Purdue’s receiving corps poses threat to Illini

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Photo Courtesy of John Mersits/CSM

Purdue wide receiver Rondale Moore runs with the ball after the catch during the game against Vanderbilt on Sept. 7, 2019 at Ross-Ade Stadium in West Lafayette, Indiana. Moore finished the year with 1,471 yards and 14 touchdowns.

By Carson Gourdie, Assistant Sports Editor

Drew Brees. Bob Greise. Kyle Orton. The Purdue Boilermaker program has a long — and underrated — history of producing future NFL starting quarterbacks. Under head coach Jeff Brohm, a proponent of airing out the football, Purdue has continued the tradition of establishing a strong passing game. 

But while current quarterback Aidan O’Connell isn’t hailed as an NFL gem yet, he has two game-changing wide receivers at his disposal — potentially — that can cause the Illini a lot of trouble. 

After missing last week, Rondale Moore may join fellow wide receiver David Bell, creating one of the most dangerous wide receivers duos in the nation. But his return may have to wait for another game as the junior has yet to practice this week.

“Whenever he’s ready to play, he will play,” Brohm said. 

As a true freshman, Moore took the league by storm, quickly emerging as quarterback David Blough’s top target. The 5-foot-9 wideout was a triple threat in the passing, running and return game, finishing the year with 1,471 yards and 14 touchdowns. 

After a consensus All-American season in 2018, his fortune took a 180-degree turn in 2019, playing in only four games after suffering a season-ending knee injury in a 38-31 loss to Minnesota. 

After rehabbing and getting ready for his junior season, the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent cancellations caused Moore to doubt whether he would return to West Lafayette for a spring season or get ready for an NFL career. Originally, the plan was to sit out his final year with the Boilermakers. 

After Big Ten presidents reversed their decision and brought back a fall season, the Indiana native couldn’t resist the chance to play another season under Jeff Brohm. 

“The Big Ten figured it out. Purdue was doing a great job of keeping us safe, and I felt safe coming back,” Moore told ESPN last month. “For me, it was a no-brainer to come back to school and go prove what I think I’m worth.”

Last season, the Illini were able to avoid playing against the All-American, as he was out with injury. Amid heavy rain, the Illini shut down a battered Boilermaker team, winning 24-6. Smith, though, having played against Moore in 2018, didn’t forget about the wide receiver’s talent.

“In college football, you don’t see two definite No. 1 receivers like that,” said head coach Lovie Smith. “Talking about Rondale Moore, he was all-everything last time he played.

“He is an impact player. He’s got good hands. Once he catches the football, he’s got great speed. He’s a strong player, also. He’ll make you miss in the open field.”

While Boilermaker fans breathed a sigh of relief, the offense was not devoid of talent, and they have shown the capability of still being lethal on offense. The Boilermakers averaged over 300 passing yards a game last season, signaling more of a defensive problem regarding their 4-8 season. Even this year, when Moore sat out for the Iowa game, the Boilermakers more than made up for his absence. 

Behind Bell’s 121 yards and three-touchdown game, the Boilermakers upset the Hawkeyes 24-20. While this was Bell’s best game yet as a Boilermaker, it wasn’t a fluke: He finished with 1,035 yards and seven touchdowns as a true freshman last season.

Sophomore Milton Wright also had a breakout game against the Hawkeyes, totaling seven catches for 85 yards. At 6-foot-3, the former 4-star recruit gives Brohm the chance to create mismatches with his size.

What kind of threat does the Purdue receiving core give the Illini? Even without Moore, a lot after last week’s outing against the Badgers. Freshman quarterback Graham Mertz carved the Illini secondary open, throwing for 248 yards and five touchdowns while only having one incompletion. 

While Mertz played fantastic in his first career start, the Wisconsin quarterback did get a lot of help from the Illini secondary, who struggled with blown coverage. 

“I hope we change some things from last (game),” Smith said. “We need Sydney Brown to be locked in and the rest of the guys. Last week, we needed them too. Nothing changes for us now (regarding) trying harder.”

Purdue is currently a 7-point favorite over the Illini, who both had polar opposite opening games. With Saturday appearing to have clear skies, the Illini won’t be able to count on a rainy, wet day to slow down Jeff Brohm’s air attack. After the Badger game, though, Smith just wants to get back on the field.

“It doesn’t matter if you have 10 bye weeks, after you play a game there’s urgency to fix what was wrong immediately,” Smith said. “We’re excited about playing a very good Purdue football team.”

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