Missouri travels to West Lafayette, Ind., on Saturday for a prime-time match-up with 0-2 Purdue. Ahead of the game, we chatted with Hammer and Rails site manager Travis Miller to get the lowdown on the mood at Purdue after two heart-breaking losses.
What is the general feeling after two crushing losses to start the year, especially with the momentum entering this season in West Lafayette?
Miller: It is terribly frustrating, to be sure. I think most people were somewhat okay with the Northwestern loss at the time. That was a 10-win team a year ago and Purdue had three critical first half turnovers. Yeah, there was the dumb penalty at the end that clinched it, but Purdue had a pair of fourth quarter possessions before that where we had the ball, at home, down 4, and we went three and out in each. It is not like we didn’t have chances.
The Eastern Michigan loss though… No one saw that coming. It was a combination of a lot of things that led to a one point loss to a team we probably beat 9 times out of 10. The offense gained a ton of yards on the ground, but couldn’t finish drives. We had two red zone trips with no points (fumble and missed FG). We missed an extra point. We had a ridiculous celebration penalty called that prevented us from going for two late. We had dumb penalties at critical times again. We gave up a 4th and 15 that would have clinched the game. We gave up a 75 yard TD pass in the first half. Oh passing game was non-existent. It was also played in a steady rain and EMU played pretty solid football all day.
Despite all that, we were about an inch from victory. After a fourth quarter interception we had Jared Sparks very nearly convert a 3rd and long that would have given Purdue 1st and goal inside the 1 with a 2 point lead and five minutes left. Unfortunately, when he came down on a ridiculous catch his foot hit about an inch out of bounds. The game was a lot like out 14-12 loss at Rutgers last year in that we didn’t play well at all and we had every chance to win, but did not.
So we’re frustrated. We expected more, but at the same time this roster is made up of recruiting classes that rated 71 (2014 Hazell), 68 (2015 Hazell), 73 (2016 Hazell), 68 (2017, started by Hazell, finished by Brohm), and 49 (2018 Brohm). We lost a ton defensively, but the offense has greatly underperformed in my opinion. We’re also just making stupid mistakes. Brohm already has the No. 23 class for 2019 lined up, so there is a ton of hope going forward. This could be the “step back year before a huge leap forward” because we haven’t had a top 25 recruiting class since 2004.
That said, we’re two plays, really, from being 2-0. Even had we squeezed out the win while playing poorly against EMU we’d feel better.
What is the quarterback rotation at Purdue? Is Brohm looking for a clear-cut starter or is it part of his scheme to rotate in two guys?
Miller: I think he is looking for a clear cut starter but the truth is that both guys are not playing well right now. Sindelar got the start against Northwestern and threw for nearly 200 yards in the first half, but had three interceptions. One was a great play by a defensive end, one was a bad throw, and the first was a bad throw, but there should have been a flag for pass interference because his receiver was tackled with the ball in the air. Sindelar has led four of our five TD drives so far and the passing game is more vertical with him.
Blough got the start vs. EMU and the plan there was to give each a quarter, then sort it out in the second half. Blough played all of the first and most of the second, but Sindelar finished the game. He is more of a threat to run than Sindelar, but the playcalling has been bizarre with him. There is almost no verticality to the passing game with Blough even though he led the Big Ten in passing two years ago.
Regardless of who plays, both have to play better. One of our writers said it best: Last year they brought out the best in each other, this year they are bringing out the worst. You saw Blough at his best last season in those three opening drives. You know what he is capable of. Sindelar was spectacular last year in the last three games. We need that. I think Sindelar has been the better guy and makes us more dangerous, but Blough has the higher completion percentage and hasn’t turned the ball over.
Was Rondale Moore expected to make this much of an impact so soon? How does Purdue try to use him and what’s the key to stopping him, in your opinion?
Miller: We had high expectations for him, but when he housed a jet sweep from 75+ yards in the opener we were blown away. On that play it looked like he was going to be stopped for a loss and he somehow makes two moves in a five space before leaving a vapor trail. It was jaw-dropping to see in person.
There was even a hidden play last week, too. He had another jet sweep for a 53 yard run that probably should have been a touchdown, but Jared Sparks got out in front of him, crossed him up, and inadvertently tripped him. It cost us four points because we only made a field goal off of it.
We’re using him every way possible. He is now on kick and punt returns and after he broke the single-game total yardage record (that stood for over 45 years) in his first game we just want to get him the ball in space as much as possible.
Purdue hasn’t been awful on defense but it seems like the secondary has struggled, especially against EMU. What are some of the reasons for those struggles?
Miller: Last season we had a senior (Da’Wan Hunte) and a grad transfer (Josh Okonye) at corner that were both pretty good. This year a pair of seniors in Tim Cason and Antonio Blackmon (a former walk-on) have battled a pair of redshirt freshmen in Kendrick Major and Dedrick Mackey. No one has really seized the job. Major and Mackey are going to make freshmen mistakes, but Cason got burned on the 75-yard pass last week and got burned on another play where the EMU receiver dropped a sure TD in the end zone.
I think it is a case of two guys that were career backups for a reason and two other inexperienced guys. It was an acute situation last year, too. Against Nebraska we were cruising in the fourth quarter before Hunte went down with an injury. The Cornhuskers then picked on backup Kamal Hardy for a pair of fourth quarter TDs to win.
We also have a ton of inexperience up front. Of the front seven only two are returning starters. Last week we did get six sacks, but had none against Northwestern and for the most part opposing offensive lines have dominated us. Since Missouri hasn’t given up a sack yet and Drew Lock is really good that does not bode well for us. We have got to get pressure on Lock and make him uncomfortable. That’s going to be a difficult challenge.
Finally, how do you see Saturday’s game playing out?
Miller: I really see this game as a tipping point for us. The Northwestern loss wasn’t a huge surprise, but EMU was one of those games that was a win in Sharpie right up until the final drive for their winning field goal. We have a lot of football to play yet, but going to 0-3 with all three losses at home, plus a pretty good Boston College team coming next week, would be disastrous. It would basically make this a lost season where the final nine games would be about building for next year. We need this game to keep any realistic bowl hopes alive.
I feel this is going one of two ways: We’re either going to see a Purdue team finally break out of its offensive shell and play angry, motivated football or we’re going to have the tables turned from last year’s game in Columbia. I never expected to race out to a 21 -0 lead in the first 20 minutes last year, but that could easily happen against us on Saturday night.
Purdue needs to watch the dumb penalties, clean up the turnover issues (we’re -4 on the season), finish drives (we’re 2 of 7 on getting TDs in the red zone), and get pressure on Lock. Honestly, that is quite a lot of “ifs” to manage. It can be done, but Missouri is a team that can make this ugly in a hurry.