WEST LAFAYETTE – It's becoming a weekly question with Purdue: how is it possible for Rondale Moore to keep getting better?
Every time I think the New Albany native put together such a spectacular game that even he will have trouble topping, he comes up with an even better performance. Today, that performance was what propelled the Boilermakers to a win. Moore had five catches for 154 yards and a touchdown in the fourth quarter alone and Purdue beat Vanderbilt 42-24, evening its record at 1-1 and erasing some of the sting of that season-opening loss to Nevada.
So after catching 13 passes for 220 yards, both career-highs, how did Moore assess his performance?
"I had some mistakes, I dropped a few balls," Moore said. "I gotta come back in practice and clean that up."
That's typical Moore: understated, self-critical, trying to shift the credit to his teammates. It's remarkable that in his development from four-star recruit to freshman phenom to the young leader of a team with such high expectations, Moore's demeanor has never changed.
Coach Jeff Brohm had a more realistic view of Moore's performance.
"My view is pretty high of Rondale, so I don't know if it can get much higher," Brohm said. "But for someone to continually come through every week and raise the bar and not be satisfied with what he's done: that's Rondale Moore. ... When we needed to make big plays in the passing game, he got open. They were pressing him outside, inside, dropping guys out, he made some tough catches."
Of course, someone has to throw the passes on which Moore makes those tough catches. That someone is Elijah Sindelar and he was exceptional today, passing for a career-high 509 yards and five touchdowns and rushing for a sixth. His 942 passing yards through two games are the most in the history of Purdue and his nine passing touchdowns are the most in the Big Ten in the first two games since fellow Boilermaker Curtis Painter's 10 in 2007. Sindelar didn't have a great first half, but he came out throwing with confidence after halftime and his accuracy picked up. He did throw one really bad interception and plays like that could be his undoing against a better team. Still, he was able to find Moore often in the second half and that's the most important component of Purdue's passing game, a fact that was reiterated in practice this week.
"We had some times in practice where (Sindelar) wasn't aware of where No. 4 (Moore) was," Brohm said. "So we just said, 'Hey, let's make sure we know where the underneath throw is, if you're looking down the field (know) where No. 4 is.' ... (Sindelar)'s strength is throwing the ball a lot. He's a rhythm passer. We have to take shots down the field, that's what he's best at, throwing the ball vertically. He is really good at chucking it deep."
Moore wasn't the only player to make big plays in the passing game. Sindelar spread the wealth around, finding true freshman David Bell four times for 82 yards and hitting Jared Sparks with a 50-yard touchdown. Crucially, he involved the tight ends in the middle of the field, with Brycen Hopkins and Payne Durham combining for three touchdown catches and opening the field up on the outside for Moore et al. Sindelar raved in the preseason about the myriad options he has when he drops back to throw and it certainly seems as though Purdue has one of the deepest pass-catching corps in the Big Ten.
The only potential problem is that it could be too much of a good thing. The Boilermakers threw 52 times for the second straight week and only ran 18 times for 31 yards. That's not exactly a balanced offense and Brohm knows it.
"We have to find a way to run the ball more," he said. "I think we're aware of that. Just seemed like every time we handed it off, we got minus-four (yards). ... In a perfect world, I'd love to be able to have great balance. I'd love to be able to knock people off the ball and throw some play-action.
"For this team right now, that's not our strength. And we don't have a lot of time to waste. We can't lose games. We've gotta try to go for it and win. So we want to err on the side of throwing too much. Yeah, I thought we threw too much, but that is the side we're going to err on and for this game, those guys came through."
The passing game did come through against the Commodores, but Purdue again struggled to close out the game in the fourth quarter because it couldn't run the football. It got creative in its clock-draining efforts, drawing Vanderbilt offside a couple of times with hard counts, but that won't work against better teams. The bottom line is that the Boilermakers have to have at least the threat of a running game or the aerial attack will lose some of its explosiveness. Purdue ran, by my count, just one play-action play in the second half and the Commodores didn't bite on the fake at all. Those plays are much more effective if the defense believes a run is a possibility. Today, it wasn't for the most part.
That lack of running game could become a bigger issue quickly because of a play that happened at the end of the game. Late in the fourth quarter, Sindelar scrambled and dove forward, taking a big (clean) hit as he did so. He went into the medical tent after the play and Brohm said he was "dinged up". The coach clearly wasn't happy about it and said that backup Jack Plummer will be ready. Purdue seems hopeful the injury is minor, but if you're bringing up the backup quarterback, even casually, that doesn't point to a minor issue. Without Sindelar's big arm, the Boilermakers' offense would look quite different. That's a situation to monitor as the week progresses.
Despite that potential problem, the Boilermakers hummed offensively today and won relatively easily to get back to .500. They get TCU next, another measuring-stick game in primetime at home, before starting the Big Ten season. There was a lot of excitement around this team in the preseason and it dissipated a little after that loss to Nevada. Now, it should come back. Rondale Moore made sure of that.