New-look Purdue offense features more options

Jeff Sherry

It was the quintessential gameplan for a Big Ten football team. And for three years, the Purdue Boilermakers ran it to near perfection.
Run up the middle. Run off-tackle. Run the opposition over. From 1993 to 1995, Purdue fullback Mike Alstott did it all. Neither Patrick Swayze nor Sam the Butcher could hope to match Alstott’s grind-it-out style.
But now Alstott is gone, having left the Boilermakers to join the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Although that may be bad news for the Minnesota Vikings, the Minnesota Gophers couldn’t be happier. When they play on Saturday at Purdue, they’ll be much less likely to receive a beating — physically or on the scoreboard.
“Year after year, (Alstott) is probably as tough a back as we’ve faced,” Minnesota coach Jim Wacker said. “I’m glad he’s in the NFL.”
Alstott’s numbers against Minnesota were staggering. In his three starts against the Gophers, he combined for 487 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Until last week, it didn’t look like Minnesota had to worry about his replacement. After leading the Big Ten in rushing last year, Purdue ran for a paltry average of 81 yards in its first three games. Ed Watson, the new starter at fullback, struggled as the Boilermakers fell to 0-3.
Some of the low rushing numbers could be attributed to Purdue’s competition. The Boilermakers fell behind early and were forced to throw often in their lopsided losses to Michigan State and Notre Dame. West Virginia, which has the nation’s top-ranked run defense, was also a tough opponent.
But on Saturday, the Boilermakers finally got on track — not surprisingly, against much softer competition. Purdue routed winless North Carolina State, 42-21, and racked up 374 total yards rushing.
Watson, a 220-pounder who plays both tailback and fullback, busted loose for 227 yards and three touchdowns.
“If he can run for 200 yards, he can fill that void,” Purdue coach Jim Colletto said. “I think our running production should be pretty good from here on in.”
But even though Purdue ran well, the offense hardly resembled last year’s unit. Colletto inserted junior quarterback John Reeves in place of three-year starter Rick Trefzger against the Wolfpack.
The move brought a new look to the Boilermakers offense. Because the young offensive line was struggling with its straight-ahead run blocking and drop-back pass blocking, Reeves came in and started running some option plays.
Purdue’s traditional in-your-face attack has become more speed- and movement-oriented.
“The kinds of things we have to do with the players we have requires that we use the entire football field,” Colletto said. “John has great speed and he’s a big man who can run.
“We didn’t want to sit back and be a drop-back team because we weren’t very good at that. The quarterback now becomes like our third running back.”
But Purdue’s new running game won’t necessarily work as well against Minnesota, even though the Gophers have the Big Ten’s worst rushing defense.
The Boilermakers’ sole success came against North Carolina State, whose rushing defense could make the ’96 Gophers look like the ’85 Chicago Bears. The Wolfpack’s average of 281 yards-allowed ranks them 110th out of 111 NCAA Division I-A teams.