By CLIFF BRUNT
AP Sports Writer
INDIANAPOLIS -- Purdue's secondary was a liability last year, but now it's an asset.
The defensive backfield started to assert itself when it intercepted three passes against Ohio State. After a shaky game at Michigan, Purdue held Iowa to 177 passing yards and a 43 percent completion rate in a 31-6 win. Last week against Northwestern, the Boilermakers held the Big Ten's top passing team to 208 passing yards and intercepted C.J. Bacher three times in a 35-17 win.
"I'm not sure I would label them as the strength of our defense, but they certainly have improved much like we said we thought they would at the start of the season," Purdue coach Joe Tiller said Tuesday at his weekly news conference.
Purdue (7-2, 3-2 Big Ten) hopes to continue its success Saturday at Penn State (6-3, 3-3).
Purdue ranked 104th nationally in passing yards allowed per game last season. The Boilermakers rank 76th this year, but 20th in pass efficiency defense.
The key player has been Terrell Vinson, a senior cornerback who leads the team with five interceptions and 53 tackles.
"Terrell's playing awfully well right now," Tiller said. "I think he has a good demeanor for a defensive back in that he has a short memory."
Vinson intercepted two passes in the first half against Northwestern and had two picks against Notre Dame. He leads the Big Ten with 14 passes defended and ranks seventh nationally with 1.56 per game. His interception total is the most for a Purdue player since Stuart Schweigert picked off six in 2001.
Tiller said Vinson's experience has been the key.
"He's the type of guy that's mature in how he handles situations, and as a result, he continues to make plays."
Vinson said the secondary is playing with confidence.
"As a DB, you always want to be able to make plays," he said. "When the opportunity is there, you just have to make them. Now I'm starting to make them, and so is everyone else on the secondary and on the defense."
Things weren't so good earlier in the season. The Boilermakers yielded 364 passing yards against Central Michigan and 377 against Notre Dame.
But the Boilermakers have become older and wiser. Last season, the secondary was injury-plagued. Now, Vinson has made 21 consecutive starts, safety Justin Scott has 10 straight starts and safety Brandon King has started every game this season.
Even with major injuries keeping safety Torri Williams and cornerback Brandon Erwin out, the defensive backfield continues to shine.
That has made things easier for the offense. Quarterback Curtis Painter, who often was forced to try to outscore opponents his first two years as a starter, appreciates that the defense is giving up fewer big plays.
"That's huge for us when we play the tougher teams," he said. "We're not going to be able to score every time. The last few weeks, our defense has played great. It gives our offense an opportunity to relax and just play."