Ohio State football: Purdue passing game to be major challenge

Purdue quarterback Aidan O'Connell (16) throws against Michigan State during the first half of an NCAA college football game in West Lafayette, Ind., Saturday, Nov. 6, 2021. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)
Caption
Purdue quarterback Aidan O'Connell (16) throws against Michigan State during the first half of an NCAA college football game in West Lafayette, Ind., Saturday, Nov. 6, 2021. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

Credit: Michael Conroy

Credit: Michael Conroy

COLUMBUS — Ohio State’s pass defense ranks 95th in the country in terms of yards allowed per game (247.2).

The Buckeyes are 35th in pass efficiency defense, but Pro Football Focus has graded the secondary as the 76th best in the country so far this season.

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How good the Buckeyes really are — or are not — is anyone’s guess at this point, but this much is certain: They are about to find out.

So is Purdue.

The Boilermakers, owing both to their revival under Joe Tiller at the turn of the century and current head coach Jeff Brohm, have long been known as a pass-happy bunch.

That is true again this year and rarely more than last week when Aidan O’Connell threw for 536 yards and three touchdowns in a 40-29 upset of then-No. 3 Michigan State.

“I think Aidan is really playing at a high level right now,” Brohm told reporters in West Lafayette this week. “He’s in a rhythm. He’s always done a great job with playing with poise and composure and not letting anything rattle him — and that’s always been a strength of his since we started playing him — but I think he’s just seeing things better.”

O’Connell’s top target is David Bell, a 6-foot-2, 200-pound junior who leads the Big Ten and is fourth in the country with 125.4 yards receiving per game.

No one else on the Purdue team has more than 40 catches, but four have 26 or more — Payne Durham, Milton Wright, Jackson Anthrop and TJ Sheffield.

Durham, a junior tight end, barely played last week because of injury, but Brohm said the Boilers hope to get more from him this Saturday.

Anthrop has also lined up in the backfield at times as the team tries to piece together a running game with top back Zander Horvath out earlier in the season with an injury and still not 100 percent.

“Zander has gotten back as fast as he can,” Brohm said. “We’ve been talking to the doctors even when he was able to come back, they said he wouldn’t be exactly what he was. It would take a while. That’s been the case a little bit. I think he can play better. But he’s a valuable piece to our offense, and I think just the more work he gets, the more confident he’ll get not only running the football but in overcoming his injury. I think he can really help us.”

After a strong 2019, the Ohio State secondary was mostly helpless to stop teams from moving the ball through the air last year.

This season, the Buckeyes gave up over 400 yards passing to Tulsa in week three when they began transitioning to playing more zone coverage in the secondary. That was followed by four solid-or-better games in a row before giving up 361 yards passing to Penn State two weeks ago.

“They have a very good passing offense,” Ohio State head coach Ryan Day said of Purdue. “The quarterback is excellent. Coach Brohm does a really good job. Bell is a really talented receiver, but they have other guys who are also very good. He attacks you in different ways.

“They can also run the ball as well. They will come here and be creative about schematics and different things they can do. It will be a really important week of work that we’re prepared. Our guys have been playing at a high level, but this is a new challenge. We really have not gone against a style of offense like this.”

True freshman Denzel Burke has been Ohio State’s top cornerback this season. He and junior Cam Brown have both allowed less than 50 percent of the passes thrown their way to be caught while senior Sevyn Banks has been less effective (63.6 percent on 11 targets).

The “slot corner” or nickel back spot bears watching this week as Ohio State has used three different players there during the course of the season — senior Marcus Williamson, sophomore Lathan Ransom and redshirt freshman Cameron Martinez — with varying success.

Williamson has been coming on lately while Ransom gave up a long touchdown pass last season.

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Of course, stopping the pass is not all about coverage.

Rushing the passer is also part of it — sometimes the bigger part.

A quarterback can’t complete a pass from his back, and Ohio State has been getting better and better at putting them there over the past six games.

Ohio State is eighth in the country in PFF’s pass rush grades with ends Zach Harrison and Tyreke Smith leading the charge after putting early-season injuries behind them.

The Buckeyes lead the nation with 3.78 sacks per game while Purdue is 97th nationally with 2.78 sacks allowed per game.

SATURDAY’S GAME

Purdue at Ohio State, 3:30 p.m., ABC, 1410

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