Travis Miller, an editor over at Hammer and Rails, graciously took some time to answer some questions I had about the upcoming matchup between the Minnesota Golden Gophers and the Purdue Boilermakers. Here is a summary of our correspondence:
TDG. So Purdue is 1-4 (0-1) on the year. But if you look a little closer, they have played some tough games (respectable 40th in the nation in S&P+ SOS) and been close on a few occasions (Bowling Green, Michigan State) against quality competition. Do you feel as if they have been closer to realizing their potential even though the record may not indicate it or does the record accurately depict what this team is at this juncture in the season?
H & R: I think it accurately depicts where they are, mostly because in three of the four losses they hurt themselves. When the first play from scrimmage on the season is a pick-six given up those are self-inflicted wounds. Against Marshall Purdue missed a field goal and gave up two pick-sixes in a 10-point loss. Against Virginia Tech Purdue gave up a fumble-six and a blocked punt for six. Against Bowling Green Purdue had three chances from the two to get a touchdown and the lead before halftime and didn’t get it in, missing an 18 yard field goal. Bowling Green then marched down and scored to make it a 14 point swing in a 7 point loss (a Purdue pick-six was also called back on a penalty). Against Michigan State the Spartans turned two fumbles into 14 points. Purdue is definitely a better football team right now, but until it figures out how to stop hurting itself the record won’t show it.
TDG: The Boilermakers made a valiant effort on Saturday in a tough environment against the #2 team in the country but still came up just short. What is the pulse of the program right now in regards to Coach Darrell Hazell? Is there a hot seat at all? Or does he have until year 4 to show improvement in the program's current trajectory?
H & R: Hazell is going to get a fourth year barring an abject disaster the rest of the way and another 1-11 season. Yeah, he might have to fire his coordinators to do it (and we DO NOT LIKE John Shoop), but he will be in West Lafayette. Many people are starting to turn because only two wins over FBS programs in 2.5 years is really, really bad, but when you’re recovering from a 2013 season that might have been one of the worst Big Ten teams of all time you have a large climb ahead.
As I said above, Purdue is at least closer. Change a play or two against Marshall and Bowling Green and they are 3-2 right now, which is about what people expected as a best case scenario. I think they definitely have a chance in all four Big Ten home games (Minnesota, Nebraska, Illinois, and Indiana) to get a few wins. If the team that played Michigan State in the second half shows up at Wisconsin, Iowa, or Northwestern they might steal one on the road, too. If Hazell can go into 2016 at 4-8 or 5-7 people will calm down a bit even after a 1-4 start.
TDG: Minnesota, despite it's offensive struggles, continues to rank highly in the advanced statistics both defensively (11th in S&P+ nationally), mostly through limiting teams' success in the air, and overall (24th overall), because the defense is so highly rated. How do you see Purdue attempting to have success on the offensive side of the ball against a banged up Gopher defense on Saturday? Who will be the key play makers on that side of the ball for the Boilermakers?
H & R: True freshman Markell Jones has been very impressive at running back. He leads Purdue in rushing with 405 yards and 5 TDs and he went for 157 and two scores against Michigan State. Last season he set the state HS record in Indiana for single season rushing yards with over 3,800 and 60 TDs. So far he has a pair of 60+ yard TD runs and has been a nice compliment to D.J. Knox.
David Blough has also done pretty well in his first two starts for a redshirt freshman at QB. Austin Appleby started the season, but with six interceptions in two games (Marshall and Virginia Tech) he was not taking care of the ball. Blough only has two picks, but one was with 9 seconds left against Bowling Green just after they had taken the lead and another was on 4th down against Michigan State and was essentially a punt. He has played very smart for a redshirt freshman and he even has some mobility with his legs.
TDG: Purdue ranks 76th in S&P+ defense while the Gophers are 81st in offense. First, let me admit I am shocked the Gophers aren't 100th or lower in offense. Second, do you see the Boilermakers reviewing tape of the Northwestern game and deciding to aggressively stack the box until a Gopher QB, whether it be Mitch Leidner or Demry Croft, can show they can throw successfully into one-on-one coverage? Who might be a key component to the defense's possible (re: probable) success on Saturday?
H & R: That will be interesting to see, because I don’t think Purdue’s defense has put together a full game yet. There are some positives like 38 tackles for loss through 5 games, but the secondary often looked out of position against Bowling Green and Virginia Tech, a pretty lousy offense, marched up and down the field at will. Sophomore linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley has been very impressive and he is easily the best linebacker we have had in a decade. Antoine Miles is also getting some nice pressure off the edge and has four sacks. Our corners in Anthony Brown and Frankie Williams are two of the better corners in the league, but we have played so much soft zone (and been exploited by it) that I don’t know about their one-on-one work.
TDG: The Gophers, who generally pride themselves on field position and special teams success, haven't really lived up to the billing in that phase of the game so far this season. What do you think will be the number one key factor to who wins and who goes home 0-2 in conference play on Saturday? You can be as specific or as generic as you want.
H & R: Will Purdue beat itself? That has been Purdue’s biggest problem this year and it cost the Boilers the game in Minneapolis last year. Remember: Purdue had a critical third down stop erased because Taylor Richards committed a stupid personal foul penalty away from the play, keeping alive the drive where Ryan Santoso hit the game winning field goal. Later Appleby fumble trying to convert a 4th and 1 that would have kept Purdue alive for a go ahead field goal. Purdue has played well enough to win in all but one game this year (Virginia Tech was a disaster). If it finally avoids shooting itself in the foot, it wins.
TDG: Finally, what is your "official" prediction for the game? Will it be a thriller like last year? A blowout one way or the other? Honestly, it would appear that any result is on the table with these two teams in their current state.
H & R: I think it will be a close one because I don’t trust Purdue to avoid mistakes, but Minnesota’s offense has been really, really bad. We desperately need a win of any kind, however, and this feels like a really good chance. I think our players see it as such too, especially after nearly shocking Michigan State. I am going to go with a Purdue win somewhere in the 21-17 range.
Thanks for the great responses Travis! Enjoy the game on Saturday. Hopefully it will be an exciting contest lacking in injuries and ref-related controversies.