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Purdue 2004 in a nutshell. (Help, I'm
in a nutshell.)
Last year Purdue was rolling along at 5-0, #5 in the country, and driving to finish off a game against similarly undefeated Wisconsin when the cruel hand of fate intervened. Kyle Orton fumbled, Wisconsin cornerback Scott Starks sped off for the endzone ball in tow, and Purdue experienced the first of a series of mind-numbingly painful losses. Ernest Shazor murdered Dorien Bryant to force a fumble and preserve a two-point win for Michigan. Two wounded quarterbacks couldn't move the ball against Northwestern and kicker Ben Jones missed a 29-yard field goal in a 13-10 loss to the Wildcats. Jones then missed field goals from 32 and 27 yards in a 23-21 loss to Iowa. Arizona State went 80 yards in 31 seconds to forge ahead with under a minute left in the Sun Bowl. It was a series of unlikely and heart-rending events that struck the Boilers down from the 5-0 heights to the 7-5 depths their season finished in.
The debate rears its head again. Are losses in close games correlated year to year? Were the repeated, horrible losses indicative of a greater pattern of late game failure? Is the fact that Purdue is 6-16 in its last 22 games decided by a touchdown or less a statistical anomaly or something that reveals that there is something seriously wrong with Joe Tiller other than the fact that he looks exactly like Wilford Brimley?
I say the answers to those questions are no, no, and mmm oatmeal. Just as I believe that the 2002 Buckeyes were the worst team to ever win a national championship, I believe that the Boilermakers were good last year, much better than their record.
This year? Say it with me: no Michigan or Ohio State. Purdue doesn't play either Big Ten powerhouse and this fact has been repeated so many times that they might as well be called the Purdue Nomichiganorohiostaters. What gets lost in the wash is this: as a Michigan fan I want no part of Purdue this year. None. No thank you. Gone is All-Choke Hall of Famer Kyle Orton. Into his decidedly average-sized shoes steps redshirt junior Brandon Kirsch, who has experience and Stantonlegs. The entire defense returns. The entire defense. Every-goddamn-body. Purdue has two walking matchup issues at wide receiver, a quarterback who can run and pass a la Drew Brees, and a redshirt freshman running back who is poised to lift Purdue's running game to an acceptable level of competence. Jones--who battled a groin pull the entire year--should be healthy again and back to his sophomore form, when he hit 25 of 30 field goals. (Probably. More on kicker psychology later.)
The Purdue running game should be meaningfully better. The defense should be meaningfully better. Jones should cease resembling Tweek from South Park. If Kirsch can keep the Boilermaker passing game churning at a respectable level, look out, because Boilermania is about to run wild all over the Big Ten.
Unit By Unit
Rating: 4. Redshirt junior Brandon Kirsch is the most important player in the Big Ten this year, period. If he plays like I think he can Purdue is going to kill people, just like last year, except they will continue to kill people the entire year. Though he is a new starter, he has most of a season's worth of experience at quarterback, starting six games and taking meaningful snaps in 11 others. In total Kirsch has 140 completions on 232 attempts (60.3%) and 16 touchdowns to 8 interceptions.
Kirsch is more in the mold of mobile (and Rose Bowl-reaching) Drew Brees than the pocket-bound Kyle Orton. Kirsch doesn't have Orton's arm strength but is a scrambling threat (425 yards and 5.6 YPC as a freshman) and, as his stats suggest, an accurate and intelligent passer. mgoblog remembers the Michigan-Purdue game Kirsch's freshman year. Kirsch was scrambling and throwing his way down the field, eating up chunks of yards against the Michigan defense, when Tiller made the switch to Orton. The Purdue offense bogged down, Orton threw a couple picks, and Michigan pulled away. The added threat of Kirsch's running was the key to cracking Michigan's defense that day and will be key again this year. Tiller is said to be incorporating some of Urban Meyer's shotgun-option offense to take advantage of Kirsch's legs.
If Tiller can adapt his offense to do so effectively Purdue's offense will reach the Urban/Michigan State level and by the end of the year Kyle Orton will be a dusty memory to Purdue fans.
Rating: 2. Despite Purdue's reputation as the Big Ten's main purveyor of "basketball on grass," the Boilers actually logged almost as many rushing attempts (424) as passing attempts (486) last year. The problem was that the rushing attempts were exceptionally ineffectual. Purdue was terrible on the ground last year--even more terrible than the numbers (87th nationally) suggest.
