Man, what a weird game.
Garrett and I were set up in the Athens command center, snacks at the ready, and received little more than a quarter of football before the heavens opened up in Blacksburg. 5 1⁄2 hours later we were out of snacks and left with the agonizing choice between Texas vs Alabama or Purdue vs Virginia Tech. We, of course, kept the sound and big screen on Purdue while Texas vs Bama was relegated to an auxiliary screen.
The first drive of the game was the Harrell version of the air raid at its best. The 9 play drive covered 75 yards in 3 minutes and 34 seconds of game time. 4 different receivers caught passes and Mockobee finished it off with an explosive 15 yards run on a simple outside zone play. Hudson Card showed off his elite skill, and delivered several accurate passes on the move. Considering the overall state of the offensive line, moving the pocket and getting Hudson on the perimeter is something I expect to see more of as the season progresses. When Purdue’s offense is clicking, this is what it looks like.
Let’s talk about Tyrone Tracy for a moment. This is what I expected to see from him last season, but Jeff Brohm couldn’t figure out how to utilize his diverse skill set. Coach Harrell doesn’t seem to suffer from that issue. Tracy is an explosive playmaker and the ideal compliment to Mockobee’s herky jerky running style. When Tyrone hits a hole, he hits it with conviction, and then mashes the gas pedal. 4 carries for 51 yards and a touchdown and 3 receptions for 14 yards is a great day. Somewhere between 8-12 touches a game is the sweet spot for Tracy. Tech’s deep kicks limited his opportunities in the return game, but he’s the type of player where a little can go a long way. He doesn’t have the elite, elite speed of former Purdue WR/RB Raheem Mostert, but is the best home run threat out of the backfield Purdue has fielded since Mostert (who was criminally under utilized). I know it’s tempting to use him more, but keeping him fresh and healthy is crucial for the Boilermakers. I’m going to go way out on a limb here, but with the current running back by committee system many NFL teams utilize, it wouldn’t shock me if Tracy’s move to tailback doesn’t end up making him some serious money as a 3rd down back and kick returner at the next level. Moving him back to his high school position and finding ways to get the ball in his hands is a brilliant call by Purdue’s new staff.
While I’m handing out love to receivers, I would be remiss if I didn’t give a shout out to TJ Sheffield. I didn’t think he was very good against Fresno State, but he played his part well against Virginia Tech. He might benefit the most if Purdue continues to move Card around because he’s at his best in the scramble drill where he can use his quickness to freelance and get open. He even made a few decent blocks yesterday! A marked improvement from the first game.
The offense line was better yesterday. It’s still not great, but having Kaltenberger back on the inside seemed to settle everything down. It will be interesting to see what happens when Hartwig comes back, because from what I witnessed yesterday, Kaltenberger is one of Purdue’s best five, and could, at minimum, grab a time share with one of the guards, if not the outright starting spot. I’ll break down the film later this week, but they used a new blocking scheme on the outside zone play that helped free up a few big runs. It looked like the coaching staff learned from the Fresno State game.
The defense was much improved as well. Nic Scourton dominated the game. He registered 5 tackles, a sack and 3.5 tackles for loss. This defense is designed to get into the backfield and make plays. Against Fresno State, Purdue only managed 4 tackles for loss and 2 sacks. Yesterday they had 9 tackles for loss and 3 sacks. I’m making some serious promises with my time this week, but I’ve got to show y’all the adjustment from game 1 to game 2 Purdue made on the defensive line. Against Fresno they lost contain too often, allowing the quarterback to escape the pocket. They fixed that yesterday by incorporating more stunts and loops into the game plan. The outside linebacker would push the tackle inside and the defensive end would loop behind him and set the edge. Fans often scream about a staff not “making adjustments” but don’t see the adjustments when they are made. Much like in the run game, this staff broke down the Fresno tape and fixed what was broken with the defensive line. The proof is in the results.
Virginia Tech managed 11 total rushing yards. When you remove the archaic “sacks count as lost rushing yards” college football accounting issue out of the equation, they still held Tech to 35 yards on the ground. When Purdue sets the edge and funnel runs into the 300+ pound monsters waiting on the inside, it’s almost impossible to run against them. Consider this a “proof of concept” game on the defensive front. That was the dominant performance from the 5 man front Purdue purchased when they hired Ryan Walters.
It wasn’t all roses for the Purdue defense. While the coverage was better (it couldn’t have been much worse) in the second game, there were still issues. Namely, the Boilermakers have no answer for a decent slot receiver. I’m not sure if there is a better option on the roster, but if there is, it would behoove the Boilermakers to never put Cam Allen on a slot receiver again. I would rather have a defensive tackle in coverage at this point. Outside of his “look what I found” interception, the Hokies victimized Allen in coverage. Purdue changed things up in the second half, buzzing safeties down to help out or dropping outside linebackers into shallow zones, but when Tech found Allen in man coverage, they attacked. Jaylin Lane, Tech’s slot receiver, was well on his way to a huge game before the 5 1⁄2 hour layoff kicked in and he pulled a hammy in the 3rd quarter. Before exiting the game, Lane pulled down 5 receptions for 51 yards and a touchdown. When he left the game, Wells lost his easy outlet on crossing routes and the Virginia Tech offense ground to a halt. Mother nature may have saved Purdue in this one.
