Our friends at the SB Nation Purdue site have had some fun with us this week, which is all well and good (even if it was neither accurate nor funny), but at the end of the day, these are two fan bases that don’t know much about each other on or off the field. With that in mind, we reached out to Travis Miller, site manager of Hammer and Rails to get to know the Boilermakers a little bit better ahead of the Frogs’ trip to West Lafayette this weekend.
Melissa Triebwasser: The Jeff Brohm hype train has been rolling through West Lafayette for the past year, but Purdue has yet to get over the hump. After knocking off Ohio State, they lost to Michigan State, with all the preseason buzz in the world, they collapsed against Nevada to open the season. What does Purdue have to do this season to live up to fan expectations?
Travis Miller: I know it is year three, but it still feels early in Brohm’s tenure because he greatly exceeded expectations out of the gate. Few people outside of West Lafayette know about what went on during the Hazell era, but it was bad. We’re talking “probably worse than Kansas” bad. Hazell won 9 games in 3.5 years and four were against FCS competition. No Power 5 team ever has a valid excuse for losing to an FCS team not named North Dakota State, and even then, Hazell’s first win was 20-14 over a 1-11 Indiana State in 2013 and we needed a late interception to seal it. The football was atrocious and the recruiting was just as bad.
The fact that Brohm went 13-13 in the first two years with two bowl games is a small miracle. Now we’re in a bit of a transition year. Brohm has drastically improved recruiting. The 2019 class was a top 25 class nationally, something that had not happened in at least 15 years depending on your service of preference. When Hazell’s classes averaged in the low 60s, that’s significant. Brohm’s 2018 class was decent too in the 40s.
The problem with that is youth. We currently have 78 scholarship players because we had a lot of grad transfers and JuCos to fill gaps. Only 33 are sophomores, juniors, and seniors eligibility-wise. 45 are freshmen, either redshirt or true. I thin because of that a 6-7 win season was more likely with the expectation that the youth would pay dividends in 2020 or 2021. That said, we completely blew it in every phase against Nevada. That was supposed to be a win and really should have been. We had five turnovers, handed then 10 critical points on back-to-back punt issues in the third quarter, and fell apart in the fourth quarter.
I still think a 6-7 win season is possible because the schedule is tough, but not insurmountable. Only at Penn State and at Wisconsin looks like extremely hard games. Everything else is up for grabs.
MT: Everyone knows Rondale Moore. All we have heard about is Rondale Moore. All anyone wants to talk about is Rondale Moore? What is it about his game that makes him so special?
TM: I like to call Rondale Moore a “How the hell do you stop this guy” guy. He is just incredible to watch. Any time he touches the ball it can be a special play and because of that, he ended up trying a bit hard on punt returns and fumbled two against Nevada. Entering the fourth quarter on Saturday I told my wife I thought he was having a quiet game. I then looked and he already had 9 catches for 90+ yards. He then had a long TD catch another another 70+ catch in the quarter.
Rondale is shifty, strong, has great hands, and gets the ball in a variety of ways. Only two teams really slowed him last year. Iowa did a great job containing him, while Eastern Michigan held him to two catches in the rain, but he still had a nice 50+ run. For the most part he is a 10-catch, 100-yard, 1-TD guy each game, which is amazing in its consistency. Then there is the “wow” factor he can deliver.
MT: Outside of Moore, who are names to know on offense? Who has to have a big game to get a win Saturday?
TM: Elijah Sindelar is currently leading the nation in passing, mostly because we have had no running game to speak of so far. Sindelar shared starting duties with David Blough in 2017, then finished strong while playing on a torn ACL after Blough broke his ankle. His best game was in the Bowl win over Arizona and he was the starter last year before struggling in the opener. Blough relieved him, they split duties in game 2 vs. Eastern Michigan, then his knee acted up and he had an oblique injury the week before playing Missouri in game 3. Blough went out and broke the school single game passing and total offense record against the Tigers and held on to the job the rest of the year.
