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Purdue Football: Coming home again

Superior coaching brings the Bucket back to West Lafayette

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11/27/21 Indiana, T.J. Sheffield

Sophomore wide receiver T.J. Sheffield celebrates after scoring a touchdown and extending Purdue's lead. Sheffield had three catches for 31 yards.

Excellent coaching highlighted the Purdue football team’s final regular season game, resulting in a 44-7 beatdown over in-state rival Indiana Saturday night.

With the victory, the Boilermakers reclaimed the coveted Old Oaken Bucket after losing it in a double-overtime heartbreaker in 2019.

All game long, players found themselves in proper alignments with schemes dialed up to fit their strengths. Purdue fans can credit the coaching staff, led by head coach Jeff Brohm, for that efficiency.

The most glaring example of this comes from the improved play of fifth-year quarterback Aidan O’Connell. His efficiency was off the charts, completing 26-31 passes for 278 yards and four touchdowns. His 83.9% completion percentage was the highest of his career as a starter.

Underlying all of those stats may lie the most important one, zero interceptions. Since he came to Purdue, O’Connell has not always thrived in ball security, throwing a total of 14 picks over the last three seasons.

But O’Connell has changed. His last interception was among a three-interception affair against Wisconsin five games ago. Since then, the Boilers are 4-1, with him keeping the ball out of harm’s way.

“I think Coach Brohm has done an excellent job of instilling the game plan,” O’Connell said after the game. “I think I understand what we’re trying to accomplish and that’s the coaches, both doing a great job.”

Jeff Brohm said a new tone was set in the Boilermakers’ bye week after their loss to Minnesota after realizing they weren’t scoring the points the team wanted. The bye week consisted of slight adjustments and a few things tweaked, he said. The goal was to try and get the quarterback in rhythm.

The way he planned on doing that was to take full advantage of O’Connell’s strengths as a quarterback, he said.

“He’s a very accurate passer, so if we can space some things out and get some guys open, he’s gonna hit ‘em,” Brohm said. “He’s really been good at throwing the ball in tight windows, knowing when not to throw it, sees the field, anticipates, spreads the ball around pretty well the past few games.”

One receiver in the mix of O’Connell’s 36 completions was fifth-year wideout Jackson Anthrop, who caught two huge passes in the game. On one, he adjusted mid-air to miraculously catch a back shoulder fade with his left hand. The other was a third quarter touchdown in the front corner of the end zone to put the Boilers up 24-7.

The play was designed as four verts with a “pump bubble.” After the far side cornerback ditched his zone to cover the running back running out for a bubble screen, Anthrop found green grass in the vacated space. O’Connell read the play perfectly, pumping to the running back and then lobbing the ball for the touchdown after the cornerback bit on the motion.

“We’ve been kinda running the same kinda concept the past couple of weeks and it’s been working pretty well,” Anthrop said. “This one I think we’ve scored on a couple of times.”

It was a shrewd play call by Brohm, and one that has worked all season.

In a prior press conference, Brohm also talked about junior linebacker Jalen Graham and his versatility covering the run and pass.

It’s uncommon to see linebackers split out wide lined up as a corner against receivers, but Graham was face to face with an opposing receiver in order to maximize his skill set. He didn’t accrue many stats, only getting credit for one tackle, but still intimidated the Hoosiers from going his way.

Overall, this game encapsulated more than just excellent plays from individual players. While noted star players junior receiver David Bell and junior edge rusher George Karlaftis still made highlights, they didn’t stuff the stat sheet like they normally do. The coaches put other players in positions so that they weren’t relied on so heavily. Ultimately, it resulted in the team’s most definitive win of the season since UConn.

Now, all that lies next for Purdue is its bowl game.

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