.5 quarters. They were so bad Purdue ran for 167 yards. It was a joyful end to the regular season. Purdue just toyed with Indiana after hearing all summer about how the East came through Bloomington. Yeah, it did alright, as everyone in the East beat the Hoosiers.

MVP: Aidan O’Connell – 26 of 31, 280 yards, 4 TDs

Purdue 48, Tennessee 45 (OT)

It just happened and was controversial to be sure, but Purdue gets its ninth win for the first time in 18 years. I will admit that it should have been a touchdown in OT had the official not blown the play dead for forward progress, but he did, and by rule the play is dead from that moment. Even if it is a TD, Tennessee and SEC fans seem to forget Purdue had its turn afterwards. There is no question Purdue went very conservative to preserve the game-winning field goal chance, and it would have had ample time to go for a TD itself to tie (or even win with a 2 point conversion). Although Thompson was the MVP, O’Connell threw for 534 yards and Jaylan Alexander had 19 tackles. Chris Jefferson had 15 tackles and Kieren Douglas had 14.

MVP: Broc Thompson – 7 catches, 217 yards, 2 TDs

Season MVP: O’Connell – If he is the starter all year he shatters the season passing yardage record. He grew by leaps and bounds and is set for a monster 2022. If he doesn’t win the Burlsworth award next year a crime has been committed. Bell’s 93-1,286-6 also deserves strong consideration, as he was just short of the school single season yardage record despite missing two games.

Best Newcomer: Fineran – The grad transfer was reliable all year, going 24 of 29 on field goal attempts. He had several games where he made sure stalled drives got points that proved to be huge in the end. Purdue doesn’t beat Oregon State, Michigan State, or Tennessee without him, and it struggles a lot more with Northwestern too.

Defensive MVP: Karlaftis – Alexander was great with 113 tackles. Jalen Grahm, Cam Allen, and Milton Wright were excellent in the back seven. Karlaftis just demanded so much attention that his presence alone transcended stats. He officially had only 36 tackles, 4.5 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, 2 fumble recoveries, and a TD, but the constant double and triple teams freed up everyone else. If teams had played him one-on-one he probably has 13 sacks minimum.

Mental Attitude Award: Jackson Anthrop – Like it was going to be anyone else. There was a scene late in the Tennessee game where Anthrop was down on the turf. He was a muddy, grass-stained mess and I am not sure if he even played another snap because it looked like he was hurt on the play. That was Anthrop’s career. He gave this program every single ounce of himself and did whatever was asked of him. Play receiver? Running back? return kicks? Return punts? Come back in a bonus 6th year? Whatever. That moment will stick with me because he clearly had nothing left to give.

Best Game: Michigan State – Just a delightful home game with a great crowd and Purdue beat a very, very good team. The Spartans were 11-2 and won one of the big money bowls games. In West Lafayette, however, they got pushed around by Purdue.

Best Play: The double reverse TD to Anthrop vs. MSU – Always fun to score on some very weird stuff.