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Film Preview: Purdue’s David Bell-led air attack and man coverage-heavy defensive scheme

Purdue is visiting Columbus to take on the Buckeyes, so we’re taking a look at what they bring to the table on both sides of the ball.

NCAA Football: Michigan State at Purdue Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

This Saturday, the Ohio State Buckeyes take on the Purdue Boilermakers, who are looking to add another top-five team to their list of season-ending gravestones. In a year where college football has been unpredictable, Purdue’s way of doing business has fit right in. The upset-minded and now well nicknamed, “Spoilermakers” will continue to play tough football against anyone they face. Under coach Jeff Brohm, this team hasn’t found consistency in much outside of ruining seasons and relying heavily on an offensive star player for almost everything.

On that side of the ball, not much has changed in that regard, and Purdue will look to throw the ball 50-60 times against Ohio State while getting David Bell as many touches as possible. With a non-existent run game, Purdue utilizes a lot of condensed formations to their open quick game and use short passes to simulate what the run game would accomplish. Brohm and Co. have been creative in finding ways to get their best offensive player in David Bell the ball in both of their previous match ups against top-five teams. If Ohio State can contain Bell, this Purdue offense has struggled to consistently find offense. Now down potentially two tight ends, we’ll see what they come up with to attack the Buckeyes.

Defensively, Purdue relies on an elite defensive front to do the work of an entire defense. If George Karlaftis and Kydran Jenkins can be contained, the other groups have struggled in their losses. With experience at linebacker and the safety position, Purdue’s defense has come up big in some key moments this season, and have been one of the more pleasant surprises in the conference. Due to their weird defensive staff structure – Purdue has three co-defensive coordinators – it is hard to point where the identity comes from, but their even front is something Ohio State should be prepared to face.

With the introduction of Purdue out of the way, let’s look at a few plays that show Purdue’s identity on both sides of the ball.


The two plays we’re going to look at today will show how Purdue finds creative ways to get the ball in to the hands of David Bell, and how they use the short game to simulate what the run game does. In their game against Michigan State, the Boilermakers passed the ball 54 times to only 23 rushes that averaged 1.9 YPC. Their identity is passing the football, and Ohio State’s defensive backs will have a real test in front of them. Aidan O’Connell is patient and the offensive line is a solid unit that gives him a lot of time to throw the ball. If Ohio State is going to slow down this passing attack, it will start up front and they will need to always know where Bell is.

David Bell caught a lot of passes against Michigan State, and in the next play this one did not do the most damage, but this shows the ways Purdue designs the action to go to their star wideout. In recent weeks, we have discussed the RPO and there are two-types — the first being a pre-snap read, and the second being a read option identifying a decision player and attacking the opposite of what they do.

Purdue lines up in a doubles formation – two wide receivers on each side – with 11 personnel in the game. Purdue splits a tight end out to David Bell’s side, and that puts Bell in the slot. The run action for Purdue is outside zone. Pre-snap, O’Connell counts the numbers in the box, which is six meaning the match up is even leaving one player left to take the running back. On Bell’s side, they have two players on two players which gives them an advantage due to MSU’s nickel defender cheating inside at the snap.

Bell runs a quick out and the split out tight end blocks the corner. If I’m an MSU fan, this play irritates me, as the blocker is initiating contact while the ball is in the air, but this block seals the defender inside, giving Bell the sideline and taking away the pursuit angle of the inside player.

This play does what the run game can’t always do for Purdue, and gets a talented skill player the ball quickly and gets them similar yardage to what a well-designed run play can net a team.

The less creative way they get David Bell involved and other receivers as well is the vertical passing game. Michigan State struggled to contain that aspect of the game. In the next play, we’re going to see an example of how not to cover Bell and the Purdue receivers.

Throughout the game, Purdue was able to take advantage of these one-on-one matchups, and Michigan State did nothing to give their corners the much needed support. The reason I chose this play over others is the absolutely egregious coverage by the corner and late rotation by the safety on Michigan State to help over top. The Buckeyes have shifted to more two-high coverages, and this game should show the world why.

Purdue runs a simple four verticals concept. The reason Bell gets so wide open is the field side tight end in the slot for Purdue runs directly at the safety, making him hold in the middle. Michigan State’s corner is responsible for jamming Bell and whiffs completely, leading to Bell being wide open without a defender near him. When you play Purdue, simple mistakes like this are what cost you the most, and this was late in the fourth quarter after Purdue ran this concept and beat them multiple times before.

