WEST LAFAYETTE – It's a dull, gray day in West Lafayette, but that isn't stopping anyone. The town is alive with activity – tailgates, pregame parties, fans making their way from parking lots across campus to Ross-Ade Stadium. It's the first real gameday, fans and all, in this city since November 2019, when Purdue hosted Indiana in the Old Oaken Bucket Game and lost 44-41 in double overtime.
A lot has changed since then. There was an entire season with no fans at Ross-Ade, during which Purdue went 2-4, including four straight losses to finish the campaign. It was a disappointing year, to be sure, but the Boilermakers can begin putting that season and all the weirdness that went with it in the rearview mirror for good tonight, when they welcome Pac-12 foe Oregon State to campus for the 2021 season-opener.
Purdue won't be starting the season with a walkover against an overmatched patsy. Right out of the gate, the Boilermakers get a Power Five opponent, one that is just as hungry as the Boilers are after a 2020 campaign that, like Purdue, featured one big victory and a plethora of coulda-woulda-shoulda losses. The Beavers, in their fourth year under coach Jonathan Smith, who led them to a 2001 Fiesta Bowl win over Notre Dame as the team's quarterback, finished last season 2-5, with a rivalry victory over then-No. 9 Oregon to give them momentum heading into this year. Similarly, Purdue beat Iowa, which finished 6-2, before the Gold and Black's season collapsed in a hail of injuries and bad luck.
The big question going into today's game is whether Purdue's defense is improved enough to give the Boilermakers a chance. Under new coordinator Brad Lambert, who came over from Marshall to replace the fired Bob Diaco, the Boilers have pledged over and over again to be more aggressive this season, to put more pressure on the quarterback after recording only five sacks all of last season. That will be easier with havoc-wreaker George Karlaftis back at defensive end after he played only three games last season because of injuries and a bout of coronavirus, but he won't be enough by himself. The Boilermakers are going to have to bring extra rushers from the linebacker and secondary ranks and those players are going to have to get home or Purdue's secondary could be exposed. That task will be made more difficult because Oregon State quarterback Sam Noyer, a Colorado transfer, is a good athlete that moves well in the pocket. Purdue will have to be wary that if it gets too far upfield, Noyer can run into open space for big gains. It will help if the Boilers' defensive tackles, led by Snider graduate Lawrence Johnson, can get push up the middle, as well, but that won't be easy against an Oregon State offensive line that returns all five starters.
On offense, the name of the game for the Boilermakers is balance. Every coach wants to establish the run, but that goes especially for Purdue coach Jeff Brohm, whose team ran for a Big Ten-worst 81.5 yards per game last season and gained only 3.3 yards per carry. Zander Horvath is a difference-maker at running back, almost never going down on first contact, and Purdue will do everything it can to get the ball in his hands, either on runs or on swing passes that might as well be counted as part of the ground game. King Doerue could be a key piece, as well, but Indiana transfer Sampson James is not listed on the depth chart today. It appears he has not received an NCAA waiver to play immediately after transferring in August, at least not yet.
Of course, the reason Purdue was so unbalanced on offense last season was because its passing offense was really good: quarterback Jack Plummer threw for 312.7 yards per game and completed 71% of his passes. David Bell, meanwhile, is back and one of the favorites for Big Ten Receiver of the Year this season (likely far and away the best receiver in the conference outside of Ohio State). The question is how much production Purdue can get from Milton Wright, opposite Bell, and Jackson Anthrop, who is replacing Rondale Moore in the slot. There are weapons all over this offense and it's just a matter of giving Plummer enough time to go through his progression.
The bottom line is that one of these teams will leave tonight with a galvanizing win that could preface a successful season. Purdue has struggled with injuries and inconsistency for two seasons in a row, but today the Boilermakers get a clean slate. It's a new season, fall is in the air and the stands at Ross-Ade Stadium will be packed. Football is back.