Through Rose [Bowl] Colored Glasses: Purdue

Still capturing pre-season optimism from our opponents, here is our Purdue preview in their own words, from the good people at Hammer and Rails and Boiled Sports.

Purdue rose from the dead when Joe Tiller took over in 1997 (prior to that 9-3 campaign, Purdue hadn't won more than half their games since 1984. They even parlayed an 8-3 year into a Rose Bowl a few years later. But after the epic 2004 contest with the Badgers in West Lafayette, it was all down hill for the Boilermakers. It's true, they managed 8-win seasons in '06 and '07, but the magic was gone. Tiller finally bailed out last season (his worst at Purdue), to make room for Danny Hope, like Bielema, a hand-picked successor to the coach who put Purdue football back on the map. On to the review . . .

(1) Danny brings new Hope? What's the word on his view of things? More basketball on grass? Needed infusion of new blood, or mistaken, unimaginative inside hire?

Boiled Sports: First, well done on the obligatory “Hope” pun – we can’t help but do this all the time, too. As for Danny, our early thoughts were that it was a marginal hire, more evidence of the program not thinking big, etc. But we’ve gotten to know more about him and he’s intense. He’s demanding. He expects a lot and makes no excuses. We’ve sort of fallen in love with Danny. He’s dreamy. Well, okay, maybe not that great… but we’re impressed thus far. The guy has the right approach, in our opinion, and has many of us excited about a season that really in any other era would be more dreaded than anticipated.

As for what to expect from Coach Hope, it doesn’t sound like he wants to run the ball any more than he has to. We would expect some “pass to set up the run” looks but with an inexperienced receiving corps, he’ll have no choice but to expect a lot out of the running game, too. Balance will be key – and elusive.

H&R: I view it as a needed infusion of energy. One of the biggest unofficial stories around the program the last few years is that Tiller grew tired of all the legwork needed in recruiting. Things got a little soft, and last year’s 4-8 season was the result. Hope gives us a new enthusiasm that the players are picking up on. In my interview with The Daily Gopher I talked about the idea of O.N.E. (Opportunity Now for Everyone) and how the entire team is on board for it. Coach Hope has this team believing it can compete in any game, something we lacked in recent years.

(2) The offense lends itself to big numbers for the quarterback, but Kory Sheets was the bigger star recently: are the faithful excited about Jaycen Taylor, or hoping for unexpectedly big things out of Joey Elliot? Or will one of the younguns force his way in to the starting spot under center?

H&R: A lot of people are comparing Elliott to coach Tiller’s first quarterback, Billy Dicken. Dicken also had little experience and was overcoming a shoulder injury, yet he went on to be an all-Big Ten player in 1997. Elliott has similar skills and background, so who knows. Taylor will likely split the running game with Ralph Bolden, who had a spectacular spring, Dan Dierking, and incoming freshman Al-Terek McBurse. I doubt any of them will put up the numbers Sheets put up, but combined they may be better.

Boiled Sports: You’ll surely see Caleb TerBush gets some snaps under center this season, and don’t be shocked to see some tricks and surprise formats. This offense needs to be creative this season and what better way than to do some kooky stuff? I’d say the faithful are indeed excited about Jaycen Taylor being back. Sure, he tore up his knee, but assuming he’s healthy – which it appears he is – he’s a huge asset to have in that backfield. But, again, Elliott is going to need to keep defenses honest to avoid them stacking the line and pummeling the RB corps.

The buzz is good about Elliott and having a senior leader in there who is a game manager isn’t the worst thing for a team like this.

(3) It feels like for all the high octane, Purdue's spread struggles in the redzone. Is this true, and if so, what is the fix (that you hope to see this season)?

Boiled Sports: That’s probably a fair impression to have, especially in the past year or two. For some inexplicable reason Curtis Painter was never a lock in the red zone the way some of his predecessors were (Orton and Brees, for example, made you feel pretty sure you were getting in there). That said, though, we don’t worry about the spread not being reliable in the red zone – we worry more about the inexperienced players being able to step it up there.

The fix, if there is one, is that boring answer of balance. Everyone likes to watch a passing, exciting team, but for this team to succeed at all, it will need strong running performances in multiple looks coupled with accurate short passes from Elliott and the occasional deep ball. In the red zone, Elliott will need to be able to thread the needle with some zip and also be able to make the decisions needed in D1 college football. Sounds obvious but he’s yet to be relied on to do that.

