WEST LAFAYETTE – For most of Purdue's 30-21 season-opening victory over visiting Oregon State at Ross-Ade Stadium, the Boilermaker defense was the show.
After giving up an early touchdown set up by a halfback pass, the revamped Purdue defense under new coordinator Brad Lambert held the Beavers scoreless for three straight quarters as Purdue built a 16-7 lead. That stretch included a flurry of aggressive blitzes, quarterback knockdowns and bone-jarring hits. It was exactly what the Boilermakers have envisioned all offseason.
"What we've seen in practice, in the spring and fall camp came through today," fifth-year coach Jeff Brohm said. "I like the makeup of our defense. We have a lot of experience that, you know what, we haven't won as many as we'd like. Sometimes that motivates you to work even harder. ... We just gotta continue to grind away at it. Our guys have given us everything we've asked. (We have to) keep the hunger."
After a stellar first three quarters, however, the Purdue defense seemed to get a little bit tired. The Boilermakers gave up a pair of touchdown drives in the final quarter and Oregon State had plenty of chances to push through for a go-ahead score. Instead, the Boilers held on a huge fourth-and-1 play from the Beaver 37, the Purdue offense answered both Oregon State touchdowns with scoring drives of its own and the hosts did what they struggled so often to do last season: finish a victory.
"We did it," said defensive end George Karlaftis, who laid several devastating hits on Beavers quarterback Sam Noyer and had four total tackles, including 0.5 for loss. "That's a good team, that's a very experienced team. We came out on top. We finished after it was a close game throughout. All this hard work is beginning to pay off."
After an uneven performance for much of the night, during which it left at least 18 points on the field, the Purdue offense found its rhythm late in the game, scoring two touchdowns when it absolutely had to have them in the fourth quarter. The connection that made it happen was quarterback Jack Plummer to tight end Payne Durham, who hooked up for a pair of touchdown passes in that final quarter.
Durham made seven catches for 120 yards – his first career 100-yard performance – and the two scores, including a 50-yard touchdown that sealed the victory with less than two minutes to play.
"Payne is a tremendous leader, probably the leader of our team," Brohm said. "He's a competitor, he works extremely hard. He got tired. We used him a lot: he played on special teams, he played on offense, he caught balls, he blocked and he continued to come back and execute and make plays."
Plummer, too, was on target in the game's biggest moments. The redshirt junior, who won a four-way quarterback battle during fall camp, threw for 313 yards (254 to Durham and wide receiver David Bell) and completed more than 70% of his throws. At least for one night, there were no whispers of who could replace him or whether any other quarterbacks might get some playing time. After going 0-3 as the starter last season (despite putting up some very good numbers), Plummer made the big throws tonight and avoided big mistakes.
Purdue also showed admirable commitment to trying to run the football. The Boilermakers insisted in the offseason that they wanted to have a more balanced offense this season and Brohm did his best, calling more than 25 run plays, most of which went for little gain. The Boilers only picked up 2.8 yards per carry (Zander Horvath had 21 carries for 81 yards, 35 of which came on two runs), but they stuck with the ground game often enough that Oregon State was looking for it in a key moment. When Purdue ran a play-action fake on third and 2 at midfield with 2:09 to play, the Beavers took the bait hook, line and sinker and left Durham completely alone running free up the seam, where Plummer hit him for a game-clinching touchdown.
That's what balance, even only modestly-successful balance, can do for an offense.
"I thought we did better in the run game than we had in the past," Brohm said. "I'd still like to continue to improve. I don't know if we're ever going to be the top rushing team in the league, but we can get yards and manufacture yards. ... We've got to find ways to move the pile and we've got to find ways to create some misdirection and get some cheap yards. (We have to have) some creativity, continue to bust our tail on the offensive line – a lot of those guys played the entire game – and it has to be a combination of coaching and execution to run the ball better."
The bottomline from Purdue's victory was that the philosophical changes Brohm tried to instill in his team in the offseason seem to have taken root. An aggressive mindset exists on offense and defense, the team is not afraid to take risks and it can handle some adversity. There were plenty of areas where execution needs to improve, but this team already seems in a better place mentally than some of its predecessors.
"I wanted to make sure that we're going to go down swinging every week," Brohm said of his mindset for the season after a 6-12 record over the last two years. "We've worked hard at it since last season, the last game. We had a lot of time to reflect on (going 2-4 last season). To pull out a victory was a great one for us, but we've got a long ways to go, a lot of games left to play, a lot of improvement to be made, but I do think the mentality of being aggressive and going for the win is something we're going to continue to roll with and see if we can get some victories."