More aggressive approach may cure what ails Purdue defense
If Saturday’s 37-30 loss to Rutgers wasn’t the low point of the four-year Jeff Brohm era, it has to be in the running for the honor.
"We understand there's a lot of work to be done, and losing's not fun, and it shouldn't be fun," said Brohm during his Monday press conference. "So, I think all of our coaches know that we've got to do our part, our players have to get back to work and try to correct some of the mistakes we made in the past game and now it's moving on to the next opponent, which is going to be another good opponent just like it is every week. We just have to find ways to play better, be consistent, make plays, and find a way to win these close games."
Purdue was a double-digit favorite vs. a one-win Rutgers team and had a big sense of urgency coming off consecutive defeats … and lost. There always are myriad reasons for a setback, but this bitter loss was largely due to poor play on defense and special teams.
The defense of first-year coordinator Bob Diaco disappointed, particularly in the second half when it couldn’t get a stop. The fourth quarter was surreal, as the Scarlet Knights controlled the ball for 13:17 and converted 4-of-7 third downs (57 percent). Purdue ran just three plays (all runs) and notched four yards, possessing the ball for 1:43. Just like that, the Boilermakers’ 23-13 halftime lead melted into a 37-30 loss, as the Purdue defense was unable to stop the most rudimentary Rutgers’ running plays that seemingly everyone knew were coming from a third-string quarterback.
"I think everyone can see we had a hard time stopping the run and putting the nail in that," said Brohm. "Those are things we have to do much better at. You know, should we be a little more aggressive and make sure we attacked a little bit more? Yes, but we need guys to step up that can make plays when they are there."
Purdue (2-3) welcomes Nebraska (1-4) to Ross-Ade Stadium on Saturday for a noon ET kickoff for its final home game of 2020. Both teams are hungry for success, as the Boilermakers have lost three in a row after a 2-0 start and the Cornhuskers have dropped two in a row.
Nebraska has played well most of the season. And Scott Frost’s squad is eager for success, as the Cornhuskers have been the butt of many jokes nationally after demanding to play amid a pandemic … and then getting their wish and struggling mightily.
With a passing game that ranks 109th in the nation, Nebraska will want to do what it does best on Saturday: run. And it figures to do so early and often from the quarterback spot with Taylor Martinez and Luke McCaffrey.
According to the Lincoln Journal Star, Husker signal-callers have accounted for 65.4 percent of the team's rushing yards compared with 36 percent last season. McCaffrey has rushed for 318 yards (5.7 per carry), and Martinez 195 (7.0). Nebraska's running backs are averaging only 3.8 yards per carry compared with 4.7 last year.
"Anytime you're not good at something, we got to evaluate exactly what we're doing,” said Brohm. “And how we're doing it, and put the best package that we can together. And then our players have to go out and play tough, physical. And it's got to be times where people man up and say, ‘I'm gonna get a stop.' But, yes, we recognize the issues, and we're gonna work hard this week to fix it.”
The defense wasn’t the only disappointing area last week. Special teams also endured a big foible when it allowed a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in the third quarter that proved to be a crushing blow. It was the latest special team's gaffe, coming a week after two missed field goals at Minnesota proved to be crushing blows.
“We've got to do a better job of making sure everyone understands their role, everyone understands that special teams is the most important part of our team,” said Brohm. “And if you can't play on special teams, you can't play on offense and defense. Every play is vital and we have to have our best foot forward every time.”
Brohm hired Marty Biagi in the offseason to run special teams. He’s the fourth special teams coach in Brohm’s four seasons.
“I think really we had a decent day on special teams other than the one return for a touchdown," said Brohm. "With he had some backups in and we all didn't do our job and when that happens, we're going to get a big play. That was disappointing and that can't happen. We have to make sure that doesn't happen.
“And our punting game, you know, it didn't hurt us, but we have to get better at punting the football and that's been a little bit of an issue. But we just got to continue to work through it."
• Jeff Brohm revealed that fifth-year senior receiver Jared Sparks has opted out. He played in three games in 2020 and made four catches for 38 yards. Sparks last played vs. Northwestern. He was buried on a talented receiver depth chart. Sparks finished his career with 59 catches for 642 yards and a TD.
• A reason for allowing that kickoff return for a TD last week? Brohm said two starters were off the unit because of injury.
“We had a couple backups come in and didn't do exactly what they were supposed to do,” said Brohm. “And when that happened, it was able to allow the ball to bounce ,and once it bounced to the outside, you know, we were stuck.”
• S Marvin Grant and LB Semisi Fakasiieiki missed Saturday’s game with injury, according to Brohm. And offensive linemen Will Bramel and Kyle Jornigan also were out. JC cornerback Geovonte Howard was suited up on Saturday but didn’t play a snap.
"Yes, he was available," said Brohm.
Howard had played on defense in Purdue's first four games but saw a season-low eight defensive snaps at Minnesota in his last appearance.
• Saturday will be the final home game of 2020. And Brohm says the seniors will be honored. It's a small group. According to the roster on the school website, the following are seniors (9):
WR Jackson Anthrop (5th)
LB Derrick Barnes
K J.D. Dellinger (5th)
OT Grant Hermanns (5th)
DT Lorenzo Neal (5th)
DB Simeon Smiley (5th)
DB Brennan Thieneman (5th)
DT Anthony Watts (5th)
LS Nick Zecchino
NCAA rules permit all players not to count the 2020 season toward eligibility, so there's a chance some of these players may be back 2021.
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