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5 Questions with Hammer and Rails: What makes Purdue’s defense so dominant?

Syndication: Journal-Courier Nikos Frazier / Journal & Courier via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Fresh off of a victory against the rival Michigan Wolverines, the Michigan State Spartans now look to avoid an upset on the road against the Purdue Boilermakers. The Spartans are 8-0 and check in at No. 3 in the first College Football Playoff Top-25 rankings of the season. However, Purdue is not an easy an opponent. The Boilermakers have a stout defense and potent passing attack.

Here to give us the breakdown on the Boilermakers is Travis Miller, the site manager for Hammer and Rails — SB Nation’s website for all things Purdue.

What makes Purdue so dominant on defense? Can the Boilermakers stop Kenneth Walker III? Why has the team struggled to finish drives with a touchdown? Travis answers these questions and more.

1. Purdue ranks No. 17 in the country in total defense (314 total yards per game), No. 10 in passing defense (174 yards allowed per game), No. 10 in scoring defense (17.1 points per game) and No. 54 in rushing defense (140 yards allowed per game). What has made the Boilermakers so strong defensively this season?

Travis: I think it is two reasons. One, defensive end George Karlaftis has been fully healthy and when he is, he is an absolute menace. He has just 26 tackles, 6.5 for loss, and three sacks, which doesn’t look like a lot over 18 games, but it is the havoc he causes that puts other guys in a spot to play well, be it defending the pass or the run. He is consistently in the backfield and trying to block him one-on-one is a very bad idea. He regularly is engaging two and even three guys, so that makes the rest of the defense a 10-on-eight or 10-on-nine matchup. He is either demanding attention or making plays one-on-one.

The second is dropping Bob Diaco as defensive coordinator. He sucked. No one was ever in position and nothing ever made sense. Purdue’s numbers might be skewed a little because Oregon State, UConn, Minnesota, Illinois, Iowa and Wisconsin are not great passing teams, but the run defense has held up, too. Credit is due to Jeff Brohm. He took a massive liability (30 points per game the last two seasons) and made it a strength with new hires. The secondary, especially Cam Allen, Jalen Graham and Marvin Grant in the middle, have mostly been fantastic.

2. David Bell leads the Big Ten in receiving yards, what stands out about his game? Also, Michigan State plays a bend-don’t-break style defense that allows a lot of yards through the air, but not a lot of points on the scoreboard. Bell and quarterback Aidan O’Connell will likely move the football between the 20-yard-lines, but do you expect the Boilermakers to actually punch into the end zone more often than not against a defense that only allows 20.5 points per game?

Travis: Bell is just so polished. He is a complete receiver in that he has decent speed, good size, cut precise routes, plays the ball so well in the air, and is elusive when he has the ball. He is not the lightning in a bottle that Rondale Moore where he can break any play at any time, but he is as reliable as you can ask for in a receiver.

As for finishing drives, that has been the largest issue for Purdue all year. If Purdue was able to finish drives more regularly, it is 6-2 at minimum, and maybe even 8-0. Stalled drives were killer in games against Notre Dame, Wisconsin and Minnesota. All three games were within a possession into the fourth quarter, too. Purdue scored exactly 13 points in half its games. Interceptions did the Boilermakers in against Wisconsin and not finishing drives in the other two games.

The Iowa and Nebraska games were encouraging, though. Purdue didn’t exactly light up the scoreboard, but we did finish drives enough to take advantage of a solid defensive performance. Even against Nebraska, Purdue had a couple interceptions that gave it very good field position up 11 points, but couldn’t fully put the game away.

3. Speaking of Purdue’s offense, the Boilermakers average 307.1 yards per game passing, which ranks No. 16 in the country, but average less than 80 rushing yards per game and ranks 128th in the FBS. Purdue also only scores 22.9 points per game (No. 103). What has caused the Boilermakers’ offensive woes, particularly in the ground game, and what does the team need to do to improve there?

Travis: The loss of Zander Horvath, the top running back on the team, in the UConn game was probably the largest impediment to the running game. He can be a regular 100-yard per game back as he has shown previously and he does relieve a lot of the pressure. The good news is he returned on a limited basis against Nebraska and even had a touchdown. Between him, King Doerue and the addition of slot receiver Jackson Anthrop lining up in the backfield at times, Purdue had probably its best day rushing the ball last week. It got over 100 yards as a team, which seem to be the “make the offense go” point. Considering the Boilermakers were held to negative rushing yards against Wisconsin, that is a huge improvement.