So far Sindelar has been great. He has an embarrassment of riches to throw to. Brycen Hopkins is an NFL caliber tight end. David Bell is a true freshman star in the making. Amad Anderson has been a solid redshirt freshman so far. Jackson Anthrop and Jared Sparks are the elder receiver that have also had moments. We haven’t even really gotten freshmen Mershawn Rice, Milton Wright, and TJ Sheffield involved yet. Sindelar has spread the ball around incredibly well and has had consecutive 400-yard passing games for the first time since some guy named Drew Brees was here.
MT: The Purdue defense allowed 34 points to Nevada but held Vandy to 24 - while still allowing almost 500 yards of offense. Which is more indicative of how good you expect them to be in 2019?
TM: I think Vanderbilt. Nevada was an interesting case. That game was mostly over until two punting mistakes handed them 10 points in the third quarter. An exhausted defense then gave up two TD drives and a late interception set up a long field goal for the win. I have been very pleased with true freshman George Karlaftis and the way he has caused quarterback pressure. He came in with a ton of hype as one of the biggest name recruits we have ever gotten and so far he has delivered. He led the nation against Nevada with 14 QB pressures in that game and has caused a ton of havoc.
Against Vanderbilt the defense was solid except for a missed tackle leading to a 75-yard TD and another drive where we had a big lead late. A lot of what Vandy got came late when Purdue was leading by double figures. What happened in Nevada was mostly a result of altitude, fatigue, and youth.
MT: There is some uncertainty over who will start behind center for the Boilermakers Saturday night, after it was revealed that quarterback Elijah Sindelar suffered what is being called a “slight concussion”. If Sindelar goes, what does he bring to the table as a passer, and if it’s Plummer, what do you expect from him?
TM: It is hard to say. Plummer has yet to take a snap in a game. The only other players who have even attempted a pass are Moore on a trick play, Sparks as a former QB on a trick play, and 3rd stringer Nick Sipe. Plummer has a lot of promise because he was Brohm’s first real hand-picked QB. He is a lot like Sindelar in that he is a tall, pocket passer, but there are a lot of unknowns. I’d like to say he will be very similar to Sindelar in terms of style because he is not known to be mobile, but there really is not a lot known when he hasn’t taken a meaningful snap in two years.
MT: I believe a strong group of Frog fans are planning on making the trek up for the game - what are some things visitors shouldn’t miss on and around campus, and do you have any food/drink spot recs pregame?
TM: Purdue is your typical large Big Ten campus. We have a Game Day Guide to West Lafayette we update yearly, and it will tell you all you need to know. We’re a mostly friendly bunch. Pay homage to Breesus and we will love you forever.
MT: Lastly, and slightly off-topic - college football fans were drawn into the story of Tyler Trent a season ago, a Purdue student and super fan who tragically lost his battle with cancer earlier this year. Can you speak a little on what Tyler means to the Purdue community and how people can donate to his organization?
TM: Tyler was a special guy. I am stunned daily at the attitude he had in facing cancer three times in the span of five years. To have that positive attitude in the face of adversity and losing your battle with cancer at age 20 is amazing. Last Saturday was what would have been his 21st birthday and the main student section gate was dedicated in his memory. Last year when we played Ohio State there was a lot of emotion and I thought we had a chance with him in the stadium for a huge night game, but to absolutely blow out Ohio State was unbelievable. One of my closest friends got married that afternoon in my home town about an hour east of Lafayette and I was in the wedding. I managed to be in the wedding and get over for the entire game and it is one of the most memorable nights in Purdue history. Purdue not only won, but completely embarrassed a team that rarely gets that embarrassed by anyone.
I really believe that night kept Tyler alive for another two months. He was reportedly close to passing that week, but was energized for that game. The energy of that game then pushed him for another few months. The good folks at Breaking T designed a shirt for that win and I agreed to sell it only under the condition that every penny we made go to the Purdue Center for Cancer Research. We raised more than $1,000 that was later matched as part of Tyler’s campaign. That our humble blog was able to do even that much was incredible.
He may be gone, but he has left such a lasting impact on Purdue. When the basketball team won the Big Ten and went to the Elite Eight in March it felt like he was still having an effect. He lived his story in an amazing way. I have done a lot wrong in this life and I continue to do a lot wrong. Personally, Tyler showed me how to live a life and serve a purpose with great humility. He is a great man who continues to have a huge effect even nine months after his passing.
Thank you to Travis for taking the time to speaking with us and share his knowledge!