Big Ten Team Preview: Purdue Boilermakers
WNUR Sports Director Cameron Songer (@CameronSonger) begins our team-by-team Big Ten preview with the Purdue Boilermakers.
It can’t get any worse, right? For Purdue fans and second-year head coach Darrell Hazell, that’s the thought going into 2014. Leaving behind a historically bad 1-11 (0-8 B1G) campaign from a year ago, the stark reality is that this season doesn’t look much better. But before looking at 2014, it’s worth looking at just how atrocious 2013 was, to see how far this team needs to go to be competitive in the Big Ten. The Boilermakers’ one win was a 20-14 mark against FCS also-ran Indiana State. That game went down to the wire. Purdue’s average margin of defeat was 23.1 points, and that includes just two single-digit losses. From an advanced-number standpoint, Purdue ranked below many FCS teams in Jeff Sagarin’s ratings. Based on those ratings, Purdue would have been a middle-of-the-pack team in the Ivy League. Remember, the Ivy League doesn’t give athletic scholarships, while Purdue is in the Big Ten. Needless to say, if we are to see years three and four of the Darrell Hazell era in West Lafayette, that can’t happen again.
Offense: Danny Etling was the main quarterback as a true freshman, taking over the starting job in October. He has potential to be good, but it’ll take time. Etling had a few too many turnovers, but that’s par for the course with a freshman quarterback.
His process of settling in will be aided by familiar targets at his sides. The top three running backs and top eight pass targets return. Continuity is good, but what about talent? The top weapon is Akeem Hunt, a WR/RB who led the team in rushing yards with 464. In a related story, Purdue didn’t run the ball well last year. Hunt is 2nd all time on Purdue’s kickoff return yards list, which will help the offense with field position. Up front, things don’t look so good. Etling got sacked on about 10% of dropbacks, and the team is losing 4 of its 5 starting linemen. There are only three guys left with starting experience, with 30 combined starts. It’s hard to see a silver lining in a group that was stuck on the depth chart behind one of the worst offensive lines in the country, but, uh, they’re picking up 6’8,” 375-pound juco transfer Cory Clemente. Unfortunately for Purdue, he can only fill one spot on the line. If the line isn’t better than last year, all the returning skill position players in the world can’t turn the Boilermakers into an offensive juggernaut.
Defense: Actually, Purdue’s defense is a lot like Northwestern’s in the “bend, don’t break” philosophy. The team leader in sacks (Bruce Gaston), tackles (Will Lucas), and interceptions (Ricardo Allen) have all graduated. The Boilermakers were 117th in the nation last year in “havoc plays”- passes defended, tackles for loss, and forced turnovers. They’ll need to find a new playmaker (or two, or three) to avoid having to play an extremely conservative style. One candidate is 6’5,” 275-pound senior DE/linebacker Ryan Russell. He has the physical tools and speed to put pressure on opposing backfields, but critics say his inconsistent play needs to improve. The secondary returns most of its starters, but departing Ricardo Allen had 6 interceptions. At this point, no name jumps out as a defensive back or safety who strikes fear in the hearts of opposing quarterbacks. Anthony Brown is the top returning tackler, and he plays cornerback. If you wanted to summarize Purdue’s defense last year, that fact is a good place to start.
Special Teams: Punter Cody Webster might have been the team MVP last year. He averaged 43.5 yards per punt and Purdue led the nation in punt efficiency. Webster graduated. Without him around, we might see more of the unit that somehow ranked 122nd in kickoff efficiency. Placekicker Paul Griggs is back, but he was exactly 50% on field goal attempts last year- with a 1/1 mark from inside 20 yards and 0/1 outside 50 yards. Since Purdue will likely be behind in most of the games they play, it might be wise to just go for six most times the Boilers find themselves in enemy territory. The bright spot on special teams is Akeem Hunt, the senior return man.
Prediction: We’ll get a sense of what to expect with this team in the first two weeks. The Boilermakers host Western Michigan and Central Michigan, and a poor showing in those games would indicate another long season in West Lafayette. The other two nonconference games are against Notre Dame in Indianapolis and at home against Southern Illinois. Purdue has played Notre Dame close recently, but let’s be realistic. A 3-1 mark in nonconference would be a big accomplishment for a team that won one game last year. In conference, Purdue avoids Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State. It gets Michigan State, Wisconsin and Iowa at home, but that shouldn’t matter. Road trips include Minnesota, Nebraska and Indiana. Purdue’s best chances for a conference win are October 4th at Illinois and November 22nd at home against Northwestern. I don’t see any conference wins for Purdue. The most entertaining game Purdue plays all year may be week 2 against Central Michigan. So, yeah, this is probably a 2-10 team. It would take a minor miracle for this team to get to 6-6 and bowl eligibility.