In what was one of the more anticipated season opening home games in Purdue Football history ended up being a massive letdown as the Boilers lost 35-39 to a good but not great Fresno State Bulldog team. The Boilers seemed frequently out of position on defense, struggling to find adjustments in the run game on offense, and a young head coach struggled with decisions at key moments of the game.
The game started off about as well as could be hoped as the Boilers held Fresno State to a three and out on the first possession and quickly scored on a Deion Burks 80 yard touchdown reception. The speedy wide receiver, who has been touted as having a great spring and fall, took a quick slant on 3rd down, broke two tackles, and sped off for the first score of the 2023 season.
The Boilers were unable to capitalize on some defensive stops early and could not extend the lead after another three and out which allowed the Bulldogs to flip the field position and start on their 45 yard line after a poor Jack Ansell punt. After a missed tackle by Cam Allen led to a conversion on 3rd down, something the Bulldogs were highly successful at going 11-17, Fresno State was able to cash in for their first score from 29 yards out on a blown coverage by Botros Alisandro to bring the score even at 7-7. The chunk plays to score for the Bulldogs would be a recurring theme that the Boilers couldn’t seem to correct as the game went on.
Purdue was able to generate some more momentum after a big Kydren Jenkins sack forced a deep punt from Fresno State that TJ Sheffield returned down to the Bulldog 17 but the Boilers struggled for multiple plays to score from inside the 2 yard line. Had it not been for an offsides and defensive pass interference call that gave Purdue at least five chances inside the two yard line, Purdue may not have scored. Eventually, they were able to squeeze through to take a 14-7 lead.
Following the Tracy touchdown and a subsequent scoring drive from Fresno State that saw another explosive play from the passing game of the Bulldogs, Deion Burks was able to show more of his explosiveness on his second touchdown of the game from a 17 yard pass from Hudson Card. Burks finished the game with 4 receptions for 152 yards and 2 touchdowns but it seemed other receivers struggled to get open as no other Boilermaker had more than 47 yards receiving.
This left the Boilers up 21-14 just before half and with a missed field goal, Purdue had the ball with 57 seconds left at the 20 yard line and three time outs. Instead of driving down field and getting a long field goal or running the clock out, the Boilers went for -4 yards and forced Fresno to only use 1 timeout before getting the ball back with 22 seconds left. The Bulldogs quickly went downfield and were able to add a 52 yard field goal to end the first half down 21-17 that saw the Boilers outgained 239-170 in total yards.
That first half also saw the first major coaching mistake from Ryan Walters who, after a 3rd and 3 was not converted and Fresno State appeared ready to punt, accepted the penalty. On 3rd and 13, Fresno State ran a screen to the right side and gained 14 yards. Purdue would have likely had the ball with around 5 minutes left. That would have made a huge difference in the way the first half closed.
Purdue got as good of a start to the second half as possible with a 98 yard touchdown return by Tyrone Tracy to push the lead to 28-17 at the start of the 3rd quarter. It is the first kickoff returned for a touchdown since 2013 by Raheem Mostert and gave Purdue the momentum early in the second half. After another three and out forced by the Boilermaker defense, Graham Harrell appeared to make some adjustments in the run game as Mockobee and Card combined for 31 yards in the first four plays. The drive, however, stalled out and Purdue missed a field goal attempt.
The issue in this drive was a poor play call that led to Mockobee losing 3 yards on a 2nd and 5 play call that left TJ Sheffield short by 3 yards on third down. The following field goal attempt was wide right by Ben Freehill and instead of Purdue taking a 31-17 (or even a 35-17) lead, Fresno State took the next possession 74 yards in 3:59 to bring the score to 28-25 Purdue. This drive featured plays of 12, 12, and 17 yards along with a 15 yard roughing the passer penalty. But what followed in the next possession is what killed any hope for the Boilers to seal the game.
The Boilers drove down the field to the Bulldog 1 yard line going 74 yards in 13 plays and eating more than 6 minutes off the clock. It was this short yardage situation where Purdue again couldn’t not generate any interior push and was stuffed repeatedly to get no points. Purdue OC Graham Harrell’s play calling continued to be questionable, at best, as he continued to try and run inside when the Boilers struggled all day with their back up and 3rd string center at times. Oftentimes, the Boilers did not have enough blockers in the run game which left them susceptible to tackles for loss and unable to generate enough push to establish an interior run game.
On the following drive Dillion Thieneman, a true freshman starting in his first career game, generated the only turnover of the game with a great play as Fresno State QB Mikey Keene attempted a pass over the top. Thieneman was able to drop and make a play from center field and keep a foot in bounds. Down 32-28, Purdue was able to go down the field and score a touchdown off a two play scoring drive with Deion Burks catching a 44 yard pass and Mockobee finding room off the right side on an outside run for an 11 yard touchdown pass.
With just 4:30 left in the 4th quarter, Fresno State was able to drive 79 yards in 9 plays to take the lead again at 39-35. It was the scoring play that saw another chunk play lead to a touchdown as Fresno State went trips to the left side from the 29 yard line and Keene connected with Erik Brooks over Markevious Brown. The issue on the play was Thieneman rolling down and to the boundary (short side) of the field that left the defensive backs without any help over the top and in tight man to man coverage. It was either a blown coverage or a poor defensive play call in that situation that reminds one of the Syracuse game for the Boilers from 2022.
Purdue was unable to generate much on offense to get back down the field to attempt to score a game winning touchdown but the final play call left a lot of Purdue fans scratching their heads. On 4th and 1, obviously struggling to find a play call with the interior run game being awful, Graham Harrell dialed up a quick slant on the outside that was tipped by the outside linebacker and Purdue turned the ball over on downs.
The call was the last in a number of questionable ones by Harrell to generate yards in short yardage situations. Purdue found some success in the outside run game but did nothing to work to establish it to widen the Bulldog defense. No jet sweeps, very few tosses, and nothing established to the outside allowed Fresno State to play a very simple defense to stop the inside run and play over the top to prevent big plays from Purdue receivers. This also took away a lot of the perimeter throws in the intermediate area with Purdue not looking to the middle of the field in the passing game.
In the end, this looked very much so like a staff that was led by a first time head coach with assistant coaches who are very young as well while Fresno State had a veteran head coach in Jeff Tedford with assistants who have coached under him before. The concerns lie in the play calling in key moments on both sides of the ball and the health of the Boilermakers as they will travel to Blacksburg, Virginia to take on Virginia Tech. A major jump needs to happen in multiple phases of the game as the offense needs better schematic touches, the defense needs to find a better cover safety (Cam Allen continues to struggle in coverage), and Jack Ansell continues to underwhelm in game situations. If not, the Boilers will likely be looking at 0-2 in their return to Ross Ade Stadium against another quality opponent in Syracuse.