By CLIFF BRUNT
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — That’s more like it, Purdue.
After fiddling around with the passing game for a while, the Boilermakers dropped the hammer on Eastern Michigan, dominating the Eagles on the ground in a 54-16 win on Saturday afternoon.
The Boilermakers passed on their first six plays against a defense that ranked 118th out of 120 Football Bowl Subdivision teams in run defense. After that, Purdue pounded the Eagles for 392 yards rushing on 42 attempts.
It wasn’t necessarily done the way one might have expected. Many of the runs were to the outside, where Purdue’s players simply outran Eastern Michigan’s defenders.
Nor did the production come from expected players. Akeem Hunt ran for 106 yards, including a 56-yard touchdown run in the third quarter. Brandon Cottom broke loose for an 87-yard touchdown run in the second quarter, the fourth-longest run in Purdue history. He finished with 95 yards on two carries.
Akeem Shavers, the starter, ran 10 times for 56 yards. Freshman Danny Anthrop ran five times for 47 yards and a score. Raheem Mostert and Caleb TerBush scored rushing touchdowns. It was the kind of performance not yet seen from a Purdue team that entered the game averaging just 132.5 yards per game and 3.8 yards per carry.
“We have pretty good speed all across the board,” Purdue quarterback Caleb TerBush said. “Guys can fly around and when we put the ball in their hands they have a chance to go all the way. It’s just a confidence thing when the pop off a big run.”
Purdue wasn’t entirely dominant up front — many of the big rushing plays were the result of exceptional efforts by the ballcarriers, and some of them wouldn’t have gone nearly as far against a Big Ten opponent.
Purdue passed early to play the percentages.
“We were trying to take what they were going to give us,” coach Danny Hope said. “Some of the run plays that we had engineered for this particular opponent this weekend, their front was a little bit different so it opened up some opportunities in the passing game and we weren’t quite as sharp pitching and catching early.”
To win the Big Ten, the Boilermakers are going to have to take what they want sometimes. Hope yielded, played to the team’s strengths and let his speedsters run. (Here’s the preview story in which I stated the Boilermakers needed to pound the ball against EMU).
It was quite a display, actually. Eastern Michigan coach Ron English made multiple postgame references to Purdue’s offensive speed and big plays. When is the last time you heard that said about Purdue? And about the running game?
It’s good to see because the passing game was a bit off. TerBush completed 16 of 24 passes for 158 yards and two touchdowns, but he also missed some balls, held the ball too long at times and threw an interception that Pudge Cotton returned for a touchdown in the second quarter.
Hope, who previously had been almost 100 percent positive about TerBush this season, changed his tune a bit on Saturday.
“I didn’t think he played all that well,” Hope said. “He was very ill yesterday. I was glad that he sucked it up and went out there and gave us a good effort.”
At least TerBush knows the running game might be good enough to give him a chance to improve. Purdue is simply not good enough to impose its will in the passing game. The offensive line does not give him the time to consistently make the reads Hope praises him for being able to make in practice. The only way he’s going to get that kind of time, it appears, is if defenses have to adjust out of fear of the running game. TerBush might be able to make plays down the field later in the season if Purdue’s ground game continues to develop.
Backup quarterback Rob Henry showed signs of being able to be productive as he nears 100 percent health after tearing his ACL last year. He had two carries for 17 yards and hit 2 of 6 passes for 26 yards. As he improves, he could an important part of the running game and offer more of a playmaking threat at quarterback.
“I think he did pretty good,” Hope said. “He hasn’t had very many reps. It’s similar to Robert Marve a year ago, but Henry has been a No. 3 and that reduces the amount of reps he has. I think for the amount of reps he’s had, I think he did pretty good. I don’t think he’s where he can be, but I think this is a big step for him.”
Yes, the rushing performance came against an overmatched team that couldn’t stop Ball State or Illinois State. Yes, the passing game needs work. And undoubtedly, the offensive line must become more cohesive. But the Boilermakers have a bye week, then a home game against Marshall before welcoming Michigan and Wisconsin. That should offer enough time to clean up the remaining issues and figure out a way to manufacture a more effective passing game.
For this team, establishing the run allows that to be a possibility.
All in all, this game wasn’t about the score, it was about attitude. And the Boilermakers had plenty of it on Saturday.