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A way too early look at the 2009 Schedule - Week 6 - Purdue

Purudue_fb_mediumAfter this game, the music dies. No offense to Purdue fans but this is the last game on the schedule before we hit the Big Ten buzzsaw. The Boilermakers at home is a must win before we head to Happy Valley and Columbus, return home for Michigan State and Illinois, get a break with SDSU and then we travel again to Iowa. Because of our brutal schedule and because Purdue is the consensus 10th best team in the Big Ten this is the most overlooked game on our schedule. Well, NOT TODAY my friends. With the help of Travis over at Hammer and Rails we are going to look at the Boilermakers.

With so little buzz coming out of Purdue this year and with all of the "experts" predicting a 10th place finish for the Boilermakers, I started my questioning with Travis on this very subject.

TDG - Nobody is very high on Purdue this year as they seem to be the consensus pick to finish 10th in the conference (thank God for Indiana huh?). I want you to tell me what we are all missing. Why will Purdue actually be the surprise team of the Big Ten? Or what has to go right for the Boilermakers to have a successful season, defying all of the experts?

HnR - Attitude is the key here. No one expects anything, especially the media. I was given press access for the spring game and it was disappointing in the press box, but exciting on the sidelines. The press was openly mocking the team, saying Danny Hope and Bill Lynch could be the worst coaching pair in Big Ten history.

Once I went down to the sidelines though I was encouraged. This team believes in itself a lot more than it did last year. There are no stars, while last year was mostly Painter and Sheets. Everyone is on board with Coach Hope's new philosophy, as Boiled Sports points out, former walk-on Adam Wolf came up with the marketing idea of O.N.E. (Opportunity Now for Everyone). This team is truly a team, and I think we have been missing that for awhile. I firmly believe we will be much better than people think. The defense has a ton of experience, while our running game is deeper than it has ever been. That will give Elliott time to learn the game, but I think as a fifth year senior he will be just fine in the offense. All we need are a few consistent receivers. Personally, I think we can get six wins and get to a bowl.

So maybe Travis is just drinking the kool-aid, or maybe he is seeing something the rest of the pundits do not. Everyone, not intimately familiar with a school's program takes a look at returning starters, star players, key positions, recruiting classes, etc to make their "accurate" predictions. What can be missed are the teams capable of playing above their ceiling because the sum of their parts is truly greater than it's pieces. I don't think anybody is predicting Rose Bowl for the Boilermakers, but they are certainly talented enough to win more games than expected and make a bowl game.

I am no different in that I look first at returning starters, then I see if any of the returners are returning all-conference or pre-season all-conference, then I look at key positions (QB, OL, defense). But I'm not intimate enough with any of our opponents to know them like their fans do. So I ask more from Travis...

TDG- Just 11 returning starters, is the glass half full or half empty?

HnR - Half full. I love our defense. We appear to have real live linebackers for once and our defensive line has become a strength. Our secondary is among the most experienced in the Big Ten, and I think this is the year it finally comes together. It really showed some things last year in a few games, but the offense was awful. I pick the Minnesota game as an example. They basically gave up two big plays and those led to both touchdowns. The rest of the day our defense played fantastic, but the offense gave it zero help.

On offense, we essentially get a starter back that is not listed in running back Jaycen Taylor. Taylor tore his ACL in fall camp last year and had to redshirt. He will give us experience at a position with a lot of depth in Ralph Bolden, Dan Dierking, and true freshman Al-Terek McBurse. Joey Elliott, as a fifth year senior is about what you want as a first-time starter at quarterback. In him, I see some shades of Billy Dicken circa 1997.

Purdue on Offense

When looking at Purdue's offense the obvious place to start is with what is missing. Gone are the Boilermaker's leading passer, rusher and receivers; Curtis Painter, Kory Sheets, Greg Orton and Desmond Tardy respectively.

TDG - Who is going to step in and replace last year's leading passer, rusher and receiver? Are these changes exciting or are the met with fear and trepidation?

HnR - As mentioned, Joey Elliott will be the starter. He has been Painter's caddy for the last three years, but likely would have gotten a lot more time had he not separated his shoulder against Northwestern. I think he will be the perfect caretaker before Caleb TerBush, Rob Henry, or Robert Marve takes over in 2010. He has done well in mop-up action the last three years, but has never started. He does know the system inside and out though.

Taking over for running back Kory Sheets will be a tandem of Taylor, McBurse, Bolden, and Dierking. Bolden had a great spring while Taylor was still limited. McBurse enrolled early to go through spring practice, but ended up not taking part because the NCAA didn't officially clear him until late April. Personally, I think we will rely a lot more on the running game than we have in the past because it should be a major strength. As for receivers, your guess is as good as mine. Aaron Valentin and Keith Smith are the top two returning players there, but every spot is wide open. JuCo transfer Keith Carlos will likely see some time, as well as a number of our Florida Freshmen.

Our biggest problem last season was that we never had a consistent offensive line. Seemingly everyone was hurt and missed spring football in 2008, but we were finally healthy here this past spring. It should help immensely.

For what was a promising and experienced offense, 2008 was rather disappointing in West Lafayette. The Boilermaker offense was 4th in total offense (2nd in passing, 10th in rushing) and 7th in points scored. Contributing to the disappointing 2-6 Big Ten record.