Against teams with non-awful defenses the results were ugly: 73 yards on 32 carries against Penn State; 52 yards on 27 carries against Iowa; 66 yards on 26 carries against Arizona State; 50 yards on 33 carries against Michigan. Purdue had decent outings against Wisconsin (40 for 132), Northwestern (41 for 122) and Ohio State(43 for 120) but throw those together and you get an average that's almost exactly three yards a carry. When those are your best games against teams with a pulse, you have a serious problem in the run game.
Why? Well, Jerod Void and Brandon Jones are really mediocre. The offensive line wasn't great last year, but neither back has shown the ability to do anything other than the bare minimum provided them by the line. Void and Jones picked up most of their yards against the wretched and weak parts of the Purdue schedule and definitively proved that they're incapable of making yards for themselves.
The good news for Purdue fans is that Tiller has shown absolutely no inclination to stick with underperforming upperclassmen and the buzz about redshirt freshman tailback Kory Sheets is building. He's supposed to be fast and elusive, two qualities important in the Engineer 'n' Gun offense Tiller runs. If the hype translates to the field Void and Jones will be relegated to short yardage faster than you can say 'bip.' And you can say 'bip' pretty fast, let me tell you. It's basically the fastest thing you can say.
Wide Receivers & Tight Ends
Rating: 4. Taylor Stubblefield departs but returning is a diverse crew of pass-catchers ranging from the 6'9" Kyle "Stork" Ingraham to the 5'9" Dorien Bryant. Charles Davis is the Big Ten's most prolific tight end. Stubblefield was a smart player and a good route-runner but lacked the athleticism to put a scare into the better defensive backfields in the conference. Michigan shut Stubblefield off entirely, limiting him to one catch for ten yards, and he often struggled against big, physical cornerbacks. He is replaceable.
I am tall, you are short, doo da, doo da.
Bryant burst onto the Big Ten scene with 38 catches at 15.4 yards per catch as a true freshman. He's a waterbug guy in the Breaston mold who can take the short crossing routes that are a staple of the Boilermaker offense and turn them into plays that eat up big chunks of yardage. He has the potential to rack up a ton of yards after the catch in the Purdue offense and gives the team an explosive element it hasn't had in a long time. Ingraham remains 6'9". He's also turning into a go-to possession receiver who's extremely hard to stop. The defensive back who can win a jump ball with Ingraham is a rare bird indeed
(and Antonio Cromartie is out for the year with an ACL tear). The two make an excellent one-two punch.
The third option will be tight end Davis, who's a good receiver and (surprisingly) adept blocker, unusual amongst Purdue tight ends. Past Davis was going to be freshman Selwyn Lymon,a 6'4" leaper who is to inherit Purdue's #1 jersey, but he did not qualify this year and will sit out. In his place are JUCO transfer Brian Hare and the inconsistent and disappointing Ray Williams. Without Lymon depth is a bit of an issue but the unit has three good options.
Rating: 3. This was the unit that held back Purdue's offense last year. Some of the blame for the inept rushing game falls here. And, despite the fact that Purdue's offense relies heavily on quick passing, the line yielded 31 sacks, second worst in the league. Brandon Kirsch's mobility will help cut that number down but for Purdue to have a consistently effective offense against teams like Penn State and Iowa the line will have to improve.
Three starters return, LT Mike Otto, LG Uche Nanweri, and C Matt Turner. None especially distinguished themselves last year but they should improve this year; cohesion and experience is more important on the offensive line that any other position group. Having a mobile quarterback and (hopefully) a more dynamic running game will help the statistics out. If Purdue takes off people will think much better of the offensive line whether it improves or not.
The right side of the line is almost entirely without experience. RT Sean Sester is a redshirt freshman. RG Jordan Grimes is a true sophomore who started in the Sun Bowl and played sparingly in nine other games. If I attempted to tell you how they would do I would be making stuff up. No one knows. They probably aren't Jake Long, though.
"Stop calling me 'Brandon Villa-Real
Salt Lake,' Berman"
Rating: 5. This is the best line in the Big Ten with the possible exception of Michigan. Defensive ends Ray Edwards and Anthony Spencer combined for 15.5 sacks last year. Defensive tackle Brandon Villareal had 17.5 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks himself. Backup defensive end Rob Ninkovich had eight sacks! (All right, four of Ninkovich's sacks game against Indiana... but still!) Brent Grover, the other starter at DT, is statistically quieter but Purdue's run defense ticked upward soon after his insertion as a starter a couple years ago. Purdue yielded only 3.1 yards per carry last year, second only to Iowa's 2.8, and led the league in sacks with 35, one ahead of the Hawkeyes. Iowa's entire line graduated. Purdue's entire line returns.
