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2021 opponent preview: Purdue Boilermakers

Purdue is looking to return to a bowl for the first time since Jeff Brohm’s second season

NCAA Football: Iowa at Purdue Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

We took an early bye week for opponent previews, requiring a double-up. So we move forward with a university which is near and dear to my heart parent’s bank account: Purdue.

Jeff Brohm was hired after the dire Darrell Hazell era, which made the Danny Hope era look...kind of okay! In his four seasons, he started out relatively hot with two straight bowl appearances after 6-6 regular seasons. Since then, he’s gone a combined 6-12 which is not ideal! The big anchor on it has been the defense - I guess that’s why they’re going with three co-defensive coordinators this season - over the last three years (2017 was a wild time where Purdue allowed just 20.5 PPG) but even the offense has been mediocre, topping out at 30.5 PPG in 2018. Wild to think Iowa has had higher scoring teams than Purdue in all four of Brohm’s seasons. It certainly never feels like it.

Last season’s 2-4 featured all games with a 10-point-or-less differential which was some combination of sticking in every game and backdoorsiness. I expect that to carry over, as 22 of their 33 Big Ten games under Brohm have been inside that margin. They’re probably going to be tough for Iowa to vanquish since Brohm has had Phil Parker’s number in pretty much every single matchup, going 3-1 against Iowa since his arrival. (though he did miss last year’s matchup due to COVID-19 protocols)

Purdue schedule ahead of Iowa

9/4: v. Oregon State
9/11: @ Connecticut
9/18: @ Notre Dame
9/25: v. Illinois
10/2: v. Minnesota
10/9: BYE

Once again, Purdue faces multiple Power 5-adjacent teams in their non-conference schedule. Such aggressive scheduling almost certainly leaves them behind the 8-ball from a bowl standpoint but they’re carrying it through the rest of the decade. Yet the early season slate does offer them a good opportunity for momentum. Oregon State, UCONN, Illinois, & Minnesota are all winnable games. With the bye just before Iowa, it opens up this wild trend: Iowa is 9-0 with a rest disadvantage since 2017. (Purdue is 4-4 with the rest advantage)

Three guys

David Bell (WR, 6’2”, 205 lbs, Jr): Few players have broken hearts of Iowa fans with the pace Bell has in his two seasons as a Boilermaker. First and foremost, he selected Purdue over the Hawks in 2018 during his recruitment and then proceeded to obliterate opponent secondaries, including Iowa’s (26 receptions, 318 yards, 4 TDs). He won freshman of the year in 2019 when he led the conference in receptions and was a first team all-Big Ten performer last year. He’s racked up over a mile of receiving yards, including 10 100-yard games. (That’s more 100-yard outings than Iowa wideouts have had in the last FIVE seasons)

He is the ultimate receiver. Purdue uses him all over the field and he is stellar at running routes at all levels. He also does a great job of settling into open zones, searches for any extra yard he can get, and has an elite catch radius.

Easy to see why Iowa wanted him and I will not miss the Hawks having to defend him.

Zander Horvath (RB, 6’3”, 230 lbs, RS Sr): It might be silly to put a running back in the Purdue preview but Horvath has been a solid back for Purdue over his three seasons, averaging 4.9 YPC on his career. He has also accumulated 51 receptions at a 9.5-yard-clip over his time as a Boilermaker.

The Mike Alstott comparisons exist because people are lazy, but it’s fair. He is a bruising running back but has his fair share of shiftiness. With Iowa so focused outside in their matchup last year, Horvath gashed the Hawks for 129 yards. Phil Parker will need to shore up the run defense to limit Purdue’s ability to do ball control offense.

George Karlaftis (DE, 6’4”, 275, Jr): Karlaftis burst onto the scene with a huge freshman season - 54 tackles. 17 for loss, 7.5 sacks - which resulted in another freshman All-American for Purdue (Bell was the first).

His sophomore season was a step back, as he missed games with injuries and COVID-19 but his freshman highlights (above) show they type of player he is. He’s impressive in run defense, rarely getting deked with play-action. He has an assortment of moves - beating guys with strength and guile - and will be a huge test for Jack Plumb.

And oh yeah, he has a brother.

Assorted Commentary

Can Iowa’s secondary hold up?

Iowa will have their share of tests ahead of the Purdue game defending receivers but few teams have demonstrated the track record through the air as Purdue has against Iowa. In each of their four games under Brohm, a receiver has tallied over 100 yards as he has picked at the scab in Iowa’s secondary. In 2017, it was Manny Rugamba-turned-Michael Ojemudia-turned-Matt Hankins before Josh Jackson just took over against Anthony Mahoungou. 2018, it was freshman Riley Moss. 2019 forced Dane Belton into his now-full time CASH role. 2020 was wonky with Matt Hankins playing slot & Julius Brents out wide. Equal opportunity hater, Jeff Brohm!

The Hawks have plenty of bodies and could see more against the aerial attack. Do newcomers like Xavier Williams or Cooper DeJean need to step up against the Boilermakers? Hopefully not, since Iowa returns five starters in the defensive backfield but if somebody can find the weak link, it’s Brohm.

What is the state of Iowa’s offensive line?

Iowa has two of the top interior linemen in the country but still have question marks at the bookends in Plumb and Cody Ince (?) do not have much game experience in those roles. Halfway through the season, you’d love to see a line really come into focus.

With Penn State & Iowa State as two strong defensive lines, the Hawkeyes will have certainly had plenty of chances to identify who should play where. Alongside Karlaftis, Purdue possesses capable linemen but should be an opportunity for the Hawks to solidify the group for the rest of the season. Could a newcomer like David Davidkov find a way onto the line by this point in the season?

How does this game play?

In the last four games between these two squads, just one has been played into the 30s. So I would not really expect a shootout considering Iowa’s defense is riding an impressive streak of games holding opponents at/under 24 points. Yet if the Hawks are rolling in the pass game with Tyrone Tracy, Sam LaPorta, and plenty of other capable receivers, we might see it open up a bit like it did in 2018, as the offense needed to bail out the defense in a rare bit of role reversal.

Ideally, though, we get the best of both worlds: an ability to contain Purdue’s playmakers alongside assertive Iowa offense. However that just hasn’t been how these two have played games with no margin exceeding the 9 points the Boilermakers won by in 2017.

If history is any indication, this game will be more coin-flippy than what Vegas says heading into the game as the only Iowa cover since 2017 was in 2018 when they entered as 3-point underdogs.