Week 4 Preview: Purdue

by Maxwell Bursky 

Time to move on from what will hopefully be the only gut punch of the 2013 season (and what a doozy it was)!  Purdue and Wisconsin are the first and only teams to open their Big Ten seasons this Saturday, and other than the fact that UW is a 22-point favorite, here’s what you need to know and what to watch for starting at 2:30 p.m. central on ABC’s regional coverage.

THE STATE OF THE BADGERS

There’s no need to re-hash the absurd events of last weekend in any detail; I only offer this fat chunk of hilarity from Phil Dawson on The Big 1070 AM in Madison.  If this doesn’t get you past last week’s game and ready to tear up on some Boilermakers, I don’t know what will.

For the team though, everything we’ve heard about the aftermath of the Debacle in the Desert, from both head coach Andersen and the players, has been the right stuff.  They all know the Big Ten title has absolutely nothing to do with the result against ASU, that nothing will keep it from going down as an “L”, and that there’s still lots of football to be played.

The insane ending also tends to obscure the fact that after seeing an eight-point lead turned into an eight-point deficit with about nine minutes to go, the Badgers answered the bell on both offense and defense and were in a position to win the game.  The result wasn’t there at the end, but the response to real game adversity was.  For a team just three games into the tenure of a new head coach, this is potent knowledge that will serve them well later in this young season.

The first 59:42 of the game gave us some answers to the on-field questions that remained following UW’s two cream-puff blowouts to open the season.  The ability of the secondary, the play of the quarterback, the depth of the receiving corps and the ability of the offensive line were all put to the test by a very good ASU team.  In each case, there were both positives and plenty left to work on.

UW’s young and inexperienced secondary didn’t give up a passing touchdown, but was still gashed by ASU Taylor Kelly and his receivers to the tune of 352 yards through the air (the first game with over 300 yards passing since 2009 against Northwestern).  Although some were debatable, there were five accepted pass interference calls. 

The back-shoulder throw was a killer – but then again, even NFL corners usually can’t defend those when they’re executed to the level that Kelly and WR Jaelen Strong did.  ASU’s passing game will give opponents fits throughout the season; UW’s secondary will be much better against lesser passing teams and now know a little better where they stand.

Stave was average or worse – to the point of profound annoyance for the fan, especially on those batted down passes (dude, you’re 6’5”!!) – for large parts of the game.  Yet, he did have several third down conversions on passes and on the last two drives, he was outstanding. 

Had the Badgers won, the perspective on his performance would be far more generous; going forward, he has both much work to do, but a good base on which to build.  Like the secondary, he’ll look substantially better against inferior competition.

Stave’s still lucky to have Jared Abbrederis and Jacob Pedersen, who made several critical plays when called upon. He’s also still looking for another threat – Jordan Fredrick and Kenzel Doe looked like they knew what they were doing (Fredrick, especially, on the Farve-esque flip throw in the first quarter), but weren’t really factors as receivers.  It was very nice to see “The Legend” Jeff Duckworth show up yet again in crunch time, but of course, he tweaked a hamstring on the play.  The search continues.

Pass protection was iffy at best; Stave was given little time on most passing downs and he doesn’t have the mobility to compensate for it.  UW is fortunate that ASU’s front is one of the toughest they’ll see in 2013.  On the other hand, and especially in the second half, the line was able to open the holes and create space to support the typical UW running game.  In this aspect, they’ll be fine so long as they stay healthy – we don’t know much about the depth at this point.

Speaking of the running game, what more can be said about Melvin Gordon?  His statistics so far are mind-blowing – 37 rushes for 477 yards (good for 2nd nationally; the leader, Rutgers’ Paul James, has 61 rushes), which averages to just under 13 per attempt (by far and away tops nationally) – and the guy is just beautiful to watch. 

Does anyone think Montee Ball and Bret Bielema were exaggerating about him now?  It’d be nice to see him to get even more touches, but if he keeps doing this on national television (193 yards on 15 carries), helped as would be by the decal on his helmet, he will be on the Heisman radar.

Overall, Wisconsin’s offense was about as effective as expected against a very solid ASU defense.  With better play from the quarterback, it would have been even more effective.  It should be just a little guarded, but there is plenty of reason for optimism going forward.

Likewise, on defense, the outlook should be good, especially (again) against less capable teams.  Even though running back Marion Grice had four rushing touchdowns, ASU rushed for just 116 yards with a 2.8 average, which is downright impressive. The underclassmen that saw significant snaps – safeties Nate Hammon and Michael Caputo, linebacker Joe Schobert, and corner Sojourn Shelton (despite the penalties) – had solid games, which also bodes well for the future. 

