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Wait, what?!? Purdue might just be the Big Ten's most entertaining team

Jeff Brohm and Purdue host No. 8 Michigan visiting on Saturday and the Boilermakers believe they could pull the upset. "If your coach is aggressive, you become aggressive. If your coach is confident, you become confident," said WR Gregory Phillips. Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- There is a college football program that calls trick plays so often that they're simply considered normal.

In this football funhouse, players can suggest plays whenever they'd like. Each week, new, wild and innovative ones are added right up until kickoff.

The craziest part? This isn't Oklahoma State or Penn State or USC or Clemson.

This is Purdue. Three games into his tenure, Jeff Brohm is making Purdue fun again.

Twenty years after Joe Tiller arrived with his "Basketball on Grass" offense, Brohm's aggressive, entertaining system is delighting fans damaged by years of bad, boring football.

In blowout wins over Missouri and Ohio and a 7-point loss to Lamar Jackson-led Louisville, Purdue has produced 18 plays of 20 yards or longer, 10 touchdown drives of 60 yards or longer and 13 scores on 13 red-zone trips (10 touchdowns). It took just one game under Brohm, a loss no less, for the buzz to build. According to Purdue athletic director Mike Bobinski, Purdue sold about 13,000 tickets between the Louisville game and the home opener six nights later against Ohio. Saturday's game against No. 8 Michigan could sell out -- it would be Purdue's first since Tiller's last game in 2008 -- and Bobinski insists most fans will be in old gold and black.

Even the most famous Boiler loves what he's seeing so far.

"If you were to ask people on the street, before we kicked off against Louisville, 'Tell me about Purdue football. What's their identity?' You probably would have gotten a lot of blank stares," athletic director Mike Bobinski said. "They're surprised at the immediate, visible difference. They say, 'This team is playing with such passion, with such energy. They have a life to them.'"

'Let's think outside the box. Let's have a little fun'

After a journeyman career as a pro quarterback, Brohm entered coaching. As a college assistant, he followed orders but always took notes, compiling his future playbook as a head coach/playcaller. If there was a productive college or pro offense, he studied it.

"Teams are so talented and skilled, if you try to run a traditional play where 11 guys have to function properly for the play to have success, your chances are very slim," he said. "But if you have a little deception and a little trickery, and you can just get one matchup, and you don't care what the other guys do, you might have success."

When Western Kentucky promoted Brohm to head coach after Bobby Petrino left, he told the staff: I want to crank this thing up. They went no-huddle with tempo and spread the field. No play was out of bounds.

Since 2014, Brohm leads all FBS coaches in touchdowns per year (60.3), points per possession (2.83), yards per play (7.21), plays per point (1.75), percentage of 10-, 20- and 30-yard plays and lowest punt percentage (26.02 percent of drives). Western Kentucky went 30-10 from 2014 to 2016. During the same span, Purdue ranked 99th in points per possession, 113th in yards per play and 105th in percentage of scoring drives. Purdue went 8-28.

"It's almost funny," Brohm said. "The more creative we got and the more things we did that we hadn't done before, every single one of them worked. So I'm like, 'We need to do this more. Let's think outside the box. Let's have a little fun. Let's not do things because that's the way normal football is.'"

After firing Darrell Hazell in October with a 9-33 record, Bobinski sought a coach with a uniquely identifiable approach. "When Purdue's been great," he said, "it's when we've been distinctive."

That's what Tiller brought. It's also what Purdue needed. Average paid attendance dropped by 13,684 between Hazell's first and second seasons, and dropped by eight percent from 2015 to 2016, to below 35,000.

Thanks to the post-Louisville bump, Purdue drew 45,633 to the Ohio game. The student section was packed and spilled into other parts of the stadium.

"People are seeing trick plays," junior quarterback David Blough said. "We're probably going to sell out the stadium this weekend, and it feels good. People want to watch us play."

Count Brees as one of them.

"Listen, it's fun to watch, you know. You want to play good, sound football all the way around, you want to win games, but would you rather go to a game where you're getting beat 13-10 or, if you lose, maybe you just got beat 42-35? At least you are highly competitive and you know that you always have a chance," Brees said. "There's something to be said when you walk in the stadium and say, 'Man, I know we've got a chance.'"

'Play with your swagger, be who you are'

"What the hell?"

That was Gregory Phillips' first reaction to Brohm's offense. He didn't know how he and Purdue's other receivers could absorb so many signals for each play. Then, Phillips looked at the plays and what they provided, especially for wideouts. His eyes grew big.

"I'm like, 'Whoa'," Phillips said.

Brohm runs so many trick plays that calling them trick plays seems hyperbolic. Instead, Brohm gives them easy-to-remember, one-word labels. The Boilers ran two flea-flickers against Louisville, a flea-flicker off of a reverse that led to a touchdown against Ohio, and another flea-flicker last week at Missouri. Brohm wants to run 4-8 "deception plays" per game.

