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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 65: Purdue

Only those in West Lafayette would take a Boilermaker over a boilermaker, I believe.

I found nothing wrong with Purdue’s five-win finish in 2009, which marked a one-win improvement over Joe Tiller’s final season with the program. However, it’s hard not to ignore how close the Boilermakers were to challenging for an impressive bowl berth. Purdue was within a two-point conversion of sending a date with Oregon — in Autzen Stadium, no less — to overtime; led Notre Dame late in the fourth quarter; turned the ball over six times in a six-point loss to Northwestern; outplayed Minnesota in an eight-point loss; and dominated Michigan State in a narrow loss. The Boilermakers were very, very close to breaking through.

Conference
Big Ten

Location
West Lafayette, Ind.

Nickname
Boilermakers

Returning starters
12 (6 offense, 6 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 94

2009 record
(5-7, 4-4)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 72

2010 schedule

  • Sept. 4
    at Notre Dame
  • Sept. 11
    Western Illinois
  • Sept. 18
    Ball St.
  • Sept. 25
    Toledo
  • Oct. 9
    at Northwestern
  • Oct. 16
    Minnesota
  • Oct. 23
    at Ohio St.
  • Oct. 30
    at Illinois
  • Nov. 6
    Wisconsin
  • Nov. 13
    Michigan
  • Nov. 20
    at Michigan St.
  • Nov. 27
    Indiana

Last year’s prediction

Breaking in a new coach and new starters on offense leaves me skeptical about this team’s chances of returning to bowl play: I predict a 4-8 mark, 2-6 in the Big Ten, with the possibility of getting to five wins if the Boilermakers can steal an additional victory in conference play. If Hope maintains his Florida connections – and if Marve can step in nicely – this team will be much better next year.

2009 recap

In a nutshell As noted, Purdue was very close to returning to bowl action after a one year absence. Offensively, the Boilermakers scored three more points per game compared to 2008 — from 296 points scored to 334 points last fall — and scored at least 20 points in every game but one, a 37-0 shutout loss at the hands of Wisconsin. The defense wasn’t great, however, allowing less than 20 points only twice — each time in a win, not surprisingly — and allowing Wisconsin, Michigan and Michigan State to account for 112 points over a three-game span. There remained more positives than negatives from last season: wins over Ohio State and Michigan in the same season, a rare feat; narrow losses to some of the nation’s best; and flashes of strong play that provided signs of what Purdue could one day be under Danny Hope.

High point A terrific second half of the season, lending credence to the belief that Purdue is ready to return to bowl play in 2010. The Boilermakers went 4-2 from Oct. 17 on, a period of play that opened with a sizable upset win over then-No. 7 Ohio State. Three weeks later, a 38-36 win over Michigan marked Purdue’s lone victory in games decided by a touchdown or less.

Low point Five narrow defeats, with the most disheartening a pair of three-point losses to Notre Dame and Michigan State, both at home. The loss to the Irish was the third of four straight setbacks by no more than seven points, and the third of five straight overall. The Michigan State loss, despite lacking the national spotlight of a game against Notre Dame, was even more painful: Purdue had 524 yards of offense, controlled the ball for more than 40 minutes and limited the Spartans to 2-10 on third down, but coughed away an 11-point lead in the final 11:30 minutes of play.

Tidbit Purdue has not met Notre Dame in a season opener since 1984, when a win over the Fighting Irish propelled the Boilermakers to a seven-win finish. In fact, that year’s game was the lone affair in the 81-game series to be played outside of either West Lafayette or South Bend; it was played in Indianapolis, for reasons unknown. Actually, as jjtiller points out below, the game was played to christen the new Hoosier Dome, which opened that season.

Tidbit (Florida edition) Purdue’s forays into the Sunshine State continued in its most recent recruiting class, with the Boilermakers landing seven more Florida prospects in their 24-man group. In Hope’s first recruiting cycle, 2009, Purdue inked a whopping 14 Florida recruits in a 20-player class. No Big Ten program — though Michigan certainly has made inroads under Rich Rodriguez — goes into Florida quite like Purdue.

Former players in the N.F.L.

29 DE Cliff Avril (Detroit), LB Akin Ayodele (Denver), DT Ryan Baker (Miami), QB Drew Brees (New Orleans), TE Eugene Bright (Pittsburgh), DE Ray Edwards (Minnesota), C Nick Hardwick (San Diego), LB Anthony Heygood (Seattle), LB Landon Johnson (Detroit), LB Stanford Keglar (Tennessee), TE Dustin Keller (New York Jets), CB Brandon King (Indianapolis), LB Niko Koutouvides (Tampa Bay), OT Matt Light (New England), DE Alex Magee (Kansas City), DE Mike Neal (Green Bay), LB Rob Ninkovich (New England), OG Uche Nwaneri (Jacksonville), QB Kyle Orton (Denver), OT Michael Otto (Tennessee), QB Curtis Painter (Indianapolis), CB David Pender (Philadelphia), LB Shaun Phillips (San Diego), S Bernard Pollard (Houston), CB Jacques Reeves (Houston), RB Kory Sheets (Miami), LB Anthony Spencer (Dallas), DT Craig Terrill (Seattle), S Torri Williams (Houston).