H&R: My hope is that we have games where we don’t completely abandon the running game. The most frustrating drive I remember seeing came at Hawaii in 2006. We got the ball at the 10 yard line and twice had to overcome 15 yard penalties, but we ended up losing the ball when Painter pitched it off a fullback’s thigh on a first and goal from the two. We basically drove 118 yards and got nothing because we got too fancy instead of powering the ball ahead. I look to see more of that this year, as Frank Halliburton is a dedicated fullback with experience. (4) A few years ago it felt like the Boilermakers rattled off dangerous wide receivers as often as big name quarterbacks; is there anyone who fits that bill this season?H&R: That is the biggest question facing our offense. Keith Smith could be an all-Big Ten talent, but only Aaron Valentin has any other significant playing time. The majority of Valentin’s receiving yards came on one play against Indiana last season. WE have several of our Florida freshmen coming in who will compete for playing time at receiver, as well as converted DB’s Royce Adams and Tommie Thomas. Your guess is as good as mine as to who will actually step up.Boiled Sports: Keith Carlos, Eric Williams and Gary Bush. Boilermaker fans should get to know those names. We’re not sure they’ll be the kinds of wide receivers you’re referring to but they should be impact guys.

(5) 26 points seems like the magic number for Purdue against Wisconsin (and most other teams, too, I think). Purdue is 5-0 against the Alvarez era Badgers -- yes, history began in 1990 as far as this Badger fan is concerned ;-) -- and with the notable exceptions of the Michigan and Northwestern games, the defense looked surprisingly solid last season. Can the Boilermakers win a low-scoring game in Madison this season?

Boiled Sports: Assume you mean 5-0 when scoring 26 points or more [ed.: actually, I screwed that all up: in all five wins Purdue scored 26 or more, but they were actually 5-1-1 when scoring 26 or more, and 0-7 when scoring fewer than 26]. Which seems like a reasonable assumption against most teams – 26 points is a lot and any decent defense should be able to hold that more often than not. In fact, if the Boilermakers score 26 a game this year, we’ll be expecting a good bowl game. But as to your question, against the Badgers, yes, we think it’s possible that Purdue could win a close, low-scoring affair in Madison. Possible, but not likely. Let’s put it this way – it needs to be a low-scoring, defensive affair if Purdue hopes to win this game at all. We’re of the opinion that Wisconsin is on a downward trend under Bielema, but their defense usually brings the pain and Camp Randall is a tough place to win. Of course, the Boilers last two wins over the Badgers were in Madison so, really, who the hell knows?

H&R: Absolutely! I think for the first time in years we will be a much more run-oriented team. As a result, we will have longer drives and keep our improving offense rested. I am encouraged that aside from the games you mentioned and the embarrassing performance against the run at Notre Dame, the defense wasn’t that bad. It did a lot of bending without breaking against a very good Oregon team. Against Ohio State a fantastic defensive performance was wasted by no offense and one special teams mistake.

(6) The 4-8 record last year hides several pretty darned good games against very good teams (Oregon, Penn State, and road games at Ohio State and Iowa). Was the team just always one play away, or were those teams content to run out the clock (clearly not Oregon, who needed last minute heroics, if I recall correctly). Do you take anything away from that heading into this season (Steele always points out close wins and losses in his previews, I think).

Boiled Sports: That’s a nice thing to say about our boys, but those games you mentioned were an 0-4 effort for the Boilermakers, no matter how close they might have been. They were quite frustrating, actually, because as good as those teams were, Purdue was in all of those games, as you noted. And if Curtis Painter had anywhere NEAR the season he was expected to have, Joe Tiller’s final year goes very differently. The defense came to play last year and has only gotten better, so we’re of course hopeful that the offense can cobble something together and make it an exciting year, where maybe a couple of those close ones and solid defensive efforts actually go our way.

H&R: The Oregon game really set the tone. There were a handful of plays in that game that made a huge difference. If we hold on to win, we would finally have gotten a win over a ranked opponent and it would have given us a ton of momentum. We had Brandon King get an interception with nothing but green grass in front of him only to be chased down from behind. We had to settle for a field goal on that drive. Before halftime, all we needed to do was run out the clock, but Painter threw an awful interception that led to a field goal, making it 20-6 at the half. We also gave up a punt return for a TD and got too conservative in settling for a long field goal to end regulation. We had strong swirling winds that day, but instead of moving closer for a game winner we settled for a 45-yarder. I think if we get that game and Painter doesn’t get hurt against Minnesota we would have had at least 3 more wins.

