The Minnesota Golden Gophers are rolling now after a 40-17 win over the Illinois Fighting Illini last Saturday. Next up? The Purdue Boilermakers, fresh off their firing of head coach Darrell Hazell. If the Gophers can beat Purdue on Saturday, they’ll extend their current win streak to four games. That would also be four straight wins over the Boilermakers, something the Gophers have never accomplished. Ahead of this potentially historic matchup, we turn to Travis Miller, an editor for SB Nation’s Purdue blog Hammer and Rails, for the inside scoop on the Boilermakers from West Lafayette.
The Daily Gopher: Darrell Hazell will spend the rest of his Saturdays this season at home in his recliner because apparently a .500 record against Illinois isn't good enough at Purdue. Go figure. Why do you think Hazell was so unsuccessful at Purdue?
Travis Miller: I think a lot of it had to do with the underlying issues that go back at least 10 years. The simplest way of saying it is that Morgan Burke never invested in the program enough after Joe Tiller’s 1997-2004 run. The facility improvements were never there and commitment from the administration faltered. As ticket sales declined and the Big Ten Network money started coming in, that BTN money went to other projects, while football continued to decline. Burke tried to go cheap with Danny Hope and it didn’t work out. He tried to spend on coaches with Hazell and his assistants but they were awful coaches and the facilities were woefully behind the rest of the conference, so we couldn’t get recruits.
Basically, Hazell tried to be Jim Tressel with MAC level (or lower) recruits in the Big Ten. It doesn’t work.
TDG: Just from checking in at Hammer & Rails from time to time, I know that a lot of fans have been calling for a head coaching change for a while now. But where does Purdue go from here? Where do you look for your next head coach? And how many times has Les Miles been mentioned in your comments section?
TM: Les Miles is a popular name. P.J. Fleck is a popular one. Jeff Brohm, Bo Pelini, etc. What’s more important is that there is a continued financial commitment behind whoever gets the job. We will finish a new $65 million “football performance facility” in August that will upgrade our locker rooms and such to at least the same level as the Big Ten. The Board of Trustees also finally caved (with Big Ten pressure) and will install permanent lights this offseason. There are some other proposed improvements to the stadium that need to be done, but the biggest thing is an actual commitment to compete.
President Mitch Daniels and the Board have both been on record as saying they do not wish to get into an athletics arms race. What they fail to realize is that by virtue of being in the Big Ten they already ARE in an athletics arms race. Until they see that, nothing will change.
TDG: Purdue was tied 17-all at halftime with No. 24-ranked Penn State last Saturday. Then someone barricaded the door to the locker room and the Nittany Lions romped to a final score of 62-24 in the second half. Exactly what happened to this team after halftime of that game? Asking for a friend named Tracy.
TM: Turnovers and defensive breakdowns. Because of a couple of interceptions, a muffed punt, and a failed onside kick, Penn State got the ball inside the Purdue 40-yard line four times in the second half and scored four touchdowns all four times. Saquon Barkley also broke an 82-yard run.
Just before halftime Purdue appeared to score a touchdown to go up 24-17, but Markell Jones was just barely out of bounds at the 28. Purdue was stopped from there and missed a field goal. If it goes into halftime up 24-17, [Purdue] has the ball coming out and maybe things are a little different. Instead, we didn’t score, threw a pick on the third play of the half, and things escalated from there.
TDG: The Boilermakers are 3-5. Sophomore quarterback David Blough leads the Big Ten in passing yards. Explain this, please.
TM: Well, our running game has not been consistent at all unless we’re playing Eastern Kentucky, Nevada, or Illinois. Our top three running backs are playing injured and the offensive line is not consistently opening holes for them.
Defensively, we cannot stop the run. At one point early in the second half on Saturday, I Tweeted that we had only given up 17 yards on the ground. We gave up 240 yards after that Tweet. We’re down to basically three healthy Big Ten caliber defensive linemen and we’re 121st nationally against the run, giving up 250 yards per game. We’re also bloody awful on third downs defensively. The last few weeks have seen improvement, but that only lifts us to 125th nationally from dead last.
Oh, and turnovers are a major issue. Purdue has only gotten five interceptions and has thrown 15. With fumbles factored in, we’re -12 for the season in turnover ratio.
TDG: The S&P+ rankings do not love Purdue on defense. They're ranked near the bottom of the country in virtually every defensive category. Is this an issue of talent? Superior competition? Or was Darrell Hazell asleep at the wheel when he hired his defensive coaching staff?
TM: Yes, yes, and yes. We have a few talented guys. Markus Bailey is a very promising freshman. Ja’Whaun Bentley does well in the middle, but has been banged up. Jake Replogle is an NFL caliber defensive tackle but has missed the last three games with a concussion and is still a huge question mark. Many of our guys are young or just not that good in the first place. We have injuries all over the defensive front four right now and it shows with no depth. The secondary is very young too.
To make matters worse, Ross Els has tried to run a 4-2-5 defensive front that is just getting torched by everyone on the ground. It makes no sense to me when we have solid, experienced linebackers and young, inexperienced defensive backs to have more DBs on the field. They have had some moments. The first half in each of the last two weeks have been solid by Purdue standards, but in the second half adjustments and fatigue have opened the floodgates.
TDG: Tell me about two players -- one on offense and the other on defense -- that the Gophers will need to look out for on Saturday.
TM: On offense, DeAngelo Yancey is a solid deep threat that has been playing pretty well of late. Also, Bilal Marshall has been a do-everything as a wide receiver and wildcat quarterback. He was also a quarterback in high school and has a couple of completions on the year, so if he takes the snap there is no guarantee he is running it.
On defense, things are a complete mess. Yes, we need Replogle back, but even if he returns that gives us three solid defenders and eight guys you pray are doing the right thing. If pushed, I would say Da’Wan Hunte is doing well as our top corner.
TDG: What is your prediction for Saturday? Will Purdue beat their third Big Ten team in four years? Or will the Gophers prevail?
TM: Logic says the Gophers prevail unless Purdue gets its ground game back on track and can get a full 60 minutes from the defense. David Blough has looked pretty good for the most part the past few weeks. He can move the ball through the air, but there has been almost no balance and teams are adjusting to him in the second half. The defense also has got to be better in the second half. It’s been outscored 62-7 in the final 30 minutes combined the last two weeks.
Thank you to Travis for taking the time to answer a few questions! The Gophers have two home games left this season, so hopefully this Saturday’s matchup with Purdue goes according to plan. If not? Woof.