Purdue is likely without a defensive reserve as it travels to Wisconsin Saturday.
It’s hoping to not be down a starter, as well.
Linebacker T.J. McCollum, a key figure in the Boilermakers’ defensive resurgence this season, was hurt on the last play of Purdue’s 31-17 win over Minnesota on Saturday. At his press conference Monday, Coach Jeff Brohm described the injury as “mostly an ankle but slightly the knee a little bit” but didn’t yet have a full accounting of the severity.
“I'm hopeful he'll be back this week but I don't have any clarification,” Brohm said. “I think we're going to have to wait and see. Maybe (Tuesday) we'll know a little more. He was in some pain after the game. So we'll see where it's at. But he's done a really good job for us. I'd like to have him back.”
Certainly so. McCollum, a veteran of Nick Holt’s defense after starring at Western Kentucky the last two seasons, has a team-high 40 tackles this season, including a couple for loss. Against Minnesota Saturday, when McCollum led Purdue with 12 tackles, he was on the field for the final Gopher series, along with other defensive starters, even though the visitors were down 14 with less than a minute remaining.
Brohm was asked about his philosophy on those end-of-game situations, the alternative being to get in reserves.
“I guess you could maybe say the game was a two-touchdown game, but it had been tight up until then,” Brohm said. “Those (starters) were playing, and really we didn't think twice about it. We just put our main guys out there to be alert for the Hail Mary or lateral pass or anything that could happen.
“We might look at (alternatives), depending on how much time is on the clock.”
Reserve defensive tackle Keiwan Jones is out for Saturday and likely beyond. The junior suffered a lower-body injury — potentially a knee — against the Gophers, needing assistance from trainers to get to the sideline.
Brohm said test results aren’t back yet, but it’s “probably a pretty good (as in bad) injury.”
But interior D-line is a position that actually has some depth, with Gelen Robinson, Eddy Wilson and Lorenzo Neal rotating for the vast majority of the snaps.
“Whether another guy gets in the mix, we'll see,” Brohm said. “But I feel good that we still should be in a decent position.”
As for other injuries, Tario Fuller is doubtful, at best, vs. Wisconsin, with a bone bruise in his ankle. The running back has missed the last two games. Receiver Terry Wright re-aggravated his right shoulder in the first half, on the reception in which he fumbled. The J.C. receiver played with a shoulder injury last season at Coffeyville Community College, then had surgery, but it’s not felt great since training camp.
But the biggest issue for Wright is the fumbles, now two in the last two games.
“That's not good, so we have got to get that corrected,” Brohm said. “Hopefully we can get him improved in that aspect.”
Defensive end Austin Larkin, who played only sparingly Saturday, might be getting healthier, per Brohm. Larkin, a starter, presumably has an ankle injury.
“He wasn't able to practice as much (last week), so he didn't get in there a whole lot (vs. Minnesota),” Brohm said.
Nod to Tiller
No one knew the reason for Brohm wanting to run a bubble screen on the first play from scrimmage Saturday, not his staff, nor the players.
But Brohm thought it’d be a worthy nod to former Purdue coach Joe Tiller, who had died at the age of 74 the week before. Saturday, Purdue had a number of tributes, like a Tiller Era replica helmet and sticker, a moment of silence and a halftime video, and Brohm thought a play would be a good addition. And the bubble was the right one, considering it was a staple of the early Tiller teams, part of what made his offense cutting edge.
On Saturday's modern-day version, Purdue popped the ball left to Wright, but the receiver took it only two yards.
“I did want to sneak in a bubble screen right off the bat in honor of Coach Tiller and I thought it would get more yards," Brohm said. "When we lined up to an empty set and (the Gophers) walked everybody out with no linebackers in the box area, I'm like, ‘OK, (laughing) not really the look I thought we'd get.’
“We did it anyway and moved on to second down. We scored the first drive, so (it) was able to work.”
Reducing the giveaways
Until the first half on Saturday, Purdue hadn’t had an abundance of turnovers this season.
Of course, then the Boilermakers had four vs. the Golden Gophers in only 30 minutes, two interceptions and two fumbles. Brohm said Purdue will stress ball security again, but he doesn’t anticipate turnovers — at least in that quantity — being a continuing problem.
“I this our guys have bought in and understand if we don't turn it over, we'll have a chance to win,” he said. “Just unfortunately it happened in this game and kind of steamrolled from there a little bit and (we had them on) four (straight possessions).
“But we got better the second half, and sometimes those things are going to happen. You know, you can't predict them all. We are definitely going to continue to work ball security, take care of the ball, preaching it, talking about it. But I still want our guys to play aggressive and try to make plays. There's a fine line but we will work hard at it again.”
Starting quarterback David Blough had two of the turnovers, both on first-quarter interceptions.
On the first, Blough stared down receiver Jackson Anthrop — Brohm said the QB predetermined his target, “which he occasionally does” — then threw into coverage.
“I think he should have been able to see that they were going to Cover 2 (zone) and we got over the ball a little bit and the check-down opened,” Brohm said, “and I think he just tried to force it a little bit."
The second one, an interception in the end zone, came when Blough again locked on a receiver, Brohm said, this one being tight end Brycen Hopkins. Brohm said a check-down receiver was open.
“We've just got to get him to relax and feel comfortable in the pocket,” the first-year coach said of Blough, “and if he can't see things or just not have the rhythm, he's just got to continue to move up and find a lane.”
Listed at 6-foot-1, Blough has more challenges in the pocket, in that the bigger-bodied offensive in front of him might cloud his field of vision. Drew Brees, a 6-foot Saints’ quarterback, had similar issues at times, although also developed a knack for finding the openings.
Brian Brohm, a former NFL and Louisville quarterback, spent a portion of his 2012 offseason in New Orleans, where coaches had QBs watch Brees’ highlights, particularly the All-Pro’s ability to find good throwing lanes.
“So those are the things with guys that maybe aren't 6-5, you have to make sure they are working on,” Brohm said. “If you don't have clear vision and you miss an open guy, that's OK, just maybe slide up or buy a little extra time and see if maybe you could locate him and if not, come underneath. We've just got to continue to work on that.”
Purdue’s other two turnovers were fumbles by Elijah Sindelar and Wright.
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