Big Ten Previews, Pt. 1: Purdue Boilermakers

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I get the feeling that as long as head coach Darrell Hazell is posting 1-11 records, this preview will begin pretty much the same way every year . . . questioning the wisdom behind firing previous head coach Danny Hope. In Hope’s four seasons as engineer, the Boilermakers went 5-7 (2009), 4-8 (2010), 7-6 (2011), and 6-6 (2012), and while those records are hardly spectacular, one has to figure the Purdue brass would rather have its football team go 6-6 and earn a bowl trip than 1-11, like it did in Hazell’s debut campaign. I hate to say it, Purdue fans, but the days of Joe Tiller regularly going 9-4 are likely behind you.

2013 RECAP The season began with a 42-7 throttling at the hands of a mediocre Cincinnati team. The Boilermakers then thanked their lucky stars for an opening kickoff returned for a touchdown against FCS Indiana State (which resulted in the touchdown the Boilermakers needed to eke out a 20-14 win) and briefly showed signs of life against twenty-first-ranked Notre Dame, scaring the Fighting Irish out of West Lafayette grateful to have stolen a 31-24 win. And it just got ugly from there. The Boilermakers allowed 8.1 yards per rush in a 41-10 bulldozing at the hands of the Wisconsin Badgers. The Boilermakers sat and watched as Northern Illinois’ Jordan Lynch carved up its secondary, completing 72% of his passes en route to a 55-24 blasting. Ameer Abdullah averaged 10 yards per carry as the Huskers demolished Purdue 44-7. Michigan State and Ohio State shut the Boilermakers out in back-to-back weeks, 14-0 and 56-0.

Average score, first eight games: Opponent 37.1, Purdue 11.5 (1-7)
Average score, last four games: Opponent 39.8, Purdue 21.8 (0-4)

Despite posting a zero in the all-important “win” column, the Boilermaker offense did show signs of improvement in the last four games of 2013. The offense perked up a bit (if you squint you can see it); although 36 points against a horrid Indiana defense does skew the numbers a bit. (It’s better than the “zero” they averaged against Michigan State and Ohio State.) Okay, I was really reaching there. This was one of the worst teams in FBS-level football, finishing 157th in the final Sagarin rankings (behind forty-six FCS teams) and 114th in the F/+ efficiency rankings, the lowest of any power conference team.

PURDUE OFFENSE
This offense was bad. Under Hazell, Purdue runs a low-risk, run-first, efficiency-based offense that rarely tries for the big play and simply tries to focus on getting the chains moved in order to keep your defense out of a tough spot. The key ingredients for a successful pro-style offense are a running back who can get four or five yards when asked, a quarterback who doesn’t turn the ball over and is capable of hitting a receiver on a horizontal route, and an offensive line that can hold it all together. Purdue had none of these three ingredients. After a rocky start Hazell benched senior Rob Henry and burned the redshirt of true freshman Danny Etling. Initially Etling was a mess (like any freshman jumping into FBS-level football for the first time), but at least completed a few more passes and threw a few fewer interceptions. Better yet, Etling improved as the season went along.

First four starts: 5.3 yards per attempt, 45.8% completion
Second four starts: 7.2 yards per attempt, 65.8% completion

Overlooking the fact that two of those defenses were Illinois and Indiana, that’s the type of marked improvement you like to see out of a freshman quarterback, and signs of life for an offense that struggled to move the chains in 2013. Incoming true freshman David Blough offers a bit more mobility and may challenge Etling for the starting role, but I think Etling has it locked up barring a miserable fall camp and/or injury.

Now if only he could have gotten any help from his running backs. Akeem Hunt was the man toting the pigskin in 2013, and while he was a dangerous returner, his 3.8 yards per carry weren’t enough to get it done, especially in the first two-thirds of the season when Purdue found itself in second- and third-and-ten (or worse) a lot. Look for him to continue to split carries with fellow senior Brandon Cottom and probably see a little of redshirt freshman Keyante Green mixed in, too, but a miserable offensive line doesn’t appear poised to improve much, if at all, so they’ll have to do a lot of work themselves.

At the receiver spot Etling has several familiar faces to choose from as Purdue returns all of its major contributors, namely sophomore DeAngelo Yancey, Etling’s big-play target from 2013 who averaged 17 yards per catch. Beyond that, Etling targeted Hunt and tight end Justin Sinz more than any receiver, so Purdue will want to get more production out of Danny Anthrop and Cameron Posey.

But really, they just need to score more dang points. If they could even get inside the opponent’s 40, the Boilermakers averaged just 3.3 points per trip. Was the scheme too complicated? Were the right players just not in place? Etling’s improvement down the stretch seems to provide a bit of silver lining, but if Purdue wants to improve on its 1-11 record it needs to score more.

PURDUE DEFENSE
Now about that defense. I can’t decide where to point the finger, at the front four or the secondary. The front four was abysmal, allowing opposing rushers 2,825 yards and 28 touchdowns on the season. The secondary was worse, allowing 27 touchdowns and a first down on one of every three passing attempts. Theoretically, if an offense didn’t even have a running back on the roster and could literally only throw passes, they still would have scored on 100% of their possessions if the law of averages would’ve played out. It’s a situation where you aren’t sure if it was players or scheme, but either way, the Boilermakers just couldn’t get it done. To make matters worse, the Boilermakers lose a few playmakers: namely, senior defensive back Ricardo Allen who led the Boilermakers in interceptions with six, linebacker/leading tackler Will Lucas, and defensive lineman Bruce Gaston (the ideal name for a muscle-bound automaton, IMO).

Left behind are defensive linemen Ryan Russell and Jalani Phillips, who will have to almost personally engineer a turnaround for a front four that got routinely gouged by opposing running backs and scored just six sacks against opposing quarterbacks in conference play. Helping them out will be sophomore Ra’Zahn Howard, who batted down a few passes at the line of scrimmage in 2013. Out back in the secondary . . . the cupboard isn’t exactly full. Junior Anthony Brown returns, though a large number of tackles for a cornerback can be misleading (while it can mean that he’s all over the field blowing up plays, it usually just means the receiver he was defending got thrown to a lot, which means quarterbacks weren’t afraid of him).

PURDUE SPECIAL TEAMS More likely by circumstance than by design, Purdue’s special teams was its strongest unit in 2013, but poor Purdue will have to replace punter Cody Webster, who was a seriously talented punter headed to play for the Pittsburgh Steelers. On the other end, the Boilermakers retain the kickoff return services of Hunt, who averaged 26 yards per return in 2013 and is always a threat to take a kickoff the distance (and if he hadn’t against Indiana State in week two, Purdue would’ve been winless in 2013).

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2014 SCHEDULE While the schedule sets up better than 2013 (Ohio State and Penn State rotate off the schedule for Northwestern and Minnesota), I’m not sure that it matters much for Purdue, who will likely find themselves out-gunned by most of their opponents. While I expect Purdue to be an improved football team in 2014, I don’t anticipate that said improvement will result in many more wins. Optimistically, 3-9 or 4-8 is possible, but realistically, even the directional schools aren’t gimmes if Purdue can’t improve a lot on defense.

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