IOWA CITY — Purdue football is a long way from a sinkhole.
The water pipe that burst in the end zone at Ross-Ade Stadium last year was sadly apropos. The Boilermakers were on their way to 3-9 and the firing of Darrell Hazell as head coach halfway through the season.
Enter Jeff Brohm, and while Purdue isn’t a world-beater, there’s hope coming from West Lafayette, Ind., and not just from Mackey Arena and the men’s basketball team. Brohm has his team 4-6, but those losses were to then-No. 16 Louisville (35-28), then-No. 8 Michigan (28-10), then-No. 7 Wisconsin (17-9), Rutgers (14-12), Nebraska (25-24) and most recently at No. 23 Northwestern (23-13).
Other than the Michigan game, the Boilermakers could argue they had a chance to win every game they’ve lost. And while losses to Rutgers and Nebraska — no matter how close — don’t look great, clearing the hurdle of competitiveness was a task not easily achieved.
“I do think the way we played in the first half of the first game gave our guys some confidence and we kind of rolled that momentum and steam for a while and were able to play a little above our heads and really a lot of confidence,” Brohm said this week. “We kind of hit a lull here throughout the Big Ten schedule, but I do think our guys have worked hard and I do think we’ve gotten better. We still have a long ways to go, but I think the attitude has been great.
“We’ve got to be critical and try to improve. They’ve had a good attitude. They’ve done everything we’ve asked. We’ve just got to find a way to get better.”
Brohm being frank about the Boilermakers having a long way to go didn’t stop his opponents for Saturday from speaking about how impressed they are about the difference from last year to this year.
A couple basic numbers speak to the improvement pretty plainly. Purdue averages 393.8 yards per game on offense, which is up slightly from 391.3 in 2016. The Boilermakers are giving up 371.3 yards per game on defense, which while not great, is much better than the 445.9 per game surrendered last year. Last season, Purdue gave up 38.3 points per game, compared to 19.3 this year.
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But like any team or coach will tell you, the turnover battle goes a long way toward wins and losses. Purdue had 33 turnovers — 25 interceptions and eight lost fumbles — last year, which was just shy of three per game. So far this year, Brohm’s group has 15 turnovers — 10 interceptions between David Bough (4) and Saturday’s starter Elijah Sindelar (6) and five lost fumbles. Even with two games to go, 18 fewer turnovers points to an offense that is much more in control of itself.
Iowa players and coach Kirk Ferentz pointed that out this week, too. Ferentz was emphatic about Purdue’s improvement on both sides of the ball.
“They do catch your eye offensively,” Ferentz said. “They’re wide open, very creative, and you know, you’ve got to defend a million things when you play against these guys based on what we’ve seen, and I’m sure there’s more to come.
“To me the real story is their defensive improvement because they haven’t been good enough on defense to win consistently and they’re playing really at a high level right now, but most important status is points given up, and they’re not giving up a lot, so they’re doing really well there.”
Sometimes a change in staff wakes up the same players who struggled under a different regime. New voices, new ways of doing things, a different vibe or attitude can bring out something that hadn’t previously been there.
Iowa linebacker Bo Bower said “I think they’re definitely more mature,” in watching Purdue film, and his counterpart Ben Niemann said the Boilermakers are “definitely more competitive,” and that Brohm has “got their team ready to go and excited and I think playing Purdue football.”
Purdue will be without Blough, its starter to begin the year, but Ferentz, Niemann and Bower all pointed to Sindelar’s arm strength and the multiple offensive schemes as more than enough to deal with.
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The Hawkeyes still are the favorites, and the Boilermakers are not the Buckeyes or Nittany Lions. But Brohm pointed out that his and his staff’s approach to the losses they still have had is what will continue the path to competitiveness.
“There’s been some weekends where it hasn’t been very fun, you’ve just got to kind of take some deep breaths, learn how to address the team and let them know that hopefully there’s two ways to approach it,” Brohm said. “You can start slightly doubting yourself and all of a sudden start not working quite as hard, but if everyone does that you’re really going to digress. Or you can put a smile on your face. The sun comes up, you learn from your mistakes the next day, you go through the process, you try to work your tail off to improve and you hope to somehow get better.
“I think for the most part, myself, our coaches have tried to do that and our players have responded. It’s not easy, but you’ve got to find a way to grind through it and not second-guess yourself too many times.”
Iowa and Purdue kick off at 2:30 p.m. Saturday on BTN.
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