'Blue collar' Purdue football embraces role as underdogs after earning spot in Big Ten championship

BLOOMINGTON - There's a certain understanding if you're a Purdue Boilermaker.

You're not going to get a lot of the five-star, high-profile recruits.

You're not going to earn an annual preseason high ranking on brand name alone.

What you'll get typically, if coaches construct the roster right, is a bunch of try-hard guys determined to represent Purdue to prove to those bigger name schools that didn't give them an opportunity that they missed.

Which is what makes moments like Saturday night in Memorial Stadium even more special, a chance afforded after Nebraska knocked off Iowa on Friday.

The Boilermakers celebrated an Old Oaken Bucket victory over rival Indiana, 30-16, with new T-shirts and hats emblazoned with "2022 West Division Champs" on them, symbolizing that Purdue did indeed advance to next Saturday's Big Ten Football Championship game at Lucas Oil Stadium.

They've done it with a collection of transfers, walk-ons and two- or three-star recruits who most gave up on before they ever put on a Purdue jersey.

Jeff Brohm and his staff, they gave those guys a chance and in turn got players who'd give their all for the Boilermakers. Much like Joe Tiller did more than two decades ago with a squad that won the Big Ten title in 2000 with a recruiting class ranked as the league's worst.

"Credit to our guys. They have a chip on their shoulder and they play that way," Brohm said after Saturday's win. "They want to prove themselves and our coaches work really hard to help them get there. This feels tremendous."

So the Big Ten championship game is set.

MORE:Purdue football defeats Indiana, advances to Big Ten Championship against Michigan

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On one side, you have Michigan, the traditional powerhouse program with the big stadium and football lineage.

And, on the other, you have Purdue, which has its own history of success but outside the realms of the Big Ten, most scoff when you try to bring Purdue into college football conversation.

But the Boilermakers are here.

And, yeah, not many, if any are giving Purdue a chance to beat the Wolverines.

But Purdue is here.

With a former walk-on, sixth-year quarterback in Aidan O'Connell. With a star receiver Charlie Jones who came to Purdue for his final season known as little more than Iowa's kick returner and now is among Purdue's all-time great receivers in terms of single-season statistics.

Purdue's Jack Sullivan (99) and the Boilermakers celebrate with the Old Oaken Bucket after the Indiana versus Purdue football game at Memorial Stadium on Saturday, Nov. 26, 2022.
Purdue's Jack Sullivan (99) and the Boilermakers celebrate with the Old Oaken Bucket after the Indiana versus Purdue football game at Memorial Stadium on Saturday, Nov. 26, 2022.

With tight end Payne Durham, who played one year of high school football. With a walk-on receiver named Andrew Sowinski, a walk-on running back transfer Dylan Downing and his backfield mate Devin Mockobee, who shunned his only college offer from Navy to walk on at Purdue.

With five defensive starters who began their careers at other schools, just like their kicker did, and who had a center starting his first career game on Saturday.

Kydran Jenkins has become a star of that defense. On Saturday, he had a key sack and an even more key blocked field goal. Cory Trice had a pick-six. Mockobee ran all over the Hoosiers and also has transformed into an overnight sensation. Mitchell Fineran was the Music City Bowl game hero last year with his overtime field goal. Purdue gave them a chance and many are leaving their mark.

When Purdue was bad in the first half, and the Boilermakers were bad, nobody blinked. Instead, they came out the second half and did what they've always done that landed them at Purdue in the first place, they fought.

"We’ve got a lot of guys on this team who had to work really hard to be where they’re at," said Jones, who caught four passes for 143 yards and a touchdown against the Hoosiers. "I think when you’ve got a locker room like that, it is pretty special. Guys work really hard and guys really believe in each other. That’s why we’re in the situation we’re in right now."

Fans can get behind a team like that.

One that most likely won't ever be a consistent national power, but will give you high moments like Saturday that will be talked about forever.

The Big Ten created its football championship game in 2011, with the winners of the Leaders and Legends divisions playing after the regular season to determine a conference champion. That lasted three years before the East and West divisions were created in 2014.

The West division has never won the conference championship game.

Purdue isn't projected to change that.

But the Boilermakers have an opportunity to prove a lot of people wrong. And sometimes that's when they're at their best.

"They know our guys are going to work hard and I think that’s what they like. We’re blue collar," Brohm said. "We’re going to give it everything we have. We’re going to play until the end. Hopefully we win. Maybe sometimes we don’t, but we’re going to come back the next week and try to do it again."

Sam King covers sports for the Journal & Courier. Email him at sking@jconline.com and follow him on Twitter and Instagram @samueltking. 

This article originally appeared on Lafayette Journal & Courier: Purdue football embraces underdog role going into Big Ten championship