Brohm's teams have executed so many successful trick plays that opposing defenses are bracing for them. During a game against Vanderbilt last season, Western Kentucky ran four or five deception plays, including a triple-reverse flea-flicker.

"Those safeties didn't step up one inch," Brohm said. "I'm like, 'Holy cow, they're not even trying to play the run.' You worry sometimes, 'Am I running too many [trick plays]?' But we still want to take some shots and have fun with it, and if we err, we'll probably err on running a few too many."

Plays are added to the game plan right up to kickoff. Phillips said receivers coach JaMarcus Shephard brings 10 previously unpracticed plays to a pregame meal. The wideouts walk through each one, knowing any could be called.

"Sometimes when we practice too much, we end up screwing it up," Brohm said. "You'll find flaws in it, so don't overthink. Let's roll with it. We've run a flea-flicker screen, a fake flea-flicker. Whatever we think of, we put it in."

Players can suggest plays. Phillips is waiting for Brohm to call Triple Right, 533 Right, Z Dancer, which would ultimately end up with Phillips dancing in the end zone. Brohm wants featured receivers and backs to emerge, but the system -- seven players have scored touchdowns and seven have at least one 20-yard reception -- keeps the roster engaged.

Bobinski thinks Brohm, in some way, still views himself as a player, asking: How would I receive this?

"Jeff Brohm's done a pretty remarkable job. ... Not to say there wasn't talent there, but he's taken a crop of players who, over the last four years, have really struggled, the team has struggled, and he's turned them into a team that's playing with a ton of confidence," Brees said. "There's a confidence, definitely a confidence that's being exuded by the whole team."

Brohm, 46, is no-frills, down to the 2005 Honda Accord with the broken back door he still drives. But he's not boring. Even Purdue's seemingly decaffeinated motto -- Let's Play Football -- is a nod to Brohm's mic-dropping comment while playing for the XFL's Orlando Rage a week after absorbing a brutal hit that sent him to the hospital.

"People are practicing hard, playing hard, enjoying it," Blough said. "I see kids with smiles on their faces when they walk into the facility. It hasn't been that way in a few years."

Added Phillips: "Play with your swagger, be who you are. Coach Brohm, he lets it happen."

'This is a new era of Purdue football'

Tim Stratton stood in the tunnel near the visitors' locker room at Soldier Field, waiting to greet Brees, his former Purdue teammate.

It was Dec. 15, 2014, and the Saints had just beaten the Bears behind 375 passing yards and three touchdowns from Brees.

"The first thing he said to me is: 'What's going on with Purdue? What aren't we throwing the ball around?'" said Stratton, an All-Big Ten tight end at Purdue who won the inaugural Mackey Award in 2000. "He had just torched the Bears, but that's where his thoughts were."

It wasn't just the losing, but the lackluster look that bothered former players, especially those who built Purdue into one of the nation's most entertaining teams. Purdue broke school scoring records in each of Tiller's first two seasons. The 1998 team still holds multiple Big Ten records.

Brees set Big Ten single-season passing yards records in 1998 and 2000, when he led Purdue to a league title and the Rose Bowl. He still holds the league's career passing yards and completions records, and his career touchdowns record stood until last week, when Ohio State's J.T. Barrett broke it.

"Because there's been that heritage, you can kind of tell this is reminiscent of what we're used to seeing," said Isaac Jones, who played receiver at Purdue from 1995 to 1998. "In the heyday, that's what it looked like. We knew we were never out of a game. We could go four plays and score. We could score from anywhere on the field. We could hand it off. We could run it. And, after a while, it's crazy, but you think you're never out of a game.

"We're hoping that will become their mindset."

Before the Louisville game, Brees told Purdue players about the link between their experience and his own 20 years earlier: New coach, new offense, emerging from a prolonged stretch of losing. "This is a new era of Purdue football," he told players, "and it starts tonight."

Brohm knows things will get tougher, beginning with Michigan. It will take time to build the roster to make a 2000-like run.

But just the fact that there is a little swagger, a likely sellout crowd and a new love of expecting the unexpected shows just how far things have come in such a short period of time.

"Running the plays Coach Brohm gives us, we don't have any doubt in our mind," Phillips said. "If your coach is aggressive, you become aggressive. If your coach is confident, you become confident.

"It's going to be a surprise when people see us beat Michigan. I wish we played Ohio State, too, because nobody can stop us right now except ourselves," Phillips said. "If we don't beat Purdue and turn over the ball, we win every game."

OK, so maybe that's bold talk for a team with just three Big Ten wins since 2012. But thanks to Brohm, suddenly anything seems possible at Purdue.

Mike Triplett contributed to this story.