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First four games pivotal to coach Jeff Brohm’s second Purdue Boilermakers football season

Purdue's Markus Bailey, left, intercepts a pass intended for Indiana's Mitchell Paige during their game Nov. 26, 2016, in Bloomington. (Photo by the Associated Press)

A college football team’s season can’t be definitively determined in the first month, but it could come close for coach Jeff Brohm and his Purdue Boilermakers.

The Boilers open Brohm’s second season with four straight home games: Northwestern in a Big Ten showdown, Eastern Michigan, Missouri and Boston College.

A 4-0 start would be tremendous, 3-1 would put the Boilers in good shape, 2-2 would be a so-so start and anything else would be a huge downer.

“I do like playing a tough opponent the first game,” Brohm said earlier this week at Big Ten media day. “Last year, we played a Louisville opponent that was heavily a favorite against us. We found a way to keep it close coming in at halftime with the lead. And even though we didn’t win, we gained a lot from that loss, and it helped us for the next couple of weeks, for sure. So that first game’s important.”

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Purdue’s close loss to Louisville was a rare loss that felt almost as good as a win because players had been so accustomed to uncompetitive losses in previous seasons. Purdue went on to be competitive nearly every game, winning a bowl game and finishing 7-6.

Close losses won’t cut it in Brohm’s second season, with the possible exception of battles with Top 10 foes such as Ohio State or Wisconsin.

There’s certainly nothing to be gained in a close loss among the first four opponents. Northwestern is tough, coming off a 10-3 season, but the other three games to follow are ones Purdue should find a way to beat: Eastern Michigan finished 5-7 last season and Missouri and Boston College were both 7-6. Purdue whipped Missouri 35-3 last season.

“It’s important to start the season the way we finished,” Brohm said. “And sometimes that’s hard to do. But there’s got to be great focus. There’s got to be great leadership amongst our team in order to get that done.”

Brohm hints that it’s much tougher to keep rising after a surprising first season. By taking the Boilermakers to a bowl game, he set a minimum standard at a higher level than it has been in some time.

“Purdue football is excited to be in the mix, and we’re excited the expectations have risen,” Brohm said. “I think our players will respond and every game is going to be important to us. But we’re looking forward to Game 1.”

Winning home games will be one way for Brohm to continue to meet and raise expectations. After those first four to open, Purdue has home games later against Ohio State, Iowa and Wisconsin. Winning two out of those three would be considered a huge step forward.

“Last year, we were competitive in games,” Brohm said. “Hopefully, this year we can find a way to win a few big games. But our home schedule is going to be difficult for us, which is good it’s at home, but we have some good opponents with Northwestern and Boston College, Missouri, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Iowa. We’ve got our hands full.”

Purdue returns two capable quarterbacks in David Blough and Elijah Sindelar, and that battle will be among the more intriguing preseason spots to be determined within the Big Ten.

Brohm has more than a few holes to fill with his defense, which will be a priority during that first month of the season when lineups and rotations fall into place.

Four defensive starters return: linebacker Markus Bailey, lineman Lorenzo Neal and defensive backs Jacob Thieneman and Navon Mosley.

“Our margin for error is not big, so we understand that, we get it,” Brohm said. “That’s why coaching has to be great, our players have to not beat themselves. But I do think our guys are looking forward to this season. I think they believe we have improved. I think they firmly believe we’ve made strides. And I know they’re encouraged with the progress we made, and I think they worked extremely hard to this point.”

Can those strides lead to more than seven wins, a high Big Ten West Division finish, a better bowl? We’re likely to learn a lot in the season’s first month’s worth of games.

“It wasn’t until halftime in the first game against Louisville where we came in with a lead, came into our locker room, you would have thought we won a Super Bowl,” Brohm said. “Our guys were happy. You could see that belief that, you know what, maybe we’re a little better than we thought. Maybe we can compete against these teams. While we didn’t finish the game, it was something we built on.”

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