By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Jeff Brohm used to be one of the rising stars among college football coaches.
He was considered an offensive genius, innovative, confident and willing to take chances.
He won big at Western Kentucky, and made an immediate impact at Purdue, finishing 7-6 in his first season in 2017, capped by a victory in the Foster Farms Bowl.
Seven wins might not seem a huge success, but it looks better considering Purdue had combined to finish just 9-39 during the four seasons before Brohm took over, including 1-11 in 2013.
It also looks better when you play an exciting style of offense, and that has been Purdue at times under Brohm.
He helped to make former receiver and return specialist Rondale Moore a star, and is now doing the same for current receiver David Bell.
Brohm likes to spread the field and use multiple receivers. His offense uses the pass to set up the run, and plays with tempo.
Brohm also uses trick plays, and if he senses a weakness on defense, he tries hard to exploit it.
Moore’s talent fit perfectly in Brohm’s offense and Purdue won enough games early on, including finishing 6-7 in 2018, to think that the program was moving in the right direction.
But then Purdue took a step backwards in 2019, finishing just 4-8. That was followed by a 2-4 record last season during the global pandemic, causing some of the glow to fade in Brohm’s case.
He no longer is mentioned as a rising star in the business, and Purdue with a 3-2 record this season, is struggling to stay in the upper half of the Big Ten.
Brohm’s best accomplishment so far at Purdue might be his success against Iowa, which his team will face on Saturday at Kinnick Stadium.
Brohm has a 3-1 record against Iowa, even though it could be argued that Iowa had a better team on paper heading into each of those games.
“I think every game’s been a different story, but the common denominator is they play hard and they play well,” Kirk Ferentz said of Purdue. “As I alluded, the first thing you think about and if you follow Jeff’s career is that they have always been really good offensively, so it starts there. They challenge you in a lot of different ways, they make you defend a lot of different things. They have gadgets and trick plays on special teams and offense so they make it a tough preparation. And they have good players and they have had good players, they have hurt us with deep balls.
“And it sounds pretty basic, but a lot of people won’t try it that way and they have done a good job of that. So, you really have to defend everything and that keeps pressure on you defensively and so we got a lot of respect for them and for obvious reasons, I’m well aware of that, believe me.”
Purdue enters Saturday’s game ranked sixth in the Big Ten in total offense, averaging 414.8 yards per game
Compared to Iowa’s average of 317.5 yards per game, which is last in the Big Ten, Purdue’s offensive productivity looks respectable.
The Boilermakers under first-year coordinator Brad Lambert also have performed well on defense where they are ranked third in the Big Ten in total defense (299.6) and one spot behind Iowa’s 274.0 per-game average.
Combine those numbers with Brohm’s knack for beating Iowa and you realize that anything is possible.
Iowa will be without starting cornerback Riley Moss due to an injury. Moss leads the Big Ten with four interceptions.
He will be replaced by Terry Roberts, who has played mostly on special teams.
So, don’t be surprised if Brohn tries to test Roberts early and often.
Purdue’s biggest problem this season has been its running game, which is last in the Big Ten, averaging just 89.4 yards per game.
If Purdue becomes one-dimensional against Iowa, that could play right into Phil Parker’s hands with Iowa leading the nation with 16 interceptions.
Purdue has scored 13 points in each of its last three games against Notre Dame, Illinois and Minnesota, with Illinois its only victory by a 13-9 margin.
So, it’s fair to say the offense is sputtering.
However, Brohm will have had two weeks to prepare for Iowa with Purdue coming off a bye week.
Brohm is good at exploiting individual matchups and he has the player to do it in junior receiver David Bell, who leads the Big Ten with an average of 109.7 receiving yards per game.
Bell has feasted on Iowa, including last season when he had 13 catches for 121 yards and three touchdowns during a 24-20 victory in the season opener.
Bell also had 13 catches for 197 yards in the 2019 game against Iowa.
So that’s 26 catches receptions over two games for 318 yards and three touchdowns.
“I don’t want to depress myself and look at how many catches he’s had in two years, but it’s significant and the guy we played last week is an outstanding player, and then the week before, it’s just, I don’t know where all these players are coming from, and we try to get them, we weren’t successful, but at least we knew he was a good player,” Ferentz said. “So, it’s hard, it’s a challenge, but the real challenge is that they have other guys too, their other receivers are good, they have good size and so you can’t just put two guys on one and then (someone else) is going to have a field day. So, it’s, that’s where it gets hard and tricky.”
And while Purdue might have an advantage over Iowa on offense, Iowa has the upper hand on defense, and on special teams by a wide margin.
Iowa will also have home-field advantage on Saturday, powered by a sellout crowd, and it’ll be homecoming.
And as shown during Iowa’s 23-20 victory over Penn State last Saturday, Kinnick Stadium is arguably the Big Ten’s most hostile environment for a visiting team with fans seated so close to the field.
The Iowa players also will have incentive to not only stay in the playoff hunt with a victory, but to flip the script against Purdue.
“I’m very aware of it,” Iowa quarterback Spencer Petras said of Purdue’s recent success in the series. “It doesn’t matter what our record is, or what our ranking is, these guys have gotten three out of the last four years and it’s out job to go out there and really compete and play our best on Saturday.”
Part of the challenge for Iowa has been to move on from the dramatic win over Penn State, because if Iowa comes out flat against Purdue, Brohm could exploit that.
“The world don’t care, we’re moving on,” Petras said. “We have to. If we don’t, then we’re going to pay the price because we’re playing a good football team this Saturday. All focus is onward.”
Prediction: Iowa 27, Purdue 16:
Iowa vs. Purdue
When: Saturday, 2:30 p.m.
Where: Kinnick Stadium (69,250)
Radio: Iowa Radio Network
Series: Iowa trails 39-43-3