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Tradition Crystal Ball: Predicting every Purdue football game in 2023

Aug 28, 2023

Editor’s note: Saturday Tradition’s annual Crystal Ball series continues with Purdue. We’ll conclude our trek through the B1G West later today with Wisconsin, after covering every East team last week.

Previously in the West: Illinois | Iowa | Minnesota | Nebraska | Northwestern

The East: Indiana | Maryland | Michigan | Michigan State | Ohio State | Penn State| Rutgers

There was a sense of inevitability that Jeff Brohm would return home to Louisville whenever the timing was right. And the timing was never going to be better than it was last season.

Mediocre Scott Satterfield skedaddled to Cincinnati a couple years (or less) before the posse would have forced him out of Louisville. Brohm, facing the prospect of a rebuilding season after leading Purdue to its first-ever Big Ten championship game, jumped ship ahead of that headache. (Jumped train?)

The Boilermakers will make their fresh start with a fresh face. And few faces are fresher than that of 37-year-old head coach Ryan Walters, who may be rocking facial hair simply to prove he’s old enough to shave. Walters is the 4th-youngest head coach in the FBS ranks this season.

Walters has rocketed up the ranks since taking over as Missouri’s defensive coordinator in 2018 and then moving to the same role at Illinois in 2021.

Last year’s Illini were among the nation’s leaders in a multitude of defensive categories — No. 1 in interceptions and scoring defense. No. 2 in takeaways and yards per passing attempt, No. 3 in total defense.

It was such an impressive jolt for a previously listless program that Purdue was inspired to do the unthinkable: hire a defensive coordinator as head coach. Walters is Purdue’s first head coach hired from a defensive background since Leon Burtnett in 1982. He’s also the first Purdue hire without prior head coaching experience since Burtnett.

Burtnett had but 1 winning season in 5 years, so perhaps it’s unsurprising that the Boilers have been a bit gun shy about replicating those elements in the decades since.

But the hire of Walters mimics Notre Dame’s pick of Marcus Freeman a year ago. Like the Irish, the Boilers are banking on the potential of a star up-and-comer. And if it works in South Bend, it can work in West Lafayette, right?

We shall see. Though perhaps not in Year 1. Walters is going to need every bit of his youthful energy.

If you didn’t know any better, you’d think Purdue AD Mike Bobinski wanted to fire the guy he just hired. Purdue’s schedule is like placing a freshman into a 500-level course. Which probably happens from time-to-time at Purdue, but that’s not the point.

The point is this schedule is a headache on top of a nightmare.

There are no FCS freebies. There aren’t any breaks at all.

Purdue plays 11 games against Power 5 opponents. And the season opener is against Fresno State, which is perpetually among the top Group of 5 programs in the country. Had the Pac-12 figured out a way to cobble its pieces back together after Colorado left, it’s reasonable to think the Bulldogs would have been elevated to that level in the next couple years.

There’s a road trip to Virginia Tech. Syracuse comes to West Lafayette to complete a home-and-home series. And unlike Iowa, Illinois or Wisconsin, Purdue faces both Michigan and Ohio State in East crossover games.

Which means Purdue plays a tougher schedule than the title-contending Wolverines, who have it so easy in September that they suspended Jim Harbaugh for 3 games because they can.

This hardly seems fair. But it’s the road Purdue must trek. Welcome to big-time college football, Mr. Walters.

Dating to the days of Bob Griese, Purdue has by and large been the gold standard of Big Ten quarterbacking. Even though the Boilermakers might not have the league’s best quarterback in a given year, they at least tend to have someone who can move the ball downfield better than the vast majority of his peers.

That was embodied by second team all-B1G quarterback Aidan O’Connell the past few years.

The former walk-on led the Big Ten in passing yardage last year while leading Purdue to the West title with a gritty win at Indiana the week after his brother’s tragic death. Now O’Connell is making his push up the depth charts in Las Vegas, where he may enter the season as the Raiders’ backup QB.

When Walters was hired, it was fair to wonder if Purdue’s quarterback tradition was in peril. But he quickly dumped cold water on that concern.

Walters’ first major move was picking up Texas transfer Hudson Card, who was forced from Austin by the arrival of freshman Arch Manning. Card, who backed up Quinn Ewers last year and Casey Thompson in 2021, is now at 1 of the many programs for which he’d be the starting QB.

Offensive coordinator Graham Harrell, a Mike Leach disciple who worked at West Virginia in 2022 and USC from 2019-21, will look to keep Purdue’s offense flying high.

Purdue has had plenty of defensive stars over the years. Rod Woodson may well stay on every all-time NFL team until the end of time. And there have been many more stars in the decades since, up to players of more recent vintage like George Karlaftis.

