Welcome to another edition of Behind Enemy Lines, where I interview someone each week who covers Michigan's upcoming opponent. This week I had the privilege of interviewing Travis Miller, the site manager for HammerAndRails.com - SB Nation’s Purdue community.
So sit back, relax and enjoy your weekly edition of Behind Enemy Lines.
Josh LaFond: With 3 games behind us — and with Purdue’s surprise success — how do you see the Boilermakers’ season unfolding?
Travis Miller: I think a bowl game is a definite goal. That was probably a stretch at any point over the summer, but given the slow starts of Nebraska and Northwestern, the perpetual putridity of Illinois and Rutgers, and the desire to get the Old Oaken Bucket back to West Lafayette, I don’t think a bowl game is a huge stretch anymore. People joke about the Detroit bowl, but that would be a huge step forward from the past few seasons. As Purdue fans we’re elated just being semi-relevant again.
Josh: What are the Boilermakers biggest strengths and weaknesses?
Travis: This is a much, much more disciplined team than we have seen the past few years. Purdue has committed only 13 penalties so far and a couple of those were some very questionable calls against Louisville that ended up leading to a controversial touchdown for the Cards. I think that discipline has been the biggest thing that has helped this team. It goes a long way in making Purdue just look like a better, real football team. Everyone is running better routes, tackling better and making fewer mistakes. The coaching staff is getting infinitely better results from many of the same players that struggled last season.
As far as weakness goes, this is still not a team with a lot of raw talent. If we get hit with some injuries in key spots depth could be an issue. It was encouraging, however, that several backups got extensive playing time against Missouri and still performed well.
Josh: Who are Purdue’s difference makers on offense & defense that might have a big impact on the game?
Travis: Offensively I think you have to look at Tario Fuller, who has had a breakout game each of the last two weeks. It was a big surprise to me that he won the top running back job, but he did it because he does all the things asked of him. We have more talented backs. We have faster backs. Fuller is the guy that does all the little things right and stands out as a result.
Defensively I have to go with the three linebackers of Markus Bailey, T.J. McCollum and Ja’Whaun Bentley. They are, by far, the best three linebackers Purdue has had in over a decade. They have been aggressive, have made plays and were instrumental last week in forcing the early three and outs that got Missouri so far behind.
Josh: What's a tradition or fun fact about Purdue athletics that most outside of West Lafayette aren't aware of?
Travis: We’re a surprisingly good golf and diving school. David Boudia won six diving NCAA championships and has multiple Olympic medals, including a gold in London. Steele Johnson already has four NCAA championships and a bronze medal from Rio he won with Boudia in the men’s 10-meter synchro.
As far as golf goes, in 2010 the women’s golf team became the first (and so far only) “northern” school to win an NCAA championship. It also has two runner-up finishes and an NCAA individual champion all within the last 10 years.
Josh: How do you see the Boilermakers program under Coach Jeff Brohm developing over the next few years?
Travis: Well, three games in it has far exceeded expectations. We felt Brohm would be good, but that this year the talent would hold him back until he could get a recruiting class or two of his own in there. The fact that he has already done so much with what little Hazell left him has risen expectations once he gets some better classes in. He is already making headway with some 4-star recruits, too, as Rondale Moore from Louisville is rumored to soon be a flip from Texas’ class. He also has a solid inroad on local 2019 prospect George Karlaftis. Considering that Hazell didn’t even bother to offer many of the top players in Indiana (including 4-star OT Coy Cronk who is now at Indiana when Cronk was playing across town at Lafayette Central Catholic and Hazell desperately needed a tackle) out-recruiting him won’t be difficult.
Josh: Michigan has had a lot of recent recruiting success in Indiana as well with guys like former 4-star quarterback Brandon Peters and 4-star running back Chris Evans. I imagine it's pretty vital to recruit that state well especially due to the amount of talent they've been pumping out as of late.
As a follow up to my last question…Do you think the Boilermakers can have sustained success in the Big Ten West?
Travis: I certainly hope so. I was a student at Purdue in the heart of the Brees era. From 1997-2004 Purdue was regularly a top 25 team, won a Big Ten title and came really close to a few more. Winning can be done there, and now that we have an athletic director who is actually committed to football as opposed to Morgan Burke, who let the football program rot under his watch, I think Purdue can at least be a consistent bowl team. We went to 10 bowls in 11 years under Joe Tiller. If there is commitment there can be success.
Josh: I also think that under Jeff Brohm that Purdue can be perennial contenders in the Big Ten West with 7-9 wins a year.
What needs to happen for Purdue to win?
Travis: I am very interested to see Purdue’s defense against Michigan’s offense. I know Michigan has struggled to finish drives and has kicked a lot of field goals. Purdue’s defense is coming off of its best performance in years by shutting down a Missouri team that looked like it was going to put up 500 yards and 30 points with ease. It will be interesting to see if Purdue can get an early score or two and a handful of stops to put Michigan behind early. The best case scenario is a confident Purdue team leading something like 14-3 in the second quarter with the ball. I know the Michigan defense is excellent, but I also know Florida, Cincinnati, and Air Force don’t have quite the potency we have demonstrated so far.
Josh: Michigan’s defense has carried them to 3-0, so I'm also interested to see how this defense performs against a top notch offense.
Since you're a Purdue alum, what's your favorite Boilermakers memory?
Travis: I got to go to the Rose Bowl as a student following the 2000 season. I was in the stands for the game-winning Travis Dorsch field goal against Michigan that year and the Brees-to-Morales pass to beat Ohio State. That was such a magical season. Yeah, we were a pretty weak Big Ten rep in the Rose Bowl at 8-3. We had dumb losses to Penn State, Michigan State and Notre Dame that year. We’re Purdue, though. That is our only Rose Bowl in the last half century. It will always be special to me, especially since I was a student then.
Josh: Is Drew Brees the greatest Boilermaker ever?
Travis: Without question. I do have a soft spot for Mike Alstott because he tried to single-handily drag Purdue to a bowl game in 1994, but Breesus was Brees.
Josh: Breesus is now my favorite nickname for any athlete, ever.
Bigger rivalry game… Purdue vs Indiana, or Purdue vs Illinois?
Travis: Indiana. Right now Indiana has its first four-game winning streak over Purdue since 1944-47. It has never won five in a row. Ever. With Illinois it is nice because of late they have somehow been worse than us, but with Indiana it is just frustrating to hear them talk about how great the last few seasons were and what an accomplishment four straight Buckets is. Congratulations. You only needed our worst coach ever to win four in a row.
Josh: Well Michigan fans certainly know about Purdue’s pain with a certain rival (*cough* *cough* Ohio State).
Let’s wrap it up with one last question, I'll keep it simple. What is your score and game prediction for the game this Saturday?
Travis: Michigan is good. That defense is the best we have seen so far, but this is an amped Purdue team right now playing with a lot of confidence. It took Lamar Jackson doing Lamar Jackson things for the entire fourth quarter and a few questionable calls for Louisville to survive as a four TD favorite. I think we’ll see a close game with Michigan winning something like 28-24.
I'd like to give my sincere thanks to Travis Miller of SB Nation’s Hammer and Rails. With Purdue on this hot steak, head on over to HammerAndRails.com to find out more on Michigan’s surprising big-time matchup with the Boilermakers on Saturday.