After defeating Nebraska in a hard-fought game on Saturday, the Boilermakers will face a new challenge while playing Northwestern with a walk-on quarterback at the helm of the offense.
“It’s been a little weird, sitting in class, then it just kinda hits you,” sophomore quarterback Aidan O'Connell said on his new starting role.
Purdue (3-6, 2-4 Big Ten) lost its quarterback, redshirt freshman Jack Plummer, to a broken ankle in final quarter of the Nebraska game. Plummer was already playing in place of fifth-year Elijah Sindelar, who suffered a broken collarbone against Minnesota in September.
O’Connell remains steadfast, though, and played with confidence and poise in the last drive of the game, leading the Boilermakers to a 3-point victory.
“It’s what I came here to do,” O’Connell said. “I think I’m prepared the same way. It is different, just the feeling of knowing. It’s not ‘if.’”
Being a walk-on, O’Connell may not have the pedigree most of his teammates have, but they remain faithful in him nonetheless.
“He deserves to be there,” redshirt freshman tight end Payne Durham said. “He deserves that spot, so I don't think it's that much of a transition for him."
Durham, the Boilermakers’ second-string tight end, has caught eight passes this season; four of them have been for touchdowns.
“I’m proud of (Durham),” tight ends coach Ryan Wallace said. “He’s doing a good job, really embracing his role and just doing the best he can.”
Durham caught two passes for 23 yards and a receiving touchdown in the fourth quarter on Saturday.
“People feed off his energy,” Wallace said. “He’s a tough player, and we like having him on the field."
Durham plays alongside fifth-year tight end Brycen Hopkins, who continues to make a positive impact in each game.
“(Hopkins)’s always gonna have a big role in what we’re doing, especially right now with Rondale (Moore) out," Wallace said. "He’s continuing to grow in his role, and we’re expanding what he has to do a lot just because of where we are as a team personnel-wise."
The Boilermakers are taking these personnel changes very seriously heading into their game against Northwestern (1-7, 0-6.)
“They’ve had some struggles this year, but I think defensively, they’re a very solid team," O’Connell said. “They’re just a really well-coached team, and a team that’s not gonna beat themselves.”
Coached by Pat Fitzgerald, the Wildcats refuse to give up, despite their lackluster performance thus far.
“We’ll get this thing turned around,” Fitzgerald said in a press conference on Monday. “I have a track record of winning football games. I’m focused on winning these next four games right now.”
O’Connell recognizes the level of excellence Fitzgerald brings to a team and described this game as “a tremendous challenge.”
"They're not gonna beat themselves," senior defensive end Kai Higgins said. "So we're gonna have to go out there and beat them ourselves."
Offensively, the Wildcats struggle in almost every category. With only 293 yards per game, they have the least efficient offense in the entire Power Five. They are also averaging only about 140 passing yards and 11 points per game.
Like Nebraska, the Wildcats will rely on their running game, something the Boilermaker defense, led by freshman defensive end George Karlaftis and fifth-year linebacker Ben Holt, will have to defend.
"I think as a defense, we're starting to gel more," Higgins said. "We're starting to fly around, doing the little things right, and it's really showing up on Saturdays."
This game, like every game for the rest of the season, is a must-win for the Boilermakers, who must have six wins in order to gain bowl-eligibility. Taking it one game at a time, though, they will first have to defeat the Wildcats at noon on Saturday at Ryan Field in Evanston, Illinois.