Once Andersen and Dave Aranda figure out how to scheme around DE/OLB Brendan Kelly in pass coverage (which may not be possible, even if Vince Biegel gets more time there – it’s something of a quandary because Kelly is a legitimate pass rusher) UW’s pass defense should improve as the secondary becomes more experienced.

Then, of course, there was the special teams.  Aside from Kenzel Doe’s fair-catch gaffe that resulted in a turnover, UW’s special teams were quite good.  The coverage units were largely effective and Drew Meyer is headed for all-league recognition. 

That doesn’t even mention the touchdown scored by Beau Allen when ASU’s long snapper badly misfired on a punt, or what would likely have been the play of the game if not for the ending: the Wozniak to Borland to Pedersen fake punt in the fourth quarter.  That play was the stuff of legend:

 

Moving forward into the Big Ten season starting this weekend, there was a great deal to build on in UW’s performance against the Sun Devils; it’s just that much of it was overshadowed by the massively unjust ending.  With what we know about this senior group’s ability to bounce back after tough losses, and the just-plain ability shown by the underclassmen to this point, Purdue will have its limited hands full with a UW team that will be on a mission to get the awful taste of Tempe out of its mouth.

 THE STATE OF THE BOILERMAKERS

Most everyone knew after looking at the roster and the schedule that Darrel Hazell’s first year at Purdue would be difficult at best.  The results have borne that out to this point.  The Boilers were whipped in their opener by what was shown a week later to be an average Cincinnati team, then skated by FCS Indiana State (on whom Indiana dropped 73 points in their opener) by a touchdown, and just lost a tough one just last week to Notre Dame – Purdue led 17-10 when the fourth quarter opened, but were down 31-17 four minutes of game time later.  There were signs of improvement against Notre Dame, but I’m not sure that game said more about the Irish than it did about Purdue.

From an outsider’s perspective, though, it does seem that Hazell’s enthusiasm has brought some new energy to the program.  I have a hunch that Danny Hope was let go after last season (before the Heart of Dallas Bowl, where the Boilers were trucked by a superior Oklahoma State team) due to the waning attendance numbers as much as the on-field results.  Hazell’s attitude and personality seem to be welcome change and Ross-Ade was respectably filled last week (I know they were playing Notre Dame in prime time, but still).

For this year, Hazell can only do so much; from a talent perspective, the Boilers are undermanned against most teams on their schedule.  By example, after Wisconsin, they host Northern Illinois and they will be at a talent deficit in that game (Hazell does at least know the Huskies fairly well). 

They will be underdogs in probably every game they play the season and while we don’t know what any of these teams will be like in November, their best chances for victories appear to be when they host Iowa and Illinois, and perhaps in the Bucket Game against Indiana, this year in Bloomington, but only then because it’s a rivalry game.

Purdue In Brief – Players to Watch

The best player on the team, compared to his conference peers, is probably the punter Cody Webster (who IS top-shelf).  Senior cornerback Ricardo Allen is all-conference level as well but after that, it gets pretty thin.  Bruce Gaston is probably the fifth or sixth best defensive tackle in the Big Ten and super-fast running back Akeem Hunt is honorable mention-worthy (Hunt wasn’t the primary returner last week, but did have a return touchdown against Indiana State). 

Offensively, Purdue under Hazell has changed to more of a pro-style attack; long gone are the days of Joe Tiller’s “basketball on turf” spread led by QB luminaries like Drew Brees and Kyle Orton.  In this game, the Badgers will face off against senior QB Rob Henry, who’s overcome injuries, demotions and tactical changes in what seems like forever in the program (probably for him, too). 

Despite playing Purdue every year since 2009, the Badgers have never dealt with him as a quarterback while the cast has gone from Joey Elliott, Sean Robinson (now a starting linebacker), and Caleb TerBush/Robert Marve.

After struggling in his first two games as the starter, Henry played pretty well against Notre Dame last week, going 25 for 40 with 256 yards, 3 touchdowns, and one killer interception, a pick-six that made it 31-17 Irish with 11:18 left in the game.  Running back Hunt caught 9 passes for 72 yards, while B.J. Knauf caught 4 for 51. 

Junior tight end and Wisconsin native (Edgar) Justin Sinz broke out with 6 catches for 45 yards; his night helped assuage the loss of the Boilers’ top tight end and Mackey Award watch-lister Gabe Holmes, who was lost for season on a wrist injury during practice last week.

