In the quiet moments before leaving the locker room last on game days, David Blough tells himself one thing.
“This is your stage. Let's go perform.”
On Saturday, it’ll certainly be the biggest one the junior captain QB has played on during his Purdue career.
Same could be said for fellow captain Greg Phillips, a senior receiver.
And redshirt freshman left tackle Grant Hermanns.
For anyone on Purdue’s offense, really.
No. 8 Michigan will bring a defense to Ross-Ade Stadium unlike Purdue has seen this season — it ranks No. 5 in total defense (208.0 ypg) and No. 24 in scoring defense (14.7 ppg) — but it’s also a scheme that the Boilermakers haven’t fared well against recently. The Wolverines primarily play man coverage with pressure by the cornerbacks and rely on physical, quick linemen to wreak havoc in the backfield but also can confuse offenses by disguising blitzers and their angles.
It’s a mix that’s allowed Michigan to score three defensive turnovers, force five turnovers and register 13 sacks — one per every 6.7 pass attempts.
This will be the ultimate test for Jeff Brohm’s offense, in only Week 4.
Brohm joked — maybe? — Monday that when he first watched Michigan film recently to start preparing Saturday’s offensive game plan, he said, “Holy cow, how are we going to score a point?”
He saw the aggressive style, the athletes spread across the defense, the speed, the physicality, and he needed to pause.
“Right now I have to let the optimism build, watch some more, figure out a few more things,” Brohm said Monday. “Normally toward the end of the week, you start to feel a little bit better. Right now, shoot, we’re trying to figure out what we can do to try to get an edge. We may have to be a little different. We may have to change things up a little bit. We may have to give them something they haven’t seen because they’re really good. With this defense, they’re attacking. They play downhill. They’re even more multiple this year than they were last year, and the looks they give you, to a young offensive line, can get confusing, so we’re trying to figure out how they simplify it and make it where they don’t have to think as much. They don’t give easy completions, and they’re going to press you every snap and challenge you. That’s not our strength right now, but we’re going to have to find a way to create some plays in the passing game.
“So it’s a challenge. Myself and the rest of the staff, we’re working hard at it. We’ve got a lot of work to do.”
Blough, who made his first start of the season last week is the likely bet for Michigan, said quarterbacks will have to be “flawless” for Purdue to have a chance.
Blough has been ridiculously accurate so far this season — completing 76 percent of his passes — but an “accurate” pass against a zone defense, which Purdue primarily played against in the first three games, isn’t necessarily one against Michigan’s defense with its cornerbacks who will play mostly tight, press-man coverage.
The Boilermakers likely won’t be able to get easy completions against the Wolverines, who could mostly play a one-high safety look, so they’ll have to create ways to get open and rely on receivers (or running backs) to make defenders miss.
Of course, passing the ball also means Purdue will be able to protect the QB to allow him to pass. And that’s not a given, considering Michigan’s front, led by defensive ends Rashan Gary (14 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 1.0 sack) and Chase Winovich (16 tackles, 4.0 TFL, 3.0 sacks).
Blough said, maybe, he’ll have to try to deliver the ball quickly — though admits that’s an issue with tight coverage on the perimeter — or maybe he’ll have to be on the move a bit in the pocket.
“Their defense is real good. They’re talented,” Blough said. “You can see it. They cover well in the back end, a lot of man coverage, something we haven’t seen a ton of. So it’s going to be a different test for our receivers. They’re good on the defensive line, so that’ll be a test for our offensive line, too. At quarterback, we really have to be to sharp, accurate passes, know where we can step up in the protection, maybe we use our legs a little bit. Yeah, this defense is good. They can really play. They’ve held some good teams to low amounts. They’ve scored a lot on defense, too. That’s something we can’t allow to happen.”
It’ll be interesting to see how Purdue’s receivers counter potentially getting bumped on the line and responding to physical play. Brohm said it’ll be crucial for Purdue to win “one-on-one matchups” but also admitted that’s not this group’s strength right now either. Brohm probably will have to scheme to get the receivers open, whether it’s on mesh routes or stacking receivers to try to break off the press, but even then, it’ll be up to the receivers to actually make plays.
They’re eager for that opportunity, Phillips said.
“Wideouts, we’ve got to have a better game, a clean game this week. I feel like if we do that, we’re going to be great,” Phillips said. “Not only that, we’re going to set the tone for the rest of the season because we’re going against the head honcho of the Big Ten.
“What we’ve got to do is make sure we know our job and execute it at a high speed and move fast by beating them with fast pace, so they won’t be able to keep up with us.”
Not surprisingly, Hermanns, as a lineman, wants the game to fall directly on his unit’s shoulders — specifically as it relates to the run game. Purdue’s goal, he said, is to rush for 300 yards each game. That’s a lofty one, to be certain, especially against a defense that has allowed an average of only 82.3 yards per game so far this season, No. 8 in FBS.
Purdue struggled to run against Louisville in the opener but rebounded against Ohio (263 yards) and Missouri (205 yards).
Michigan has had success, in part, with scheme — much like Purdue’s defense — by using a stout front four to start the attack and then allowing physical, fast linebackers to run around and make plays. Hermanns said Gary, a sophomore, “comes off the ball quick, fires his hands, plays low.”
Purdue will have to counter all of that if it.
“They do put together some different fronts. They stack the box really well. So they’re looking to stuff the run,” Hermann said. “If we can run the ball, I think we can win this game. That’s going to be on the O-line. If we can do that, we know we can hold up in the pass pro, so our goal will be to run the ball and get as many touchdowns as possible.
“With us, we’ve got to know what we’re doing. We’ve got to know where we’re going. We know the snap cadence, that’s our big thing, come off on the ball and move some guys around.”
Purdue knows all of the strengths of Michigan's defense.
Brohm knows he'll have to get creative to counter it.
Hermanns knows he and the O-line will have to be smart, disciplined and physical to fight it.
Phillips knows he and the receivers will have to be sharp, precise and execute to battle it.
Blough knows he'll have to be smart, fearless and on-point to defeat it.
And all of them can't wait to prove just that.
“As a little kid, these are the games you dream of growing up. No. 8 coming to your house, it’s Big Blue. Bring it on,” Blough said. “Coach Brohm has been so big on these one-game seasons. We don’t think about, man, we could be 3-0 or 2-1 at that point when Michigan comes to town. Now we’re here. We are 2-1 with a good chance to shock the world. People believe in us, to an extent. But there’s still a lot of people who are like, ‘Well, they haven’t done much yet.’ And I agree. We haven’t done anything. This is the test for us. For our whole offense specifically, but this is a test for Purdue football. We have to win this one.”
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