The last tidbit on Purdue’s offense before we move on to their defense is this; Purdue is a team that likes to run the same play consecutive times. This allows them to get a visual on one side while the play is going to the other. By doing this Purdue is able to utilize tempo, because pre-snap O’Connell is breaking down both sides of a look. When tempo is called, Purdue is able to run back-to-back plays because they already know what they’re looking at, as defenses rarely change their call if the offense is playing extremely fast.


Defensively, the three Co-DC’s rely on a lot of man coverage, and they are a predominantly one-high safety team with the use of a Robber (A safety that rovers the middle of the field beneath the one high safety). Purdue has given up some big plays due to the reliance on man and these coverages breaking down in the back end. In the run game, they tend to utilize a light box look, which means they tend to leave six defenders in the box. Ohio State has been able to take advantage of two similar defenses in Rutgers and Indiana in both the run and pass games. Expect a lot of mesh, shallow, and vertical concepts from the Buckeyes, as Purdue has struggled to stop them in the past.

In the first play we’re going to look at how they align in pass coverage to 11-personnel and how Michigan State attacked their man coverage. Purdue plays man against every single look whether that is trips, doubles, multiple tight ends, or multiple running backs. They are organized when it comes to dealing with motions, but this has led to them giving up some big plays as well.

The key for Purdue’s man-coverage is correct alignment. That means their defensive backs need to be at different levels to avoid making contact if teams try to use “rub” concepts against them. In the play below, taking a look at the trips side, you can see that each Purdue defender is at a different depth. When the ball is snapped, the two defenders playing near the line of scrimmage are responsible for pressing the receivers. The reason this is important for Purdue’s defenders is because in press man, the goal is to throw off the timing between the receiver and quarterbacks.

Once the play continues, the receiver for Michigan State (No. 1) who is in the slot runs a wheel route, and the outside receivers runs a sit concept. Purdue’s DB (No. 17) is able to run with his man after the press, and is able to squeeze him to the sideline, making a tough throw for Payton Thorne.

The last aspect of what Purdue does well in man coverage is how they play through the hands of the receiver. In this case, No. 17 is able to finish the play and knock the ball out.

Purdue has struggled in defending the run, which plagued them against Michigan State as Sparty mounted a late comeback against the Boilermakers. In the next example, we are going to see MSU run a concept that Ohio State has failed with in a short yardage situation. In the play below, we’re going to look at how the Spartans were able to effectively block this design, and more importantly we’re going to see why it worked against Purdue’s front.

Michigan State aligns in 11-personnel with the tight end in a wing set at the end of the line of scrimmage to the short side of the field. Purdue lines up with six defenders in the box. The quick double team by MSU on George Karlaftis forces him inside, taking away his ability to become a contain player. This leads to him getting up the field and taking himself out of the play. The tight end for MSU is able to come off the double team and block the outside linebacker of Purdue.

While all this is happening, Purdue’s linebacker (No. 43) takes himself out of the play by cutting the guard of MSU, and Sparty’s right guard is able to climb to the second level to successfully cut Purdue’s other linebacker. With five out of the six defenders accounted for, Kenneth Walker is able to get to the second level untouched.


Purdue is a team capable of explosive offensive output and timely defensive stops. As we’ve seen with the Boilermakers, they come prepared for fights with the best, and Ohio State will have to play a complete football game to beat this team. Iowa and Michigan State are two important examples to look at, because they failed in the simple parts of football in their games against Purdue. Defensively, it is as simple as identifying where David Bell is and making sure he doesn’t make big plays. If Ohio State’s pass rush can produce more than MSU’s, the Buckeyes will be able to throw off the timing of O’Connell and that receiving group.

For the Buckeyes to avoid the same fate, they will need to avoid the mistakes of the previous top-five teams that have taken on the Boilermakers. The most important aspect on both sides of the ball will be winning the line of scrimmage. If Ohio State’s offensive line can perform in the run game, it will be a long day for the Boilermakers’ defense. C.J. Stroud and the receivers will have opportunities to make big plays against this man defense, and if they can make a few this game can be put away.

Overall, if you don’t want to lose to an upset minded team, you have to play to win. Stick to the plan, and make the plays when you have the opportunity. If Ohio State let’s them hang around, we have all seen what this team is capable of.