Purdue defense wins spring game

Stacy Clardie, GoldandBlack.com staff
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Indicative of the first 14 practices of the spring, Purdue's defense largely was in control Saturday in the final practice.

Despite playing what Coach Jeff Brohm called a "vanilla" defense, the unit had 11 sacks and forced two turnovers over its first, second and third units.

That kind of sack number isn't an anomaly — that’s how it’s been all spring, whether in scrimmages or during team periods in practice. The offensive line has little experience and oftentimes was overmatched, though the first-team unit did show some progress over the 15 practices.

Still, the defensive line, especially its active ends who often stand on the line, caused havoc again Saturday.

And it helped the defense win in the non-traditional spring game format, 45-30, over the offense in a modified scoring system.

"My (four) years being here, I haven’t won a spring (scrimmage)," said defensive lineman Gelen Robinson, who had two sacks with the first-team unit. "In my opinion, it’s harder for the defense to win. But at the same time, we came out and competed.

"The second- and third-string, they did their thing in the second half and were able to make plays. Kai (Higgins) came in, and he dominated. Those are key things we want to look for, turnovers, getting the ball back, stopping them on third. It’s been great to see that actually live."

Brohm said Saturday's closing practice firmed up many of the opinions he'd developed about his team over the first 14: More playmakers need to emerge, the backups need to get better and there's promise in that first-team defensive unit.

Part of the latter's success Saturday was keeping the No. 1 offense out of the end zone on a pair of red zone opportunities.

David Blough led the No. 1 offense down to the defense's 9-yard line on its first drive, but then it stalled. Antoine Miles stopped Tario Fuller for a two-yard loss and Blough threw back-to-back incompletions, forcing a field goal.

On the first-team offense's final series, its sixth, just before the half, it had a first-and-10 on the 14-yard line. But, again, it couldn't punch the ball into the end zone. Blough had a short completion but then Da'Wan Hunte broke up a pass in the end zone and Robinson had a sack to bring up fourth down from the 9. Purdue lined up with three receivers to the left and tight end Cole Herdman with his hand down on the right side of the line. Markell Jones was the back and ran a route into the right flat. Blough found him, but Ja'Whaun Bentley was right there, tapping Jones well short.

Those are opportunities this offense — which still is looking to get consistent pass protection by its O-line, consistent holes opened for the run game and receivers who can make consistent plays — cannot afford to miss.

But Blough, who completed 14-of-22 passes for 192 yards, said he was encouraged, still, by the unit's ability to at least move the ball down the field to put itself in those positions.

"Unfortunately, we didn’t punch it in as well as we wanted to when we got down tight. Granted, all of our goal line stuff isn’t in. Got to make better decisions down there when we get down there, but I thought as a whole, we did pretty well moving the football," he said.

"We’ve got to keep improving. (Brohm) said it when we broke down (the huddle afterward), you can really tell some guys have played here and we’ve just got to keep improving everybody. That’s our job — everybody has to take a step from here to here this summer, keep climbing and be ready to play Sept. 2."

The first-team defense certainly wasn't perfect. Receiver Jackson Anthrop's two big plays, a 15-yard touchdown and a long catch that set up the other touchdown for the 1s, appeared to be on blown coverages.

That's a product of the defense still learning Nick Holt's system, one that didn't look nearly like what it can (and will) in the fall because of the limited blitzing and switching fronts.

But even without the extensive blitz package, the second- and third-team defensive lines, especially, were able to take advantage of lack of quality depth on the offensive line.

And both of the turnovers came in the second half — after most of the first-teamers were on the sidelines — too. Andy Chelf's fumble recovery gave the defense the lead, 26-23, on the first series of the second half, and the unit added Simeon Smiley's INT of Jared Sparks' pass.

"I think we did a great job of finishing," Robinson said. "Early on, we were warming up a little bit, getting into it, but those last couple series, we started to get it together and be more physical, get off the ball and make some plays. It’s exciting because that’s how we want to play the whole game.

"It’s going to be a little vanilla in the spring game. That’s OK. We’re going to be able to focus on what we need to focus on, which is still being physical and violent and still knowing our assignments. No matter what we do, that’s the most important part, getting line up, getting off the ball and I feel like doing that, we had a good impact on our confidence. It shows getting out here and competing when the time comes."

Now, the attention turns to the offseason and building more depth and creating competition across the board, Brohm said.

Because all of that is much-needed.

"I think we realized that come that this season, we have a lot of work ahead of us," Brohm said. "We have to find ways to create more depth, get guys better on the field where they’re understanding and playing fast. We’re going to have to be creative in what we do. Definitely on offense but on both sides of the ball, it’s going to have to be a full, all-out hammer job by all of our coaches and players to find a way to get it done."

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