This unit is the truth and will be a major reason for Purdue's success this year. Spencer, Edwards, and Villareal are all serious NFL prospects who have proven that they can play both the run and the pass. They get into the backfield and whilst there make things unpleasant for the opponents.
Rating: 4. A solid, unspectacular unit. Largely freed to read and react by the disruptive defensive line, the starters combined for a measly 14 tackles for loss and 2 sacks. Brandon Villareal bested both those numbers by himself.
Redshirt junior George Hall is a fierce hitter who is a little slow, but he's another in the long list of good to great middle linebackers in the Big Ten this year. He's not going to show up in the backfield too frequently but fills the hole at or around the line of scrimmage consistently and doesn't miss many tackles.
Stanford Keglar, Jr., started at weakside linebacker as a redshirt freshman last year. He'll be pushed by blue chippah Kyle Williams, the unit's wildcard. He originally signed with Iowa but after attending a few practices found out that he had missed the NCAA clearinghouse cut. He went back to prep school, fixed what he needed to fix, and then returned to campus the next year. Catch is that it was the Purdue campus. He's now Keglar's backup.
The strong side linebacker is Bobby Iwuchukwu, because it wouldn't be a Purdue defense without a guy with a really long, really African last name. He's a lot like Hall: capable at his job but not outstanding.
This was something of a problem area for the Boilermakers last year. Despite leading the league in sacks thanks to that impressive defensive line, Purdue finished 89th nationally in pass yardage defense. They did better in efficiency terms, finishing 49th, but one would expect an average secondary paired with that defensive line would do better than 49th. No one in the secondary had more than a single interception last year. Again, you would expect better when you lead the conference in sacks.
That was partially due to youth. When Antwuan Rogers went down with a knee injury redshirt freshman Paul Long, who has bounced from corner to safety and back, was pressed into service. Long is big for a corner, 6'2" and almost 200 pounds, and would probably be better at safety in a perfect world. His agility--the NFL-treasured 'hips'--isn't particularly good, and he's exploitable in man to man coverage. Fifth year senior Brian Hickman is the other starter; he was all right last year.
The safeties are good in run support but have difficulty with the pass. Strong safety Bernard Pollard is one of the Big Ten's best, a fourth linebacker who led the Boilermakers in tackles last year. Usually that's bad news, but when you have the rush defense profile of Purdue, that means that the strong safety is filling holes at or near the line of scrimmage. Free safety Kyle Smith, a former walk-on, won't get confused for Stu Schweigert any time soon.
Rating: 3. Purdue was useless last year returning punts, finishing 112th in the nation using a combination of the ineffective Stubblefield and the ineffective Bryant. Bryant only had seven opportunities, though, so the jury is still out as regards his abilities. He appears to have all the requisite skills to be one of the Big Ten's better returners. The kick return game was much stronger. Purdue finished sixth in the nation; Jerome Brooks took one to the proverbial house. However, Brooks transferred in the offseason. Sheets or Bryant will probably fill in here.
AAH! Not a 27 yard field
Rating: 3.Kicker Brandon Jones basically lost two games for Purdue last year, missing a 29 yard field goal in a 13-10 loss to Northwestern and missing chip shots from 32 and 27 in a 23-20 loss to Iowa. He also missed a 42-yard attempt to tie the Wisconsin game. Overall he hit only 10 of 18 attempts, missing four from within 40 yards and having three blocked. If Purdue does not reach the BCS this year, I'm willing to bet that it'll be on his shoulders.
The thing is, in 2003 Jones was a Groza semifinalist after hitting 25 of 30 field goals. Purdue publicly blamed his struggles on a strained groin muscle, but I think there was something wrong mentally as well. Kickers occasionally flip out and self destruct. Pick a Gramatica. Remember Auburn kicker Damon Duval? He was an All-American before blowing a mental fuse, freaking out, blowing several games, and moving to punter. Jones should bounce back, but if he misses a couple of chip shots early in the year there's the possibility of a full-on meltdown.
