BLOOMINGTON – The stage is set for Indiana to take the Old Oaken Bucket back when it meets rival Purdue on Saturday at Ross-Ade Stadium (noon, ESPN2).
The Boilermakers (4-7, 3-5 Big Ten) were knocked out of securing a bowl berth last week with a 45-24 loss at Wisconsin. Decimated by injuries, Purdue has struggled all season on the line of scrimmage to establish and stop the run.
Still, IU could be in trouble if its secondary doesn’t answer the bell after a disappointing performance last week against No. 10 Michigan.
“There’s no question they’ve got something to prove this week,” IU coach Tom Allen said.
Indiana’s defensive backs were torched for 366 yards and five touchdowns by quarterback Shea Patterson in a 39-14 loss to the Wolverines last Saturday. There were some busted coverages that allowed Michigan wide receivers to spring free, plus an inability to win 50-50 matchups with receivers with balls in the air. IU recorded just one pass breakup.
Allen said IU’s secondary has responded the right way this week. On Wednesday, Allen said defensive backs stayed late after practice, working on technique
“They’re locked in,” Allen said, “I just think they’ve got to respond by how they play. Before that, it’s how they prepare.”
Despite injuries to starting quarterback Elijah Sindelar and backup Jack Plummer, Purdue still ranks second in the Big Ten in pass offense, averaging 301 yards per game. Third-string redshirt sophomore Aidan O’Connell has thrown for 693 yards and five touchdowns in five games and two starts.
“They are executing still at a very high level at that position,” Indiana defensive coordinator Kane Wommack said. “Really impressed with Aidan O’Connell to come in and do the things they’ve asked him to do at that position, to really do it at a pretty high level, and I think he’s completed 65% of his passes right now. To come in, in the mid-point of the season is a credit to him and his offensive staff.”
IU (7-4, 4-4) made one significant change on its secondary depth chart this week, moving sophomore Reese Taylor to a starter at cornerback opposite freshman Tiawan Mullen. Taylor, a former Mr. Football option quarterback at Ben Davis, had his development slowed earlier this season due to a hand injury but has come on of late.
“Reese has gotten better and better in his one-on-one coverage,” Wommack said. “I think he does a great job of getting his hands on people. Certainly his confidence, a lot of times it’s just the confidence that you carry just to step in there and know that you gotta win this one-on-one.”
Another matchup to watch is Mullen in one-on-one coverage with Purdue freshman receiver David Bell, who has emerged as one of the top receivers in the conference. Bell has 77 catches for 899 yards and six TDs and has posted five 100-yard receiving games. Last week, Bell earned Big Ten freshman of the week honors with 12 catches for 108 yards and one TD against Wisconsin.
“It will be a good challenge for Tiawan,” Wommack said. “Tiawan is a physical player. I think he’ll want to try to get hands on them, and then the things Tiawan has is you are not going to create separation, and he’s quick. He’s got the short-area quickness and ability to change direction and stay on them. We’ve got to force them to throw the ball into some tight windows some and make them convert it into some tight windows.
“I’m excited to watch that matchup. We’ve got to do some great things in mixing those coverage so we just don’t make it a one-on-one matchup all game long.”
With Bell demanding attention inside, Purdue could also turn to senior tight end Brycen Hopkins. Hopkins, a Mackey Award semifinalist, has 53 catches for 688 yards and five TDs.
“I’m pretty sure we’ll have something for him,” IU senior safety Khalil Bryant said. “We don’t want him to get going too much. So we want to limit all their big plays, limit their passing and go win the game.”
The wild card is whether Purdue speedy sophomore receiver Rondale Moore will return from a leg injury. Boilers coach Jeff Brohm hasn’t ruled it out, though Moore hasn’t played since suffering the injury Sept. 28 against Minnesota.
“I’m always assuming Rondale Moore is going to play,” Wommack said. “Obviously, he’s a very special player. … If he is out there, we will look forward to the matchup.”
Bryant said the Bucket game is personal for him and IU’s other 15 seniors. Purdue has ended Indiana’s season short of bowl eligibility in each of the last two seasons. A win Saturday would give Indiana its first eight-win season since 1993.
“They ended our season twice,” Bryant said. “It was heart-wrenching. It was heartbreaking after the game to see the older guys teary-eyed after the game knowing that they won’t play again. Even though we have a bowl bid already, I just want revenge.”