PISCATAWAY, N.J. — Purdue coach Jeff Brohm is taking the team in a direction few expected in his first season.
Halfway through the campaign, the Boilermakers (3-3, 1-2 Big Ten) have a legitimate shot at becoming bowl eligible. That’s something few expected from a program that had nine wins over the past four seasons.
Even the schedule favors Purdue heading into Saturday’s game at Rutgers (2-4, 1-2). The next three opponents are playing under .500 ball, with the Boilermakers hosting Nebraska (3-4) and Illinois (2-4) after facing the Scarlet Knights.
The only team in the final six that is over .500 is Iowa (4-2).
Brohm isn’t looking beyond Rutgers, which ended a 16-game losing streak in the conference with a win at Illinois last week.
“I think we’re playing hard, we’re competing to win,” Brohm said. “That’s the main thing I’m concerned about. Wins and losses happen. While you want to work hard to win, if your guys are giving forth great effort, you look in the mirror at night, that’s a huge plus.”
Purdue was impressive last week, dropping a 17-9 decision to current No. 5 Wisconsin. The Boilermakers drove to the Badgers 10 midway through the fourth quarter before turning the ball over. The other losses were to Louisville 35-28 and No. 19 Michigan 28-10.
“Now we’ve got to study and find out ways to win in those games,” Brohm said. “That’s something that everyone has to do, including myself. We’re going to work hard to do it. As we talked with the team and the coaches really, the rest of the season has to be about everybody digging deeper and grinding and finding a way to win, period.”
Rutgers coach Chris Ash has not had as much success as Brohm. He has won 4 of 18 games in his first 1½ seasons but his team has been more competitive this year. The Scarlet Knights clearly played their best game last weekend, rushing for a season-high 274 yards.
“I’m more concerned about us being able to recapture the focus and the energy and the passion and the physicality we played with last Saturday,” Ash said. “That’s our challenge. Purdue is a much-improved football team. They’ve got big physical guys on both sides, up front on both sides. They’ve got skilled players in the right positions. Their quarterbacks are playing well, very multiple, create some schematic problems on both sides of the ball. But I’m not worried about that.”
Here are some things to watch in the game that features two schools playing for the first time despite long histories in football. Rutgers played in the first college football game in 1869 (1,331 total games). Purdue started in 1887 (1,209).
GIO AGAIN: Rutgers is sticking with Gio Rescigno at quarterback. The fourth-year junior started last week against Illinois and threw for 89 yards and ran 41 in a 35-24 win. Coach Chris Ash felt he gave the offense a spark. Fifth-year senior Kyle Bolin and freshman Johnathan Lewis may see some action. Rescigno finished last season as the Scarlet Knights’ starter but he lost the job to Bolin, a Louisville transfer, in training camp.
DEFENSIVE WARRIORS: Purdue’s defense has been the cornerstone of this season’s turnaround. The unit has been impressive in the second half. In road games, at Missouri and at then No. 7 Wisconsin, the Boilermakers forced three turnovers each time and allowed no second-half points. Purdue is allowing 18.1 points per game fewer this season overall, the second-biggest improvement in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
RUTGERS SECONDARY: Purdue may want to test safety Jawuan Harris. The sophomore wide receiver was moved to the defense during the bye week and had a game-high 11 tackles to go with an interception and a forced fumble last week. Sophomore K.J. Gray also made his first start at safety and had an interception.
KEEPING UP WITH JONES: Boilermakers’ junior running back Markell Jones is healthy again and climbing the school’s career charts. He needs 26 yards to pass former NFL player Mike Pruitt (1,588 yards) and move into the school’s top 20 career rushers. Jones is 203 yards shy of passing Mel Gray for No. 16. Jones, who missed three games with a knee injury, also needs two TD runs to tie Otis Armstrong (17) for No. 10 all-time.
AP Sports Writer Mike Marot in Indianapolis contributed to this report
More AP college football: collegefootball.ap.org and twitter.com/AP_Top25