There are some teams that Purdue does play this year. The meat of the schedule comes up right quick after an opening tune-up against Akron, with away games to Arizona and Minnesota followed by home games against Notre Dame and Iowa. If the Boilermakers scrape through this section of the schedule unscathed it's unlikely anyone will shoot them down the rest of the year. Michigan State will have the best chance but that game is in West Lafayette. The other dangerous game on the schedule is a trip to Penn State. That game looks to be a low-scoring slugfest.
Keys to the Season
Let's go Wilford. Joe Tiller cannot continue losing games for his team. As brilliant as he's been--starting the spread trend by dragging Purdue from absolute abysmality to a consistent top 25 team--he has shown an alarming ability to lose his team close games by making ridiculous decisions. The controversy he's put every Boiler quarterback since Drew Brees through should stop with Kirsch at the helm and backup Painter a redshirt freshman, but Tiller has persistently mismanaged the clock at the end of halves and games, called strange offensive plays at inopportune times, and lost more games to special teams disasters than even Michigan. By this point, if the Boilers find themselves in a tight game late I guarantee you they will expect to lose. Expecting to do so and actually losing are different things, though. Tiller has to win a couple, and dispel the cloud around his program.
Make it effectual. Purdue's offense was alternately explosive and ineffective. The difference largely depended on whether or not the team in question could defend the pass. If you couldn't, you got waxed 41-16 and the score showed up on Purdue's bowl rings. If you could (or Orton had two injured hip flexors) the final score was something like 16-14 or 13-10 and didn't get put anywhere except the (extremely large) library of devastating Purdue losses under Joe Tiller. This was because Purdue couldn't run. If their passing game was stymied, the only approach they had at their disposal was throw some more. Kirsch and Sheets have the ability to change this. A running game should up those scores in the 10 or 14 point range into the mid-twenties and turn Ls into Ws.
Field Goal Jones.It's not unreasonable to say that if Jones had performed like he did as a sophomore Purdue would be coming off a New Year's Day bowl appearance and possibly a BCS game. Jones missed field goals in each of Purdue's excruciating Big Ten losses that if made would have won or tied the game for the Boilermakers. (To be fair, Michigan missed two field goals in their game against Purdue.) It's a fact of life that you are going to play close games in college football. Even mighty USC had games go down to the wire against Stanford and Cal last year. Purdue is going to have a game or two hinge on Jones' leg. He has to make twenty-something-yard field goals or the state of Indiana is going to have to set up a suicide hotline for depressed engineers.
Worst Case: No running back emerges. Kirsch helps things out a little bit but not much. No one can fill Stubblefield's role as a black 'white possession receiver' and the offense can only move in fits and spurts. The defense is still good, but Purdue plays a lot of close games. They lose against Iowa and Notre Dame. Jones blows two more, and the Boilers mutter about what could have been at 7-4.
Best Case: Sheets and Kirsch turn the Boiler offense into something balanced and extremely 'sophisticated' indeed. The defense tightens up the coverage in the secondary and forces a few more turnovers. Ben Jones quits caffeine and hits a late field goal in the only tight game the Boilers play all year. Boilermania hits the Rose Bowl. 11-0.
mgoblog says... Oh yow. Loaded for bear are the Boilers and it is going to piss people off. You have not two but three quarterback-splintering defensive ends, linebackers that in any other year would be amongst the best in the league, a quarterback I like an awful lot, and a set of wide receivers that finally has the mutant death freaks Tiller's been waiting his entire life for.
Teams are going to have to throw to score on Purdue this year, and only a few on the schedule teams are capable of doing so--Iowa, Michigan State, Notre Dame. Minnesota's ground game may be punishing enough to crack the Boiler front seven, but Wisconsin, Penn State, and Northwestern are all going to struggle to put up more than 14 or so points. Purdue should be heavily favored in all but four or five games.
mgoblog would consider Purdue a serious contender for the conference title even if they played Michigan and Ohio State. They have the same set of two or three holes that the other contenders have, one completely outstanding unit (the defensive line), and skill position players just a little notch below Michigan. But they match up poorly with Iowa. Stopping Tate isn't going to be easy, and the Iowa linebackers will be effective against the Purdue ground game. The Michigan State game will be a shootout that could go either way. The design of MSU's passing game and their capable offensive line should largely neutralize the Purdue DL. Neither team will be able to stop the other. Purdue wins one of the two, drops the other, and runs the rest of the table. 10-1, 7-1, first in the Big Ten.