Vs.: Who is a bigger loss, Ja'Whaun Bentley or Jacob Thieneman?
Analysis: Weekly Word ($)
A pair of second-half targeting penalties and subsequent ejections against Michigan means Purdue will be without two defensive starters, linebacker Ja'Whaun Bentley and safety Jacob Thieneman, for the first half Saturday.
Which player's impact will be most felt for the first two quarters? Stacy Clardie and Kyle Charters debate in our weekly "Vs." series.
Not many would have guessed that Jacob Thieneman would have become a starter at Purdue. And fewer would have thought he’d become as valuable a member of the defense.
But here we are, with Thieneman now considered one of the reasons why the Boilermakers have improved so much in only a year. A credit to the former — we think former, although there’s been no formal announcement of a scholarship — walk-on, who built himself into a player that the Boilermakers count on. In fact, coaches might think Thieneman is Purdue's most reliable defender.
But for the first half vs. Minnesota, however, the junior won’t be available, and I think that could severely dampen Purdue’s defense. Thieneman has been extremely valuable not only because of his own play — the 6-foot-1, 210-pounder has 24 tackles, a couple for loss with a sack and a fumble recovery — but because he is captaining the back half of the defense, in some ways, making sure teammates are getting lined up. Purdue's not making a wealth of assignment mistakes.
Thieneman can also be used in multiple ways. He's been good in the passing game, but just as effective, and maybe this is a surprise, up near the line of scrimmage. He’s played well in the box, able to shed off blockers to make plays in the running game.
While that's all great, his absence is exacerbated by this: Who replaces him? That’s the biggest question. JUCO transfer T.J. Jallow, now healthy, might be the obvious choice, but he might be on the opposite end of the trust factor. Purdue doesn't, it doesn't look like. Maybe walk-on Antonio Blackmon, who is improved but only moved to safety a couple weeks ago. Brennan Thieneman could get in, per Jeff Brohm, but the book on Jacob's younger brother is thin.
Seems almost impossible that any could have the kind of impact that Jacob Thieneman has regularly had. And it’s not a position where you want a player who gets assignments wrong; do that and it results in touchdowns, especially against a running-heavy team like Minnesota.
If Minnesota can take advantage, it can get a couple scores early and win.
It's Bentley, considering the matchup.
Minnesota's offensive identity is to control the clock by establishing a running game, and that makes a middle linebacker pretty important. Especially a middle linebacker who has played as well as Bentley has his senior season.
There were some concerns entering the year whether Bentley would be able to revive his game, coming off a less-than-stellar close to his junior season that was mired by nagging injuries and soreness. But he quickly silenced any doubts in the first game in Nick Holt's system, and Bentley only has continued to solidify his importance to the defense.
Through four games, he's the team's leading tackler with 29. And that statistic is telling in a way, but it's more how Bentley has racked up tackles. He's been ferocious, in his pursuit of ballcarriers, in his ability to quickly trigger to run fits and in his (mostly) consistent ability to bring guys down. His 3.0 tackles for loss are indicative of his aggressiveness, and so are his two forced fumbles, which also are a reward for his willingness to swarm to the ball and never relent.
For Purdue's defense to be good, it needed Bentley to be great in his final season. So far, he has been.
That's a high standard for his first-half replacement to live up to, certainly. If the Boilermakers opt to slide Markus Bailey from his outside linebacker spot to inside — where he's played before — certainly, there's a much better feeling about Bentley's first-half absence. Bailey isn't nearly as physical as Bentley — he's not nearly as big — but Bailey is smart, instinctive and surely will make plays given the opportunity at the Mike. But not sure it's a lock Bailey makes the move, and there's less comfort level with freshman Derrick Barnes, if he slides from behind T.J. McCollum at Sam to Mike, or senior Garrett Hudson, though he wasn't mentioned by Jeff Brohm Monday as a potential replacement.
Bottom line: Losing Bentley or Thieneman for the first half is not ideal, given the opponent and its tendencies, but given Minnesota's emphasis on the run, Bentley has to be the choice as bigger loss.