WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Purdue was down several of its key contributors heading into its Big Ten opener against Illinois on Saturday at Ross-Ade Stadium. And when things weren’t clicking on offense, the team turned to fifth-year senior quarterback Aidan O’Connell for the second week in a row.
Through three quarters of play, both the Boilermakers and the Fighting Illini could only trade field goals. But O’Connell marched Purdue on a 10-play, 94-yard drive that ended in the game-winning touchdown, fueling a 13-9 victory.
“We put in Aidan O’Connell, who is our most accurate passer, when we felt like it might be a one-dimensional game and we’re going to have to throw the ball,” Purdue coach Jeff Brohm said after the game.
Purdue scored field goals on its opening two drives, picking up 103 yards on a combined 21 plays. The team didn’t orchestrate a drive of more than 12 yards for the rest of the first half and didn’t muster another score until the fourth quarter.
At halftime, the Boilermakers only managed a 6-3 lead and punted on four straight drives in the first two quarters. Purdue’s defense allowed Illinois to gain just 58 total yards of offense in that same span.
“We just tried to be as aggressive as we can,” junior defensive tackle Lawrence Johnson said. “We knew they're a run-heavy team, they've got a great scheme. Their zone scheme is great, we knew that O-line is very experienced, very good. We just knew we had to get after it. I'm so proud of my guys for stepping up when we had guys fall.”
The Boilermakers, who were already down starting running back Zander Horvath due to an injury earlier in the season, played against the Fighting Illini without junior King Doerue. Brohm said he is dealing with a medical condition and couldn’t elaborate any further.
In Doerue’s place, redshirt freshman Dylan Downing and true freshman Ja’Quez Cross combined for just 51 yards on 17 carries.
In the passing game, junior wide receiver David Bell was unable to suit up due to a concussion. Without the star wide receiver, starting quarterback Jack Plummer completed 12 of his 21 passes for 95 yards before being benched in favor of O’Connell.
With Plummer, Purdue lacked explosiveness. But as soon as O’Connell stepped onto the field, the team was able to hit on several intermediate routes. Junior wide receiver Milton Wright, who has taken the back seat to stars like Bell and former Boilermaker Rondale Moore, led the team with seven catches and 88 yards.
However, it was redshirt freshman Abdur-Rahmaan Yaseen who provided the biggest spark for Purdue. With his first game of extended playing time, the young receiver caught three passes for 77 yards, including a 43-yard bomb on O’Connell’s second throw of the game.
“We saw some new receivers emerge,” Brohm said. “I'm very proud of those guys because they practiced for a long time and then hadn't had their number called a whole lot. They had to step up in a tough defensive battle and figure out a way to catch the ball.”
As well as O’Connell and some of the receivers played, two costly turnovers nearly gave Illinois a road victory on a silver platter. The backup quarterback threw two interceptions, but the Fighting Illini could only muster six points, resulting in a three-point lead early in the fourth quarter.
But when the Boilermakers needed it most, O’Connell completed six of his final eight passes, ending in a 14-yard touchdown to sophomore wide receiver TJ Sheffield. Purdue took a 13-9 lead with less than six minutes left to play.
Once again, the team’s defense took care of business and kept Illinois out of the endzone to secure the win. It was nowhere near the performance the Boilermakers wanted on offense, but they fought until the very end.
“When you only score 13 points, it’s frustrating,” O’Connell said. “When you turn the ball over like I did twice, it’s frustrating. You feel like ‘not again, not again.’ But kudos to our coaches first and then to our players for hanging in there, playing tough.”
Purdue moves to 3-1 (1-0 in the Big Ten) on the season and will host Minnesota next week.
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PURDUE-ILLINOIS LIVE BLOG: The Purdue Boilermakers were back at home Saturday to open Big Ten play against the Illinois Fighting Illini at Ross-Ade Stadium. CLICK HERE