Iowa knows what's coming from pass-happy Purdue. Can the Hawkeyes stop it?
IOWA CITY, Ia. — The names keep changing, but the freewheeling philosophy does not.
Purdue’s offense under third-year coach Jeff Brohm is designed to test the will of opposing defensive backs. And then to try to break it.
No one on the Iowa defense has any doubt about what they’ll see when the Boilermakers enter Kinnick Stadium for Saturday’s 11 a.m. homecoming game.
“They can’t really run the ball,” Iowa cornerback Michael Ojemudia said Tuesday.
“They’re not afraid just to air it out. A lot of 50/50 balls, (trying to draw) pass interference, or they might catch it. (They say) ‘We’re just going to throw it until our chances are good.’”
Purdue (2-4, 1-2 Big Ten Conference) has the most prolific pass offense in the league, the 10th-best in the nation, at 324.5 yards per game. The Boilermakers are a distant last in the Big Ten in rushing, at 63.5 yards per game. Defenses usually have to force opponents to be one-dimensional. That will not be the case for No. 22 Iowa (4-2, 1-2), which is looking to snap a two-game losing streak.
Recent history suggests that knowing what is coming has been of little help in actually stopping it. Two years ago, Purdue quarterback Elijah Sindelar came in to Kinnick Stadium and threw three touchdown passes in a 24-15 upset victory. The lasting image from that game was Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker benching cornerbacks Manny Rugamba and Ojemudia before turning to true freshman Matt Hankins in a belated attempt to counter Purdue’s deep passing attack.
Last year, Ojemudia and Hankins were both out with injuries when Iowa traveled to West Lafayette, replaced by true freshmen Julius Brents and Riley Moss. The Boilermakers were relentless, with quarterback David Blough picking on the youngsters for 333 yards and four touchdowns through the air. Purdue won 38-36.
“I feel like it was no surprise,” Iowa safety Geno Stone said of that game. “This offensive coordinator (Brian Brohm and JaMarcus Shepard split those duties) knows what he’s doing. He’s going to take shots no matter what.”
Iowa’s pass defense has been solid this season, the fourth most efficient unit in the Big Ten. The Hawkeyes have yielded only five touchdowns through the air.
But they haven’t faced a team that will try to spread them out quite like Purdue. So it’s no wonder Ojemudia said Iowa has been practicing more of its 4-2-5 defense this week. The Hawkeyes, because of injuries and youth in the secondary, have gone away from using the “cash” position for most of the season. This is the perfect matchup to reinstall it.
“Last week, as you see, we kind of needed it. We’re just going to try to adjust with the times and bring that back,” Ojemudia said, referencing a touchdown Penn State’s KJ Hamler scored while matched up with linebacker Nick Niemann.
“There’s going to be a lot of guys moving in and out (of the secondary). … We’re definitely going to try to be a lot more stout than we were last week.”
Speaking later Tuesday, Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz tamped down the notion of reverting to the 4-2-5 for this game. To do so would mean turning to young players, Ferentz noted. And everyone saw the result of that last season.
Redshirt freshman D.J. Johnson and true freshman Dane Belton are the top two options to play the cash right now. Ojemudia said he’s a third possibility to slide inside, but then sophomore Moss, just back from a hip injury, would replace him at cornerback.
Whoever lines up in the Iowa secondary will be facing a redshirt freshman quarterback coming off a historic afternoon. Jack Plummer completed 33 of 41 passes for 420 yards and three touchdowns in a 40-14 home victory over Maryland. That 80.5 completion percentage is a Purdue record for a quarterback with at least 40 attempts in a game.
With preseason all-American wide receiver Rondale Moore out with a hamstring injury, true freshman David Bell has been tormenting opposing defenses. He has 20 catches for 308 yards in the past three games. Against Maryland, tight end Brycen Hopkins also came alive, hauling in 10 passes for 140 yards.
Purdue never lacks options in the passing game. It’s how Jeff Brohm builds his teams.
But all that passing carries risk, and this is where the Hawkeyes know they must make the Boilermakers suffer. Purdue quarterbacks have thrown only seven interceptions this season, none in the past two weeks.
Iowa has a defense that is allowing only 10.2 points per game, fifth-best in the nation. But the Hawkeyes have only four interceptions. They did pick off Blough twice last year. Can they get to the rookie Plummer? That’s the hope.
“If they throw the ball more than 30 times, I feel like we should have a pick. I’ll be disappointed if we don’t get one,” Stone said.
“No one’s really tested us downfield the past couple games, really. It’s all been short out routes or little underneath routes. It does suck that they’re not testing us, but at the same time we’ve got to do our job stopping the run then.”
That won’t be the problem Saturday. And everyone knows it.
If the Hawkeyes can stop the Purdue air show, however they do it, they’ll almost certainly win this game.
Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.
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