(7) The epic 2004 game (you know the one) ended up being the high-water mark for both teams this decade (at least as far as national rankings go), but your boys fell a little harder. What's it going to take for Purdue to start challenging the top of the conference again?

H&R: Time. I am encouraged by the types of players Hope is bringing in on the recruiting trail. The overall talent level will be much better in two years. I honestly don’t think we’re that far from the rest of the Big Ten right now. I think outside of Penn State and Ohio State (and we don’t play Penn State this year) you have a conference full of even teams. Someone can make a big jump that way, so why not us?

Boiled Sports: We’ve discussed among ourselves and on our podcast (and probably other places) the fact that the 2004 Wisconsin game was truly the tipping point for Purdue football. It was Tiller’s best chance at climbing the mountain: no early stumbles, favorable scheduling (toughest games at home), established big-game QB in Orton, and so forth. The 5-0 start, College Gameday in West Lafayette, a night game on national TV with actual national title chase implications and the #5 ranking in the nation. And then a ten point lead in the fourth quarter. Then The Fumble happened and the program was never the same. And we’re not being melodramatic – that was it. The team went into a death spiral, losing their next four games (all of which should have been wins) and Tiller folded. He was a beaten man after that and never seemed to have the same drive and “Cowboy Joe” approach that had gotten them to that point.

Why am I rehashing all of that? Because that’s what we’re up against. The morning of October 16, 2004 was likely the apex of Purdue football as we know it with potential everywhere we looked. And now the challenge is to begin climbing back to where that’s possible. The climb should have begun long ago, but it didn’t and Tiller coasted another four seasons. That seems to have ended now, attitude-wise, and we think Coach Hope has us on the right track. That’s the first step. Next is believing they can compete up there again and there’s no reason to think they can’t at least scare some big guys this year. Recruiting will be critical, especially when you need to get a few 2-3 stars who blossom, catch some breaks, etc. Can it happen? Sure. Will it? Hard to say. At the start of 1997, the concept of being ranked in the top 5 was a pipe dream none of us would dare to openly discuss. And within 7 years, there it was.

(8) The perception is that Purdue is so much a basketball school that you guys have played basketball on grass since 1997; what's something people should know, but don't, about your football program?

Boiled Sports: Well, for one thing, nobody associated with Purdue football has called it “basketball on grass” in about a decade. That was something Tiller said in his earliest days, when discussing the switch in styles that he was unleashing on the rest of the plodding Big Ten. The basketball on grass approach peaked during the Drew Brees years, which ended after the 2000 season. We don’t mind that people perceive the Boilers offense as an exciting thing – but it’s not really basketball on grass anymore. It’s just a spread, like a lot of teams play.

For another thing, while Purdue may be perceived by some as a basketball school, Ross-Ade Stadium is the home of the “Cradle of Quarterbacks.”

H&R: It’s the cradle of quarterbacks, baby! I love basketball first, but Mike Phipps, Bob Griese, Gary Danielson, Len Dawson, Drew Brees, Mark Herrmann, Jim Everett, and Kyle Orton have all made names for themselves at Ross-Ade Stadium.

Finally, does anyone really care about that darn drum?

H&R: I love the drum! When I was a student, they had the 80th anniversary of the drum. One of the original members of the drum crew was still alive and came back for the halftime ceremony. The dude had to be at least 95, yet he still was able to jump and hit the drum. We joked he would be partying at Harry’s after the game. That, and seeing Neil Armstrong hit the drum is very cool.

Boiled Sports: You know, I don’t know why everyone takes shots at the drum, quite frankly. This is like me saying, “Hey, what’s the deal with that tuba in the Wisconsin band?” You’d say, “In the band? What are you talking about? What’s that got to do with football?” And I’d say, “Oh, nothing.” And you’d say, “Yeah…FACE!”

Seriously, the drum is a part of the marching band. If that’s the best thing fans of opponents can come up with to mock, it’s time to hang ‘em up.

Sounds like it's 1-1 in the cares about the drum question; in any case, perhaps it's time to hang up this preview of the Cradle of Quarterbacks, pre-season, 2009.