MADISON, Wis. — Purdue has made improvement under new coach Jeff Brohm, a development that hasn’t been lost on Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst.
His No. 7 Badgers (5-0, 2-0 Big Ten) host the Boilermakers (3-2, 1-1) on Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium.
Purdue has allowed an average of 20.8 points through five games, ranking 36th nationally. The Boilermakers gave up 38.3 points per game in 2016, ranking 117th in scoring defense.
Chryst said it is a well-designed defense for the Boilermakers, who have allowed just 17 second-half points in wins against Ohio, Missouri and Minnesota.
“I think you’ve got some really good players, and we’ve played against a number of them,” Chryst said. “I have a ton of respect for them as players. I think they’re playing confident, and that allows them to be fast. They’re a physical front and I think they’re playing at a high level.
“Quite honestly, I think we’ll be challenged differently than any point this season because of their defense.”
Senior outside linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley was one of the difference-makers with a 76-yard interception return for a touchdown with 11 seconds to go that sealed last week’s 31-17 win against the Gophers. Purdue overcame four first-half turnovers and scored 25 second-half points.
The Boilermakers play an attacking style of defense and co-defensive coordinator Nick Holt has made an effort to change up personnel, which has yielded a good mix on the field and depth when injuries occur.
And injuries could be a factor for Purdue on Saturday.
Brohm expects to get an update later in the week on senior linebacker T.J. McCollum, who suffered knee and ankle injuries on the final play against Minnesota. Junior defensive end Keiwan Jones, who was helped off the field Saturday, is expected to miss this week.
Although senior defensive end Austin Larkin barely played against the Gophers, Brohm anticipates he’ll play in Madison, if his ankle stays healthy.
Meanwhile, the Badgers are ranked ninth in the country in scoring defense at 14.3 points per game.
Wisconsin was not stellar at Nebraska last week. The team allowed a season-high 313 first-half yards but then held the Cornhuskers to 68 yards in the second half.
Brohm said one thing that stands out with Wisconsin’s defense is the athleticism and ability to exhaust an opponent’s offense.
“They are relentless on defense,” Brohm said. “Their guys go so hard and they finish and they tackle and they hit and they wear people down.
“And especially if you’re getting into a situation where you don’t have the lead and you’ve got to do things like be a little pass-happy and not have balance, they are going to be able to tee off.”
Purdue will be challenged to contain Wisconsin freshman running back Jonathan Taylor, who had a career-high 249 yards and two touchdowns on 25 carries against Nebraska. Taylor, ranked fourth nationally with 153.4 yards per game, earned Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week honors.
But the Badgers are dealing with injuries on their offensive line. Sophomore left guard Jon Dietzen (right leg) and junior left guard Micah Kapoi (right arm) were listed as questionable on Wisconsin’s injury report released Monday. Sophomore left tackle Jason Erdmann could get more playing time in place of Dietzen.
In addition, junior left tackle Michael Deiter is grappling with an ongoing ankle problem.
Wisconsin quarterback Alex Hornibrook has shown tremendous growth in his sophomore season. Backed by that powerful running game, Hornibrook has been as efficient as needed, completing 69 of 107 passes for 1,011 yards, with 10 touchdowns and four interceptions.
For Purdue, expect quarterbacks David Blough and Elijah Sindelar to both see action again this week. Sindelar came off the bench to rally the Boilermakers last week, completing 19 of 26 passes for a career-best 248 yards.
Wisconsin is in great shape in the Big Ten West race and is in the hunt for the College Football Playoff, but Chryst relies on experienced players to relay the right message about not looking too far ahead.
“I think that’s why you spend a lot of time talking about it,” Chryst said. “Yet in the end, every person has to make a choice of how to approach it. You try to do all that you can. At some point, though, they have to choose. That’s where I think your veteran leadership has to help.”