But a truly great Purdue defensive unit? Walters’ Illinois defense allowed the fewest points in the Big Ten last season. A Boilermakers defense hasn’t done that since 1959.

Building such a defense is more viable as a long-term aspiration. But it will be interesting to see if Walters can provide a short-term jolt to a defense that ranked 9th in the B1G in points allowed and 12th in yards per play.

It’ll take some work. The last time we saw Purdue’s defense, it was giving up 63 points to LSU in the Citrus Bowl. Purdue’s offensive woes were understandable with its 3 biggest stars sitting out the game, but the defensive struggles were concerning.

Walters hit the transfer portal to help out in that regard, adding defensive ends Jeffrey M’ba (Auburn) and Malik Langham (Vanderbilt) as well as cornerback Salim Turner-Muhammad (Stanford). The Boilers also have a solid pair of veteran safeties already in place in Cam Allen and Sanoussi Kane.

The offense won’t be as explosive as last year’s, which means the defense must improve for the Boilers to go bowling. Walters should give them a chance to do so.

If Jake Haener was still at Fresno State, the Bulldogs would win this game. And this would have been a heck of a duel between Haener and O’Connell last season. But this is 2023. And we’re giving the uncertain Boilers the edge over the uncertain Bulldogs.

Expect the Hokies to be much improved in their second year under former Penn State defensive coordinator Brent Pry. And Lane Stadium is still an intimidating venue even if the on-field product has been shoddy as of late. Tough place to play your first road game.

It remains utterly unbelievable that Purdue lost this game a year ago, but that’s what 138 penalty yards will get you. Expect a more disciplined group of Boilers to reverse the outcome. This will be Hudson Card’s first big-time performance.

Kyle Orton is the last Purdue quarterback to beat the Badgers. Until his number is retired at halftime of a game against Wisconsin, I refuse to believe it’s mathematically possible for the Boilers to beat Wisconsin.

Put more orange-and-blue teams on the schedule. The Illini will contend for the West title this year, but Walters knows the team like the back of his hand. And it will be the upper hand in his first matchup against his old boss, Bret Bielema.

The Boilers always seemed to have the upper hand on the Hawkeyes with David Bell in the lineup. There is no David Bell in this lineup. The offense will sputter.

The Crystal Ball called this game in favor of the Buckeyes last week. Here, by executive decision, I am overriding the Ball. New data has made this decision necessary.

That data: Ohio State is ranked No. 3 in the preseason AP Top 25. And as long as the Bucks beat Notre Dame in Week 4, they’ll still be ranked in the top 3 when they come to West Lafayette.

Top-3 teams are 0-3 in their last 3 trips to Ross-Ade. And this game is smack-dab in the perfect spot: right between challenging games against Maryland and Penn State.

I don’t necessarily know how the Boilers are going to do this. Only that they will.

The Cornhuskers probably should have won last year’s shootout. With the scene shifting to Lincoln, Nebraska will get it right this time.

Can lightning strike twice for the Spoilermakers? No. Not even close. Michigan’s roster is nearly intact from last year’s championship game blowout. It’ll be worse than that 43-22 decision in Indianapolis.

PJ Fleck’s team is an annoying follow-up to a bruising game against Michigan. Purdue’s first home game since upsetting the Buckeyes ends up a dud.

When you need to win out in order to become bowl eligible, this is exactly who you want to see on the schedule.

When you need to win out in order become bowl eligible, this is exactly who you want to see on the schedule.

But in the words of former Indiana coach Lee Corso, not so fast, my friend. It is the Hoosiers who play spoiler for the Boilermakers in Walters’ first taste of the Old Oaken Bucket game thanks to do-it-all sparkplug Jaylin Lucas.

With the exception of Northwestern interim coach David Braun, Ryan Walters has the toughest first-year assignment of any rookie Big Ten coach — despite taking over a team that won its division a year ago.

Aidan O’Connell, Charlie Jones and Payne Durham were true stars. Purdue does not have playmakers of that caliber this season. If Walters hadn’t landed Card in the transfer portal, the outlook for this season would be incredibly grim. And could revert to that status if Card gets injured.

This team’s strength may end up being, of all things, the running game. From center to tackle, Purdue has the entire left side of the offensive line returning in front of former walk-on Devin Mockobee. There is a very real hope that Mockobee will become Purdue’s first 1,000-yard rusher since Kory Sheets in 2008.

With a more favorable schedule, Purdue would likely reach a bowl this year. And that could still happen, but it certainly shouldn’t be expected.

The real excitement in West Lafayette this year should be for basketball season. But Walters will have succeeded in his first season if he fields an entertaining team in the months leading up to tipoff.

Editor’s note: Saturday Tradition’s annual Crystal Ball series continues with Purdue. We’ll conclude our trek through the B1G West later today with Wisconsin, after covering every East team last week.Previously in the West: The East: