WEST LAFAYETTE – In 2019 and 2020, Purdue won a combined six games, taking some of the shine off the once-promising Jeff Brohm Era. This afternoon, the Boilermakers won for the sixth time in 2021, reaching bowl eligibility for the third time in five years under Brohm.
The Boilers beat No. 5 Michigan State 40-29 at Ross-Ade Stadium behind monster performances from quarterback Aidan O'Connell and wide receiver David Bell and a defensive effort that bottled up the explosive Spartans just enough. When the game ended, fans spilled out of the stands and stormed the field, the second such postgame celebration of Brohm's tenure, joining the 49-20 2018 victory over then-No. 2 Ohio State.
"It was crazy," Bell said of the postgame environment. "I didn't have the opportunity to be here in 2018 when we beat Ohio State (Bell was in high school at the time), so just being able to experience it first-hand and being in the moment with all the fans, they were with us through the tough losses and just to be able to see all those smiles was truly an honor."
The shine is back. And then some.
Brohm built his coaching reputation as an offensive guru, capable of closing talent gaps with opposing teams through clever play-calling. Some of the creativity had leaked out of Purdue's offense in the injury-ravaged 2019 and '20 seasons, but it has returned this season and it smacked Michigan State in the mouth when the Boilermakers scored a 39-yard touchdown on a double reverse pass to Jackson Anthrop in the second quarter that could wind up being one of the highlights of the college football season.
"We run a multitude of trick plays, but you've seen it, they haven't worked as much lately," Brohm said. "When teams play the pass, it's tough to get them to suck up and throw it over their heads, so it's not going to work as much. So, this is one where we did some double-reverse stuff, threw it behind the line of scrimmage and got some blockers and go run. To be quite honest with you, I stole it years ago off YouTube from a high school team."
Teams play the pass against Purdue in large part because the Boilermakers struggle to run the ball – as Brohm put it, "We're OK at the run and that's being nice." The Boilers' ability to pass the ball matched up well with a Spartans defense that has defended the run well all season, but has struggled against air-based attacks. Purdue took full advantage this afternoon as O'Connell threw for 536 yards and three touchdowns and Bell caught 11 passes for 217 yards and a score.
Bell's performance – including two catches and runs that were both among the best highlights in recent memory at Purdue – cements his status as the best receiver in the Big Ten and a leading candidate for the Biletnikoff Award as the best receiver in the country. He has two 200-yard receiving games in his last four, both against top 5 teams, leading Purdue to wins in each one.
Brohm was asked after the game whether, in this wide-open Heisman Trophy race, Bell's name should be in the mix. He deflected, but had high praise for his star.
"He's a phenomenal receiver and even better person," the fifth-year coach said. "I'm sure there's other really good receivers, but I don't see how you can do anything better than him. ... David has been outstanding, fantastic, plays injured, plays hurt, he's tough. I don't really know what more he can prove. He was banged up this week, didn't practice as much, but never complains about it. That just shows what he's about."
Brohm did mention the Heisman in the context of Purdue facing Michigan State running back Kenneth Walker III, the nation's No. 2 rusher entering the game and one of the leading candidates for the award. He said he told his team during the week, "You really want to be a good defense, you have to stop the Heisman Trophy-winner and figure out a way to win."
Purdue didn't stop Walker, who had 146 rushing yards on 23 carries and added two catches for 20 yards, but it did slow him down enough to keep the Boilers in front and it forced him to fumble on the game's first possession, a play that led to a Purdue touchdown.
When the Boilermakers got ahead by two scores in the fourth quarter, Michigan State went to the air and Purdue refused to drop back into a bland prevent and let the Spartans throw underneath. Instead, the Boilers mostly continued in tight coverage and it paid off when cornerback Dedrick Mackey stuck tight to star receiver Jayden Reed and picked off a pass in the end zone as the Spartans were driving for a fourth-quarter score that would've gotten them right back in it.
That refusal to make things easy for Michigan State, even with a sizable lead, is a function of the aggressive approach Brohm and the Boilers' first-year defensive staff has been preaching since spring practice; "Offense on defense," Brohm calls it.
"We want to attack, we want to guard things, we want to take chances," Brohm said of the team's defensive philosophy, which now mirrors his own longstanding offensive mindset. "We're not going to give up a bunch of easy completions, I don't like doing that, as an offense, it makes it too easy. We got beat a few times, they had a couple guys make plays, but we made plays too. When you guard people tighter, it makes the quarterback hold it longer, it helps your defensive line get in there and get sacks.
"To me, you can look in the mirror more and know, 'You know what, we're going down swinging.'" That's how we want to do it. ... This is football, you don't just want to play deep and never make a play and say, 'Well, I didn't get beat deep.' No, we want to make plays.'"
That new attitude, combined with some stout play from Purdue's linebackers and cornerbacks, has translated into one of the most significant, if under-the-radar, turnarounds on defense in college football this season. The Boilers made life difficult for Michigan State and with the offense humming like it was, that was all they had to do.
Purdue is now bowl-eligible with three games still to play. The schedule the rest of the way – a cruel visit to Columbus, Ohio, to take on the rolling Buckeyes next week gives way to matchups against conference bottom-feeders Northwestern and Indiana to close the regular season – sets up so the Boilermakers have a chance to reach nine wins for the first time since 2003.
It feels like 2018 again in West Lafayette.