The Journal Gazette
Saturday, November 06, 2021 5:40 pm

Halftime: Purdue 21, No. 5 Michigan State 14

DYLAN SINN | The Journal Gazette

WEST LAFAYETTE – It's happening again.

For the second time this season, Purdue is not only beating an undefeated, top 5 team, but looking like the significantly better team. The Boilermakers beat Iowa 24-7 on Oct. 16 and exposed the Hawkeyes as something of a paper tiger. The same thing might be happening this afternoon against No. 5 Michigan State, which Purdue leads 21-14 at halftime. 

For most of the half, the Boilermakers did nothing fancy, just executed a well-designed gameplan. Then, late in the second quarter, the fancy stuff emerged. Already up 14-7, the Boilers ran a double reverse pass, getting the ball eventually to Jackson Anthrop in space with a convoy of blockers in front of him and the wide-receiver-turned-running-back raced 39 yards for a touchdown to make it a two-score lead. 

Outside of that one fancy play, however, Purdue mostly just played a solid game. Its plan to slow down Michigan State's explosive offense worked, for the most part. Heisman Trophy contender Kenneth Walker III broke a couple of long runs, including a 14-yard touchdown around the right side on fourth-and-2 just before the half and has 17 carries for 103 yards at halftime, but it's been a quiet 100-yard game (if there is such a thing) and Purdue has bottled Walker up on most of his attempts, putting Michigan State frequently behind the chains. When the Spartans are forced to throw, the Boilermakers have gotten good pressure on quarterback Payton Thorne and made him uncomfortable. They've sent blitzers from all directions and often trusted their cornerbacks in one-on-one coverage. The corners have held up relatively, giving up just one big play, a 26-yard touchdown pass from Thorne to Tre Mosley on which the quarterback was under pressure immediately and made an outstanding play to get away from Branson Deen and throw the ball up to Mosley, who had worked his way into a soft spot in the defense.

Outside of that one pass play and the few big Walker runs, which are almost inevitable at this point, Purdue's defense has been pretty stout. It forced and recovered a fumble from Walker in the first quarter that the Boilers followed with a touchdown drive and has kept the Spartans from hitting the really big plays it has thrived on this year. Life for Purdue's defense has been made easier by the absence of Michigan State wide receiver Jalen Nailor, who missed much of last week's game against Michigan with hand injury and is apparently inactive today. Michigan State still has plenty of weapons, but that's one fewer headache for the Boilers.

It helps that Purdue's offense has moved the ball relatively well in the first half. Outside of one big third-down sack of quarterback Aidan O'Connell where it looked like O'Connell had a receiver open for a conversion, the Boilers have been able to stay ahead of the sticks and avoid third-and-long. Purdue has moved the ball mostly with a series of short passes and O'Connell has been in command of the offense, making the right read on nearly every play. Once he has the right read, he's also made some good throws. One of the best was an 8-yard touchdown toss on a fade to Broc Thompson that had to be perfectly placed over the head of the defensive back. Just two plays earlier, O'Connell threw the ball up to a covered David Bell, who went up and got it for a 42-yard gain. I wrote before the game that I wasn't sure whether the Spartans had anyone who could handle bell on the outside and it sure seems as though the answer to that question is "no." Bell has five catches for 78 yards at halftime and Michigan State might have to try something different in its coverage of the frontrunner for Big Ten Receiver of the Year.

O'Connell's best play came on Purdue's first touchdown drive, when Michigan State got three rushers right in his face and he was able to wiggle free, keep his eyes down the field and find an open Milton Wright for a 6-yard score. It was the type of play I don't think the former walk-on would have made earlier in the season and it's plays like that that are the biggest reason he has reclaimed the starting job. After several weeks of begging his quarterback to be a just a little bit mobile, coach Jeff Brohm has gotten his wish.

O'Connell is 20 for 24 for 236 yards and it's fortunate for Purdue that he's playing so well, because the run game has returned to its pre-Nebraska form, running into brick walls along the line over and over again. Michigan State is just so disciplined in the front seven and is always in the right place. Purdue might have to go back to its 2020 "rushing" offense, that mostly involved swing passes to Zander Horvath out of the backfield. This year, the Boilers have the added advantage of being able to run converted wide receiver Jackson Anthrop on those routes.

The key for the second half will be for Purdue to remain disciplined. Michigan State games can change direction swiftly because the Spartans are always capable of hitting big plays. The Boilermakers have to avoid those plays and make Michigan State earn whatever it gets on offense. That, coupled with some more strong play from O'Connell, should be enough, but it's easier said than done. The Boilers are 30 minutes from bowl eligibility and another season-defining victory.

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