Speaking of injuries, that game was a nightmare for Tech. Their quarterback, Grant Wells was injured on a bogus roughing the passer call in the second quarter, and looked gimpy the rest of the game. I think Tech brought in Drones for the final drive of the game more out of necessity than anything else. It was clear Wells wasn’t mobile enough to protect himself from the Boilermaker pass rush. I spent a bunch of time talking up Tech receivers this week only to see them drop like flies. Their number one receiving threat, Ali Jennings, went down in the first quarter with what looked like a serious lower leg injury. As I mentioned above, Lane was terrorizing Purdue until he popped a hamstring. It’s hard to say how the game plays out of those 3 remained healthy, but you can say the same thing about Purdue missing Miller (for most of the game) and Hartwig. Injuries happen in football, that’s why building depth is crucial for long term success.
Purdue showed their depth at tight end yesterday. Garrett Miller gave it a go, and managed to pull down an 8 yard pass, but folks, there is still a major hitch in his giddy up. After the long delay, Purdue decided not to warm him back up. I’m concerned this knee thing is more serious than we hoped. That limp should be gone after a year of physical therapy. To complicate matters further, the presumed back-up Paul Piferi is out as well. Fortunately for the Boilermakers, freshman Max Klare stepped into the void and led the team in receptions and receiving yards. He pulled down 8 passes for 64 yards and gave Card an easy outlet when he was pressured. From the little I saw of Miller on Saturday, Klare is easily Purdue’s best option at tight end until Garrett is closer to 100%.
A great win for Purdue. It wasn’t perfect, but it showed a big jump from week 1. The offense flipped the script fand dominated time of possession, holding onto the ball for 38 minutes and running 80 plays, as opposed to the 60 they managed in the opener. Purdue needs Hudson Card and Devin Mockobee to lead the way, and they did that against Tech. Card showed off his athletic ability and accuracy outside the pocket, extending plays and subsequently drives, by getting into clean air and making tough throws look easy. Mockobee found space and was more decisive with the cuts. Officially he picked up 95 yards on 21 carries, but a few negative plays were the only thing that kept him under 100. His 15 yard run to pay-dirt to finish the first drive was elite. His run to finish off the game was also a thing of beauty. Purdue had a 7 point lead with 1:16 left, ran the ball twice, picked up a first down and called it a game. Personally, I didn’t miss the late game drama.
As I mentioned above, the defense still has issues in coverage, but it was better. It won’t show up in the box score, but I was impressed with JuCo transfer Botros Alisandro bouncing back after a tough opening game to provide solid coverage in the back end. I also want to shout out Marquis Wilson for keeping his composure on Tech’s final attempt of the game. Too often in the past, you would see Purdue’s defensive back panic in that situation and commit a needless pass interference penalty (see the Syracuse game last season). He remained calm, didn't grab, and most importantly, turned and found the ball. He didn’t give the refs any chance to throw a flag. The defensive line shut down the Tech running game and got after the quarterback. Scourton was a menace, and for my money, had the most disruptive game of any Purdue edge rusher since Ryan Kerrigan (yes, better than any single Karlaftis game, but George was stuck playing in system that didn’t value getting in the backfield).
While the individual performances were great, what impressed me more than anything was Purdue’s poise. It looked like we were in for a total collapse after the Hokies’s 17 point eruption in the 2nd quarter. The Boilers didn’t even get a half-time to right the ship because of the weather delay, but the defense held Tech to 0 second half points. The offense was in a groove early, lost the groove in the second and third quarter, but then pulled a 13 play, 74 yard touchdown drive that ate 6 minutes of clock out of thin air to take the lead for good in the 4th quarter. That’s the type of mental toughness I love to see out of young team that isn’t close to reaching their potential yet. With everything that went on yesterday, it would have been easy to lose focus and lose the game, but they finished strong and managed to not only grab the lead in the 4th quarter, but hold it as well.
Now it’s on to Syracuse. The Orange have crushed a couple cupcakes to start the season, but have some serious injury concerns and have yet to face the slightest amount of game pressure (playing Holy Cross and Western Michigan at home is a little easier slate than starting with Fresno State and Virginia Tech on the road). Purdue is the more battle tested team, and I like their chances in what should be another close, hard fought game.
*Note: I fixed it in this one, but please excuse the occasional Nic(K) Scourton this season. When my brain thinks Nick, it always types a K and then I have to go back and fix it. Between Nic Scourton and Khordae Sydnor (which I want to type as Syndor) my editing skills are going to be put to the test.