Saturday, 8 p.m., West Lafayette
It's hard to get into any discussion of Purdue without starting the talk with the Boilermakers' offense. One gets the feeling Purdue head coach Joe Tiller wouldn't have it any other way.
Tiller is, after all, the head coach who once had Drew Brees throw the ball 83 times during a game at Wisconsin in 1998, then had Kyle Orton toss the ball 74 times three years later in a bowl game against Washington State. So it's not so shocking that the Boilermakers, who have been known for their offensive power under Tiller, enter the game tops in the conference in both scoring and total offense.
The better question might be, just how did the Boilermakers get to this point? Certainly it's partly Tiller's offense, and it's partly the Boilermakers making the best of their talent.
Wideout Dorien Bryant was a three-star recruit from Fork Union Military Academy in Virginia. A senior, Bryant led the conference in receiving last season and is third all time at Purdue in catches behind Taylor Stubblefield and John Standeford and fourth in yardage.
So far this season, he has 40 catches, 450 yards and four touchdowns, and his eight catches per game put him 10th in the nation. Against Notre Dame, he showed an ability to get open – at one point waiting behind a cover man until shooting across the middle into the open field – and made the tough catch, including a midair adjustment to pull in a first-half touchdown from Curtis Painter.
"To me, he's Gonzo (Anthony Gonzalez) and Teddy (Ginn) put together," OSU safeties coach Paul Haynes said. "He does a great job of getting open. He does a great job of making people miss, which reminds me of those two guys, and the thing about him is just the yards after catch. They get him in the ball in space and let him work with it."
Then there's Dustin Keller, one of the Big Ten's better-kept secrets. Keller was just a two-star prospect out of Lafayette Jefferson before opting to stay with the hometown school. Now a 6-4, 240-pound senior is one of the top tight end prospects in the NFL Draft.
This year he's hauled in 20 passes, good for second on the Purdue team, for 319 yards and five touchdowns. He's shown he can go deep – he has an 80-yard touchdown catch on the year – and can also chip in as a blocker. And unlike some tight ends, Keller has the ability to make people miss, such as one Notre Dame tackler around which Keller pulled a spin move last Saturday.
"Keller's very elusive," Haynes said. "Every time you see him catch the ball, he's doing something for yards after the catch. That's why, again, us tackling is going to be key."
Keller also provides a strategic advantage for the Boilermakers. They can line him up in a wide receiver spot, throwing a defense off based on what package they might have in the game.
"They flex him out and they form different formations with that personnel," Haynes said. "There's a lot of defenses that you may like versus that personnel that you can't use because they spread them out and they're forming spread formations."
The threat in the receiving game is not limited to those two go-to guys. Junior Greg Orton is third on the team with 18 catches for 233 yards and two touchdowns, and the Huber Heights (Ohio) Wayne product provides a bigger target downfield at 6-3. Selwyn Lymon, a 6-4 receiver who has 16 catches for 172 yards, also provides matchup problems. Throw in tailback Kory Sheets, who has 15 catches out of the backfield, and former walk-on Jake Standeford, who has 10 grabs, and Painter has quite the arsenal of weapons.
"They're a good group," Tiller said. "I think they're the best collectively that we've had since we've been at Purdue."
Add in Painter, who threw for more yards than any quarterback in Big Ten history last year, and the Boilermakers have all the weapons. Despite his lofty marks last season, Painter tossed 19 interceptions to his 22 touchdowns; this year, the mark is down to three picks compared to 18 scoring tosses.
"He hasn't thrown into trouble too much," Purdue offensive coordinator Ed Zaunbrecher said in the Lafayette Journal and Courier. "For the most part, if we can't catch it then he's thrown it away. To me that's a good throw."
Sheets To The Wind: Listing Purdue's lofty passing numbers should not insinuate the Boilermakers move the ball only through the air. On the season they have rushed for 186 yards per game, thanks mainly to junior Kory Sheets, who has taken over the No. 1 tailback job. Classmate Jaycen Taylor started the first three games but suffered a broken arm.
Since Taylor's injury, Sheets has been the team's bell cow at tailback. Against Minnesota, Sheets made his first start of the year and ran 21 times for 111 yards and a touchdown while pulling in seven catches for 60 yards and a score. Last week against the Fighting Irish, Sheets toted the rock 27 times for 141 yards and a score.
"I think his intensity level was greater," Tiller said of Sheets' first start. "Kory has unshakable confidence in his own ability whether it's warranted or not. He thinks he's a heck of a player, and that's good. That's the way you want a player to think."
Secondary Concern: Last year, Purdue's secondary was roundly panned as one of the major reasons why the Boilermakers could do no better than an 8-6 record and a 5-3 conference mark. A mostly new unit, Purdue allowed 241.2 yards per game and 20 touchdowns while making 11 interceptions.
This year, much of the group returns with a year more of experience, but Purdue is instead allowing 257 yards per game, although only six touchdowns have been given up compared to six picks.
"They do have a lot of guys coming back," said OSU wideout Brian Robiskie, a deep threat who has six touchdown catches and 560 yards so far this year. "They have a lot of guys who have been there. Any time you've got experience on that definitely it helps you."
Both starting cornerbacks, senior Terrell Vinson and sophomore Royce Adams of Cleveland Glenville, were first-year Boilermakers last year who were thrown into the fire when they were given starting roles. Justin Scott, like Vinson, was in his first year at Purdue and started after transferring from a junior college.
Kickin' It: For the second week in a row, the Buckeyes will face a solid return duo. Minnesota's pairing of Harold Howell and Jay Thomas was the 13th-best return unit in the nation, while Thomas led the NCAA in yards per return. This week, OSU will face the nation's third-best kickoff return team. Both Bryant and Desmond Tardy have returned kickoffs for touchdowns.
"This week is even more of a challenge than last week," said Haynes, who coaches OSU's kickoff coverage teams. "This team is ranked third nationally in kickoff returns and first in the Big Ten. It's an unbelievable challenge for us this week with our Recon team.
"Both of them (Bryant and Tardy) can get it done. The thing about them is they're not worried about getting it past the 35. They're trying to score every time, and I think they have the confidence that they're going to score."