Walk-on sophomore quarterback Aidan O’Connell led the Boilermakers to a 31-27 win over Nebraska after stepping in for injured redshirt freshman Jack Plummer on Saturday.
“I’m very proud of (O’Connell),” head coach Jeff Brohm said. “He made some big throws, and he executed the offense.”
Third-string O’Connell took over late in the game after Plummer suffered an ankle injury with eight minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. While no details of his injury have been released by the team, Brohm said that Plummer will most likely be out for the remainder of the season.
After missing his first pass coming into the game, O’Connell went 6-for-6, hitting fifth-year tight end Brycen Hopkins multiple times for large gains against the Cornhuskers (4-5, 2-4 Big Ten.)
Hopkins led the Boilermakers (3-6, 2-4) in the passing game with eight receptions for 97 yards.
“It’s my job to do what I got to do,” O’Connell said. “Starter or backup, I try to prepare myself like I’m the one and that I’m gonna play.”
O’Connell came in mentally prepared and entered the game fearlessly.
“You can’t doubt yourself,” O’Connell said. “I’ve been playing since I was in second grade, and I didn’t know that I was working toward this moment, but that was God’s plan for me. I knew my guys were gonna ride with me, and I was gonna give everything I had, win or loss.”
The Boilermakers capped off their final drive with a trick out of Brohm’s book, giving a fake-power reverse pitch to freshman wide receiver David Bell.
“We were in field-goal range of course, so we knew we could have tied the game,” Brohm said. “This is a play we’ve worked on quite a bit. We were willing to take the risk.”
The risk was rewarded, as Bell was able to stroll into the end zone for the final score of the game.
Bell, who struggled to get much down offensively for most of the game, overcame his initial problems when it mattered most.
The Boilermakers as a team proved once again on Saturday their ability to overcome adversity.
“Adversity comes in life, and adversity comes in football,” O’Connell said. “And that’s a testament to my teammates and my coaches who just do such a great job of preparing themselves, and believing in each other when probably no one else believes in us.”
With the amount of injuries Purdue had to deal with this season, much of the team has had to fill roles that were initially unexpected for them. The freshman class has stepped up, scoring each of the past 16 touchdowns.
“It’s a credit to the guys that our coaches recruit,” O’Connell said. “It’s a credit the guys stepping up. They just want to go to work. We’ve been decimated with injuries, but guys have really come in and stepped up to the plate and just do what they’re asked.”
In the absence of sophomore wide receiver Rondale Moore, Bell and fellow freshmen wide receiver Milton Wright have been increasingly targeted.
Wright racked up 69 yards on four receptions on Saturday, two of which came on consecutive 20-plus yard passes in the second quarter.
“It was great to see him step forward and make some big plays for us,” Brohm said. “Milton’s a guy that has come here, he hasn’t missed one practice. He works his tail off. He hasn’t been getting the ball as much as we would like.”
While Wright has never been the focus of the offensive game plan, his role within the offense has steadily grown throughout the season.
“He’s got a bright future,” Brohm said. “He’s gonna continue to mature and get better in his route running, and his catching and his ability to make plays consistently.”
Securing this victory has brought the Boilermakers one step closer to securing bowl eligibility, which they must earn by finishing the season with six wins.
After two hard losses in a row, Saturday’s victory served as a morale boost for the team, despite Plummer’s injury.
“It feels great to be honest,” freshman running back King Doerue said. “Losing is always a bad feeling, but when you win it feels great, and it just motivates us to get better.”
Doerue had 15 carries for 71 yards and one touchdown on Saturday. He also scored in the passing game, pulling in five receptions for 31 yards and a touchdown.