WEST LAFAYETTE – Coming out of the bye week, Purdue’s top defensive tackle became a defensive end, its stud defensive end transformed into a linebacker, and its shutdown cornerback began shifting in and out of a nickelback role.
This isn’t something a football team does often. In fact, it’s almost unprecedented. But this is something the Boilermakers had to do.
Purdue’s defense ranks 116th in points allowed per game (37.8), 82nd in yards per game (417.2), and is 97th in rush defense (194.5). Something had to change. So the defense shifted to a three-man front, utilizing its top players in different ways.
“It’s a player-friendly defense with different personnel and different players,” said junior safety Taylor Richards. “We get a lot of our athletes out there to play football instead of thinking all the time.”
Up front, Ryan Isaac—an offensive lineman at the beginning of camp—moves to defensive tackle, sliding Bruce Gaston to the end. The move makes Gaston more efficient, keeping him from double teams. Gaston takes the spot of Ryan Russell, a 6-foot-5, 275-pounder playing the hybrid lineman-linebacker ‘Jack’ role.
To bolster the secondary, senior cornerback Ricardo Allen is playing on the outside and the inside.
“They just need me to make plays and be disruptive—just do everything I can to make plays and help us win,” said Allen.
For Allen, a four-year starter with NFL potential, the move away from his usual spot as the top cornerback isn’t something he is shying away from.
“If it helps the team, I’m all about it,” Allen said. “If they want me at nose tackle, I’ll try that, too.”
More importantly for a rebuilding Boilermaker team, the new-look defense should benefit the many freshmen seeing playing time against top-tier Big Ten opponents.
“The number one thing it did for us is it allowed us to let some of those kids get on the field and let them go,” defensive coordinator Greg Hudson said, reflecting on Purdue’s game with Nebraska.
The new scheme isn’t an entirely fresh concept. Purdue implemented this look during the spring, working around several key injuries in the defense. It again made an appearance during August camp, but only as an experimental phase.
During the Boilermakers’ bye week—after they allowed 55 points to Northern Illinois—the defense made the switch.
“It was an easy transition to stuff we had done before,” Hudson said. “The terminology is the same; the appearance is different.”
The defense now has multiple looks, creating a cluster for opposing offenses. The Boilermakers now have an element of the unknown. But it all comes down to execution.
The hope is that Purdue can become more disruptive on defense. In their first five games, the Boilermakers rarely faced a third-down attempt on defense. Against Nebraska, they saw it 21 times, but only came up with 10 stops.
The key to success in this new look starts up front, where Hudson hopes his defense can get after the quarterback.
“If there’s no pressure, I can stand back there and throw,” Hudson said. “We have to affect him, we have to do a better job with that.”
The challenges will continue for Purdue, which faces Michigan State on Saturday, then Ohio State after its second bye. But the Boilermakers are optimistic that their unique, new defense will bring them success.
“It’s getting our best players out there on the field,” said Richards. “The coaches want to do that; the players want to do that. The best players should play. If they know their assignments, everything will work out together.”