WEST LAFAYETTE – No program in college football has more wins over top 5 opponents as an unranked team than Purdue's 16. Today, the Boilermakers try to run that total to 17.
The Boilers started the season with 15 wins in that category and have already added one to that total with a victory over then-No. 2 and undefeated Iowa on Oct. 16. That game wasn't even particularly close and it has since been revealed that the Hawkeyes were something of a paper tiger. The same might end up being true of No. 5 Michigan State, Purdue's opponent this afternoon, but it hasn't appeared that way so far.
The Spartans enter this matchup coming off an emotionally-charged comeback victory over archrival Michigan in East Lansing last week, a game in which Michigan State was outgained by 150 yards and trailed 30-14 in the third quarter. The Spartans came from behind thanks in large part to one man: running back Kenneth Walker III. Walker had one of the best games by any running back this season, gashing a previously stingy Michigan rush defense for 197 yards and five touchdowns, including runs of 23, 27 and 58 yards for scores. The Michigan defense got good push against the Spartans' offensive line, but Walker made magic happen repeatedly, darting away from defenders who seemed to have him stopped in the backfield and sprinting into the Heisman Trophy conversation. Walker is No. 2 in the country in rushing yards and Purdue's defensive gameplan will revolve around slowing him down. How can the Boilers do that? Well, they can't do it by getting push alone. Their defensive linemen and linebackers have to be assignment-sound, keep him inside and then tackle well in the open field. George Karlaftis is going to get a chance to earn his first-round NFL Draft grade this afternoon.
That doesn't mean, however, the Boilers can entirely ignore the pass. Michigan State is a big-play passing offense with explosive receivers Jalen Nailor and Jayden Reed on the outside. Nailor is a question mark for today's game after missing much of the matchup against Michigan with a hand injury. Coach Mel Tucker, who has engineered one of the best turnarounds in college football over the last two seasons, was cagey about Nailor's status for today and the Spartans don't publish a depth chart. I haven't seen him on the field yet today, but with nearly an hour before kickoff, that isn't definitive. Quarterback Payton Thorne hasn't been great this season, but he's been good enough to push the ball downfield and keep opponents from moving an extra safety into the box to stop Walker. It's a very complementary offense and it exploded against the Wolverines last week.
Purdue's gameplan on offense will involve controlling the ball and keeping it away from that offense, much as the Boilers did against Nebraska a week ago. Purdue held the ball for more than 38 minutes in that contest and its defense picked off Cornhuskers quarterback Adrian Martinez three times, including a pick-six for Jalen Graham. Some of those turnovers would help, but it would also help if the Boilermakers could run the ball the way they did against Nebraska. They weren't explosive on the ground, but they broke enough decent runs to keep the 'Huskers honest. Jackson Anthrop's presence in the backfield added some wiggle to the run game and Zander Horvath's return gave King Doerue rest periodically. I'd expect Horvath to get more carries today as he continues to progress following the broken leg he suffered against Connecticut earlier this season.
Michigan State has also proven vulnerable against some of the Big Ten's best wide receivers and David Bell is the best wideout the Spartans have faced this season. Can MSU cover him on the outside? I'm not sure they can, in which case the Boilermakers have a chance to push the ball downfield, as well.
Purdue faces an uphill climb to a Big Ten West title, needing to win out and have Wisconsin lose two of its last four games, but the Boilers can still play spoiler in the conference race and throw a wrench in the College Football Playoff standings. More importantly, a win this afternoon would be Purdue's sixth of the season, making it bowl eligible for the third time in five years under coach Jeff Brohm. After winning six games combined in 2019 and '20, that would be a significant milestone to reach with three games still to play.