JDMill: So last year was, um... not good for Purdue, going 1-11 and losing every B1G game they played. We know that not many people gave the Boilermakers a shot this year, but what were the expectations from Purdue's fan base coming into 2014?
Travis Miller: We wanted to see improvement. Honestly, last year could not have gone worse. Even in the one victory we barely defeated an FCS team that also went 1-11. Purdue's offense was horrible and the running game in particular was historically bad. We have at least seen that improvement. The offensive line is light years better and through the first 6 games the Boilers ran for more yards and touchdowns than they did in all 12 last year.
The Central Michigan game was a grave disappointment, but this team has grown by leaps and bounds since then. Now they are to the point where a bowl game is possible with a couple of breaks. I think they could still beat Northwestern and Indiana, meaning one more win somewhere else gets them to six even with that ugly CMU loss. [Editor's Note: /looks around with skepticism //sees what you did there]
JD: Congratulations are in order for Darrell Hazell! He got his first B1G win faster than Tim Beckman, and against Beckman's team, no less. Of course, Beckman got his first, and only, B1G win over Purdue last year. What is the perception among the fan base regarding Hazell and the job he is doing at Purdue?
TM: I think the fans are starting to turn around and see that he had the big picture in mind. Yes, 4-15 in the first 19 is awful, but he completely gutted the team last year and playing a bunch of young players is starting to bear fruit. As of right now Purdue has a total of six seniors starting on the offense and defense combined, and their potential replacements next season are getting plenty of reps. Every player that made a big play last week, short of Akeem Hunt, will be back next season, so things are coming around slowly.
There wasn't any "quick-fix" that he tried to implement like coach Hope did. Hazell has tried to systematically change the entire culture of the team. The last two weeks (and even the defensive performance against Iowa) have done a lot to get the fans back on his side. The move to Austin Appleby instead of Danny Etling has done a lot too. I think Etling is more talented than Appleby, but Appleby has the right mental makeup for the job. After just two games we have seen it.
JD: Purdue gives up 30 points/game, while scoring about 27/game, but both of those numbers are marked improvements over last season when the Boilers gave up 38 and scored 15. What have been the keys to such improvement and Purdue playing tighter games?
TM: I think the fact that the offense is an actual threat to do something. The 38 per game last season is a little misleading. In several games Purdue was close at halftime thanks to its defense, but since the offense was so bad the defense eventually wore down. You saw much of the same in the Iowa game. The defense was great for three quarters and we were tied 10-10 thanks to the D even giving us 7 points. The offense did nothing though, and it all fell apart late.
Since Appleby took over everything just looks better. That's the best way I can explain it. He is throwing shorter passes with better accuracy and the running game is coming on as a result. Akeem Hunt is busting big plays again too.
JD: The Boilermakers have put a bit of a scare into Gopher fans by keeping things close with Michigan State last weekend. How did Purdue manage to put up 31 points on that highly ranked Spartan defense?
TM: The team simply didn't quit. They were down 21-3 early and 38-17 late, but kept digging and fighting. Two huge mistakes by Michigan State (an interception and long return by Frankie Williams and a ridiculous fake punt called by Dantonio) helped, but the Boilers showed a lot of fight that wasn't there last season. It was encouraging to see even if the offense took the third quarter off (as it often does). Hunt had a big day with three TDs and Appleby was great at limiting his mistakes until the final pick 6.
JD: It's no secret the Gophers are a grind-it-out, control the clock, run first offense. How do you expect Purdue to match up defensively?
TM: Well, as long as you throw over the middle on third and 7 or longer you'll be fine. We're absolutely atrocious on third down, especially third and long. I just don't get it. I have more confidence we'll stop third and 1 because we know it is likely a run than third and long. Shoot, at Illinois, we gave up a 3rd and 21 to Reilly O'Toole, who had been standing on the sidelines freezing for 3 hours until that play. At this point it is just inexplicable that we cannot stop third and long at all.
The run defense has gone through fits and starts. It was pretty good against Notre Dame, Southern Illinois, and Illinois, but has struggled at other times. I am encouraged that Minnesota is straightforward and doesn't pass well. Purdue can focus on stopping the run and dare them to pass.
JD: Purdue has the 67th ranked rushing offense, and the 104th ranked passing offense in the country. In general, how are they managing to put up 27 points/game, and more specifically, how do you expect them to attack a Gopher defense that ranks 115th in the country in yards given up, but 15th in the country in scoring defense?
TM: It will be interesting, to say the least. Keyante Green, a redshirt freshman, has been a very pleasant surprise as a between the tackles runner. Hunt and Raheem Mostert are most effective when they get outside and have space to make plays with their speed. Appleby has done well within himself while making plays with his feet if necessary. If he keeps mixing things up and limiting his mistakes it will be huge.
JD: Overall, what is the confidence level of Purdue fans as the Boilermakers head to Minneapolis?
TM: It is higher than it has been in some time. We actually look like a Big Ten football team at times, which is more than we can say about last year.
JD: Prediction time. Who wins? How do they make it happen? What is the final score?
TM: I think we see a close game where the team that makes the fewest mistakes wins. Minnesota has had Purdue's number at the Bank since it opened, however, so I would still go with the Gophers.