As Travis noted above, there is no star power on this offense. A year after Sheets and Painter have moved on, maybe this offense will be able to gel and play together as a unit. Passing the ball has never been a problem at Purdue and I would expect Joey Elliot will be just fine throwing the ball around. Much like our Gophers, the real question will be can they improve on what was one of the worst rushing games in the conference? Also like the Gophers there are a few guys willing, able and eager to carry the ball. But will the offensive line improve and will one of their backs step up and be the reliable back who gets the bulk of the carries?

Purdue on Defense

The Boilermaker defense was equally as unbalanced as the offense. Very good against the pass and terrible at stopping the run.

TDG - Tell me about the defense. Last year they lead the B10 in pass defense, but were last against the run. Can we expect more of the same this year or are changes being made to bring this to a happy medium?

HnR - The pass defense was so good because the run defense was so bad. Who needs to pass when we can't stop the run? It was especially embarrassing at Notre Dame when we gave up 200 yards to a team that had no running game for 15 straight games before that. It got better though as the season went on. The numbers were high because we played Oregon, who can hang 400 rushing yards on anyone. At Ohio State we did a great job of keeping Beanie Wells and Terrelle Prior in check. Ohio State didn't have an offensive touchdown all day, but unfortunately our offense didn't make the trip. We got our only three points on a school-record 53 yard field goal. The run defense should be better, especially if the offense can stay on the field by utilizing the running game more.

That seemed pretty obvious, why would teams bother to pass the ball when there was very little resistance on the ground. Unfortunately our ground game managed to accumulate the fewest yards against the Purdue defense. 109 yards rushing against the league's worst rush defense is pretty embarrassing and it just points out badly we needed to see a change in philosophy. This game will be a very good judge of how effective our new ground game really is. I expect the Purdue defense will be more focused on stopping the run but I have higher expectations for our ground game and bigger strides should be made there.

Let's get to know the Boilermaker defense a little bit...

TDG - Can I get a paragraph summarizing each positional group (DL, LB, DB).

HnR - Our defensive line is led by end Ryan Kerrigan. He looks to be the next in a long line of defensive ends that we consistently send to the NFL. I also like tackle Mike Neal a lot because he plays with a ton of intensity. Redshirt freshman Kawann Short could have a breakout season, as there are some seriously high expectations for him. Gerald Gooden has also shown some good things at the other end position.

At linebacker we should have our best group in years if Jason Werner is finally healthy. We've been waiting for Werner to get over some back issues for three years, but each time he is healthy in practices coaches have said he is our best linebacker. Unfortunately, he was "a few weeks away" for every game last season and didn't play at all despite being supposedly healthy when camp started. Joe Holland and Chris Carlino are both sophomores, but they learned by fire last year as freshmen. Carlino was especially impressive by doing very well as a true freshman in the middle. Incoming freshmen Dwayne Beckford and Antwon Higgs are both very promising and each was able to enroll early and go through spring football. They give us depth at a position that is young and will only get better.

The secondary is by far the best unit on the defense. Safety Torri Williams has battled injuries and legal troubles his entire career, but he was granted a 6th year of eligibility by the NCAA after missing all of 2005 with a broken leg, all but he first half of the first game of 2006 with a shredded knee, and half of 2007 with a torn Achilles. As long as he doesn't steal anymore condoms, drive drunk, or help buddies in bar fights he should be fine. Brandon King and David Pender are two very good senior corners, while Dwight McLean should make a big leap in his second year out of JuCo.

Sounds like Travis is excited about his team improving on last year's 2-6 conference season. The DL is young but could be on the verge of a breakout season, the LBs are the best they've seen in years and the secondary is their best unit. I'll grant him that the secondary is experienced and they were successful a year ago. But the rest of the defense is either young or has injuries keeping him from taking big strides. This defense is lacking depth and experience. But this defense can improve and most of that improvement will come from an improved offense. Last year's offense was brutal and much like the 2007 version of the Gophers the offense put the defense in a number of brutal situations. Will the defense be better? At this time of year everyone believes their team will be better for whatever reason. It's possible but my money is on a lower half caliber defense coming out of Purdue this season.

What to Expect

This is one of those classic games where both teams and fan bases believe this is at minimum winable and most likely a win because the other team is mediocre at best. I don't know if this game is a lock, but this is another must-win for the Gophers. A team we beat a year ago, a team that is not returning a ton of starters and a team that we are playing at home before we head to Happy Valley and Columbus. This schedule is going to get ugly and the success of the season hinges on games like this. I know I harped on this in the Wisconsin preview, but this is really a must win.

I expect that the Gophers will desperately try to establish the run. That is going to be a key in all games this year but this one in particular will showcase that this team is not just capable of running the ball but dominating a game by controlling the ball and running until the other team stops you. Purdue was terrible against the run in 2008 and we barely notched 100 yards on the ground. If this team is more than just committed to running the ball, but actually are capable of it, then expect that to change.

After reading Travis's thoughts on what he sees as the cohesiveness and the unity of the 2009 Boilermakers, I am more nervous about this game than I was prior, but we still win this game.

Minnesota - 31
Purdue - 10

what say you?...