Purdue’s offensive line, which features two new starters and no all-league candidates, gave up only one sack to the Irish, but was ineffectual in the run game.  Hunt led the team with all of 22 yards on 12 carries; his average of 1.8 yards/carry was the same at the team’s, whose total came to an anemic 38 yards. 

If Hunt can break free or catch a well-placed ball here and there, he is dangerous.  However, this offensive line is simply too overmatched against the better defenses in tshe Big Ten, including Wisconsin’s, to consistently open running lanes.

Purdue’s defensive performance against Notre Dame was encouraging.  Although it broke down in the second half, and especially the first three minutes of the fourth quarter, the Irish could only muster three points in the first half.  Hazell retained the 4-3 front, which is anchored by Gaston and end Ryan Russell.  Russell is far from (Ryan) Kerrigan or any of the other ten or so Boilermaker defensive ends playing the NFL, but he’s not bad.  Junior middle linebacker Joe Gilliam played very well against the Irish and might emerge as the defensive field general Purdue has lacked in recent times.

On the back end, the Boilers took a major loss when junior safety and leading tackler from 2012 Landon Feichter was lost for an extended period with a broken leg against Indiana State; he can’t be adequately replaced in the foreseeable future.  Counterpart free safety Taylor Richards was solid last week, as was all-star corner Allen, but for a truly exceptional 80-yard touchdown he gave up to Irish receiver Davaris Daniels.  Second corner Frankie Williams has been so-so, but has the necessary speed.  The group is now younger with Feichter out and packs considerably less punch.

On special teams, punter Webster is elite while kicker like Paul Griggs, not unlike Kyle French, has yet to develop the promise he had as a prospect.  Off a 4 for 7 FG performance in 2012, Griggs is only 3 for 6 so far this season.  Nevertheless, kicking isn’t likely to be critical against the Badgers. 

Knauf and Frankie Williams (and at times Hunt) are capable returners, but Purdue’s coverage units are below average, which is probably not unexpected given the dearth of Big Ten-level talent currently available in this phase of the game.

THE MATCHUP  

When UW has the ball, expect Purdue to be as aggressive as it can be - against an offense that runs the ball the way Wisconsin does.  Hazell and defensive coordinator Greg Hudson weren’t afraid to blitz against the Irish regularly and it was effective for much of the game; however, Notre Dame doesn’t have a running game (linemen and backs) like Wisconsin’s. 

There may be some improvement against the run from last year’s game, but I don’t expect too much.  Additionally, Purdue isn’t likely to bring the pass rush heat that ASU did.  UW should have a significant advantage on offense.

            When Purdue has the ball, expect Wisconsin’s front seven to pick up where it left off. The Boilers had success in their passing game last week largely because of Hunt’s ability to expose Notre Dame’s linebackers. Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt weren’t major factors either.  Purdue will face much more active front this week – all the Badgers have to do is keep to a minimum the occasions where Brendan Kelly has to cover Hunt in space. 

Henry will be frustrated early and often and the Purdue running attack is much weaker than ASU’s.  UW’s secondary shouldn’t be as stressed this time and I wouldn’t be surprised to see more than one interception.

            For what it’s worth, Purdue has the added difficulty of facing recent history: the last time Purdue beat the Badgers was in 2003, when the quarterback match-up was Jim Sorgi (who was knocked out of the game) against Kyle Orton.  The last few games have been dominated by the Badgers, including a 37-0 drubbing in 2009 and a 34-13 loss in 2010 where the Boilers actually led at halftime. 

This edition of the Boilermakers is probably less talented than last year’s and is working with an entirely new coaching staff (after three games, anyway).  On the other hand, even if they also have a new coaching staff, these Badgers are probably just as talented as last year’s, if not slightly better in some spots.

 PREDICTION

Reports suggest that UW is unlikely to suffer any hangover from last week – I don’t think they’ll let Arizona State beat them twice.  It’s also nice for the team that its injury report didn’t grow between then and now, too.  They’ll be at full strength and ready to expunge last week’s hose-job from their individual and collective minds.  I see the Badgers taking this one pretty big, 45-13.

BONUSES FOR READING THIS FAR 

  1. Purdue’s defensive coordinator Hudson had the same position for Glen Mason at Minnesota from ’00-’04 – you’ll remember him when you see him.  Nice to see him back in the conference.  Like Mason, he always made me smile when they showed him during games.
  2. Offensive coordinator John Shoop held the same position for the Chicago Bears from ’00 to ’03 after coaching their quarterbacks in ’99 and ’00.  Got nothing against Shoop at all, but my favorite sign during the offensively mediocre 2003 season for the Bears read “Shoop Is Poop” – an easy one, even if straight from the halls of juvenilia