As far as points, Aidan O’Connell has often been feast or famine. In the last two road games, he has been great. He hasn’t thrown a pick and has been great at waiting for routes to open. The offensive line has been better in those games as well. Against Minnesota and Wisconsin however, he turned the ball over seven times, and got sacked a bunch. He is a quarterback where the first interception makes the second more likely, which makes the third more likely, and so on. He needs to take care of the football and he plays very well with a lead. He has led five come-from-behind fourth quarter drives with less than five minutes in his career, though.

4. How worried are you about Michigan State running back Kenneth Walker III’s ability to take over the game and do you think Purdue can put together a defensive game plan to neutralize his effectiveness, similar to what Nebraska and Indiana did? Why or why not?

Travis: It will be interesting. I look to the game plan against Wisconsin. For the most part, Purdue did extremely well against the run. The offense just did nothing and eventually the defense completely wore down. That allowed the Badgers to break it late. It was 13-13 midway through the third quarter when the Badgers broke a 94-yard drive, all on three rushes. They later had a 72-yard drive, all runs, for a touchdoown. That’s 166 of their 290 yards rushing on two second half drives.

I think the key is Purdue’s offense, really. When Purdue let the defense play with a lead it has done extremely well. At Iowa, the Boilermakers picked off Spencer Petras three times when we had the lead in the fourth quarter. It did the same to Nebraska last week. The offense has to do its part and make Michigan State play catch up. It was a winning strategy against Iowa and Nebraska, but Purdue never really got to employ it against Wisconsin, Notre Dame and Minnesota, as the largest lead in all of those games was three points and we scored a grand total of seven second half points total in those three games.

5. Is there one under-the-radar player on offense and one under-the-radar player on defense for Purdue who Spartans fans should look out for on Saturday?

Travis: Offensively, TJ Sheffield and Milton Wright have done very well in taking advantage of all the attention Bell gets. The same is true of Anthrop, who had his best game of the year against Nebraska. Anthrop is a savvy sixth-year guy who came back for his free COVID year. He’s in his fifth year as a contributor and even stuck around after that Rondale Moore guy took his spot for a few years. He’ll likely get an undrafted free agent look in the NFL at best, but he is one of those gritty college guys that does everything right and gets the most out of himself.

Defensively Cam Allen has been dangerous patrolling the middle of the field. He has four picks on the season and against Nebraska he dropped a near certain pick-six on their first scoring drive. Both he and Jalen Graham have done a fantastic job all season in making big plays defensively. If Karlaftis is getting pressure, Graham and Allen are usually there to clean up any messes the opposing QB makes.

Bonus: Purdue was able to upset then No. 2-ranked Iowa a couple of weeks ago. Do you expect the Boilermakers to upset Michigan State as well? What is your final score prediction?

Travis: I think we have a shot. This game reminds me of 1999. Back then, Michigan State was ranked No. 5. They were also coming off of a big win over Michigan at home. Drew Brees, who I hear had a decent NFL career for himself, had a field day and Chris Daniels broke Big Ten receiving records in a 52-28 win for the Boilermakers that caused Nick Saban to run off to the SEC so he’d never have to face Purdue again (look it up, he still has an active three-game losing streak to Purdue and we’re the only team to ever beat him three straight).

I certainly don’t expect a day like that again, but Purdue already caught one team napping a bit in a letdown game after a huge win. To win, the offense has got to finish drives, at least contain Walker a little, and make the Spartans play from behind. I think we absolutely have the ability to pull off a win and Jeff Brohm is 2-0 against top-five teams all time at Purdue. It would be very Purdue-like to wreck another team’s season, then lose to Northwestern and Indiana to close the year.

I am still concerned about the shakiness of the offense though. It has yet to put together consecutive good games, so I will go with Michigan State in a 27-17 type win.

A big thank you to Travis for his thorough analysis on Purdue. You can follow Travis on Twitter, and for news about the Boilermakers, follow Hammer and Rails as well.

If you are interested in my responses to Travis’ questions over at Hammer and Rails, read here.