Purdue may not be full strength to start Big Ten play

Stacy Clardie, GoldandBlack.com staff
Gold and Black
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With the lack of depth at this stage of Jeff Brohm's rebuild, Purdue can't afford to lose players to injury at several positions.

The first-year head coach said as much before the season.

That may be the reality, though, this week.

And it's not exactly a good time for the Boilermakers to be less than full strength: No. 8 Michigan is coming to Ross-Ade Stadium for the Big Ten opener Saturday.

Not only are starting left tackle Grant Hermanns and starting inside linebacker T.J. McCollum banged up — both said this week they're intending to play, despite injuries — but Brohm said after Thursday's practice that middle linebacker Ja'Whaun Bentley also has missed some practice this week.

"We had some guys a little more nicked up the last game than we’d hoped. But I think we’ve done a good job taking care of them this week. They’re starting to get back out there to a certain degree," Brohm said Thursday. "This is the time of year sometimes you’re not going to be as 100 percent as you’d like to be. You’re going to have a few nicks and bruises and hopefully you can play through it. If it’s too serious, obviously, we’ve got to rest them and get them healed up even more.

"Multiple guys will be a gametime decision, but hopefully most of them will be ready to go."

Hermanns has what he called a "sore" left knee, and McCollum is nursing a hamstring. Bentley's injury — what it is or when it happened — is unclear. He enters Saturday as Purdue's leading tackler and has been pivotal to the success of the run defense, as has McCollum, as players who have hit run fits hard and quickly.

"Grant Hermanns, Ja’Whaun Bentley, we’d love to have them play in this game. Hopefully, they’ll find a way to do that. Will they be 100 percent? Maybe not. But they’ve had a good week of rehab," Brohm said. "They were out here (Thursday) moving around a little bit. We’ll see how they are come Saturday."

Purdue has been working on different options this week if neither Bentley nor McCollum can play, Brohm said. And they're not maybe the obvious ones — like senior Garrett Hudson, who has started before, stepping in for Bentley at Mike or freshman Derrick Barnes once again replacing McCollum, which is what happened for segments of last week's game.

"There’s a few other freshmen (Cornel Jones, Tobias Larry) who played on special teams. Rob Simmons is another guy. We also could possibly move Eddy (Wilson) and Lorenzo (Neal) inside and bump some linebackers around and move Gelen (Robinson) to the outside," Brohm said. "So there’s a few different things we’ve worked on this week just to make sure we’re ready for every scenario that can happen."

If Hermanns is limited, it's likely Eric Swingler would move into that left tackle spot, which would further thin out Purdue's depth on the offensive line. Purdue has swapped out its guards at key points of the last two games, but it hasn't done that with its tackles. Swingler has been the only backup to play at tackle.

Whoever plays up front, they likely won't be blocking for Markell Jones, who was hurt in the opener. He likely will miss another game with knee injury as Brohm called him "doubtful."

But the injury news wasn't all bad Thursday.

Brohm said he expects starting cornerback Da'Wan Hunte to play. Hunte appeared to injure an ankle against Missouri, but he did return to that game for a series.

Etc.

• On Monday, Brohm said one of his first thoughts watching Michigan film was, "Holy cow, how are we going to score a point?" He suspected, then, his confidence would build as the week progressed. On Thursday, he said he's more optimistic about the game plan he and his offensive coaches have formulated now that it's later in the week.

"I think after watching every game possible for the last two years, I think I found a few plays that were made against them," he said. "Really it’s going to come down to doing the small things. We’re going to have to take some shots. We’re going to have to find a way to win some one-on-one matchups. We’re going to have to eliminate sacks and try to minimize the quarterback getting hit and not turn the ball over early in the game. If our guys can do that, our defense plays hard, I’m sure it’ll probably be a defensive battle for a while.

"Michigan likes to wear you down. They’ve got some big horses on both sides of the ball, and we’ve got to stop them on defense. Trust me, we’re scared about their offense, even though maybe they haven’t been hitting all cylinders, because they’ve got legitimate guys and they’re going to pound the football at you and hope that you wear down. It’ll be a great challenge. We’re getting close to ready to play, and it’s about going out there and as you get closer, you’ve got to start to believe you can get it done."

• Brohm couldn't recall a game recently that has had this much hype. Purdue has gotten some national attention after its 2-1 start and dismantling of an SEC team on the road last week. And Michigan is, well, Michigan.

As of Thursday, Purdue had about 4,000 tickets remaining for the game. There hasn't been a sellout in Ross-Ade Stadium since 2008, though its capacity now (57,236) isn't as large as it was then (62,500).

"I think it’ll be a great atmosphere. This is why you come and play in the Big Ten," Brohm said. "While we know we have a lot of work ahead of us and we’ve got to try to do everything right and make a statement, it’s a great opportunity to really test ourselves against the very best in the Big Ten. Hopefully we can hang in there and give it a good shot. At the end of the day, we’ll know exactly where we stand and how far we’ve got to come."

• Michigan offers a variety of fronts and looks on defense, which will present a challenge for Purdue's offensive line. Brohm said he likes the looks the scout team — he calls it the "service" team — has provided this week. The O-line has had its moments, Brohm said, against it.

"I think they’ll come ready to play," Brohm ultimately said of his line. "The one-on-one battles, the quick moves by the D-line, the ability to just kind of stay inside and hang in there and battle is what we want. Sometimes if the quick moves get around us fast, then it’s going to be hard. So we’ve got to make sure just keep our technique, trust it, don’t allow all the shake-and-bake to get us going and really just move our feet and have our eyes up and have a good bend to our back and hope we can hang in there."

• Brohm said he didn't know which uniform combination or helmets Purdue was wearing Saturday. The Boilermakers have worn chrome helmets the last two weeks, both victories.

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