Arbitrary top five list

NASA astronauts
1. Neil Armstrong.
2. Buzz Aldrin.
3. Gus Grissom.
4. Edward Higgins White.
5. Jim Lovell.

Coaching

Danny Hope (Eastern Kentucky ’81), 5-7 after one season with Purdue. Hope served a one-year stint as the head coach-in-waiting prior to taking over for Joe Tiller prior to last season. In 2008, while serving his one-year apprenticeship, Hope served as the team’s offensive line coach and recruiting coordinator. This is Hope’s second stint with the Boilermakers: he spent five seasons as Tiller’s first offensive line coach (1997-2001), a period that saw Purdue feature its first all-American offensive lineman since 1965 and first all-conference linemen since 1979. He followed Tiller to Purdue from Wyoming after serving in the same capacity with the Cowboys in 1996. Hope moved to Louisville in 2002 — where he also spent 1985-1994 as an assistant — for a one-year spell as the assistant head coach before being named the head coach at Eastern Kentucky. He spent five years at his alma mater, compiling an impressive 35-22 mark and four top-two finishes in the Ohio Valley Conference. E.K.U.’s best season under Hope was his last, when the team finished 9-3 and was atop the conference. The nine wins were the program’s most since 1995, while the conference title was its first since 1997. Hope was named the O.V.C. coach of the year for his team’s performance. His head coach experience, when added to his familiarity with the Purdue program, made Hope a solid choice to take over from Tiller. After developing some momentum last fall — those narrow losses had a silver lining — there is little reason to think Hope, like his predecessor, cannot have the Boilermakers in bowl play on a yearly basis.

Players to watch

After sitting out last season due to N.C.A.A. transfer rules, former Miami (Fla.) signal caller Robert Marve takes over from Joey Elliott as Purdue’s starting quarterback. Well, most likely. Hope has yet to officially name the starter, though Marve, due to his reputation, experience and performance during the spring, holds an edge over sophomore Caleb TerBush and redshirt freshman Rob Henry. Marve split time at quarterback with Jacory Harris while with the Hurricanes, starting most games while Harris earned significant second half snaps. As a redshirt freshman, Marve threw for 1,293 yards with 9 touchdowns against 13 picks. Elliott was the most underrated quarterback in the Big Ten last fall, throwing for more than 3,000 yards with a solid touchdown-to-interception ratio. Marve has the talent to excel in Purdue’s system, but I worry both about last season’s A.C.L. tear — though he’s fully recovered — and the rust that must accompany a lengthy stint on the sidelines. Give him some time to round into form, however, and Marve should challenge for all-Big Ten honors before departing West Lafayette.

Purdue should not expect Ralph Bolden to play much of a role — if any role at all — in 2010, as the talented would-be junior tore his A.C.L. in early April, likely costing him the season. He was a very pleasant surprise last fall, nearly cracking the 1,000-yard mark — he finished with 935 yards despite earning only one carry in the season finale — after earning only 16 carries as a freshman. His departure opens up the starting role to sophomore Al-Terek McBurse; I’m high enough on McBurse to predict that Bolden will find it difficult to reclaim his starting role once he returns to full health. McBurse, one of Purdue’s many skilled Florida prospects, earned only four carries last fall, but he showed flashes of his big-play ability in the return game: 24.6 yards per his 19 kick returns, with one brought back for a score. In an effort to provide depth, Purdue moved former wide receiver Keith Carlos to running back during the spring. Carlos, a sophomore, played well at receiver last fall; he made 21 grabs for 242 yards and a score despite missing three games.

Though the Boilermakers return only two starters along the offensive line, each has all-conference potential. The first is junior left tackle Dennis Kelly, an unheralded recruit who has blossomed into a standout lineman on the blind side. He was inserted into the starting lineup midway into his true freshman campaign — a year he was supposed to have spent gaining size and experience — before starting all 12 games last fall. Another junior, right guard Ken Plue, has started 18 games over his first two seasons; he was expected to have an immediate impact, however, unlike Kelly. Nick Mondek, a former defensive lineman, could start alongside Plue at strong side tackle. Sophomore Rick Schweig has the ability to play either center or left guard for the Boilermakers, though guard seems to be likely destination. He made one start at guard last fall, replacing departed starter Zack Reckman in Purdue’s loss to Notre Dame. Senior Justin Pierce has seen his playing time decrease over the last two seasons, but has a leg up on his competition at center.

Former defensive back Keith Smith has been superb since moving to receiver prior to the 2008 season. He was a second-team all-conference pick last fall, leading the Boilermakers in receptions (91) and receiving yards (1,110) while grabbing six touchdowns. While Smith is the only returning receiver assured of a starting role, Purdue’s cupboard at the position is far from bare. In fact, this may be Purdue’s deepest receiver corps in years. Several freshmen coming off redshirt seasons are poised to break into the rotation, such as Xavier Reese and Gary Bush; both used the spring to showcase what they could do in this offense. The Boilermakers also return senior Cortez Smith (17 receptions for 177 yards) and talented senior tight end Kyle Adams (29 for 249), with another senior, Jeff Lindsay, a valuable secondary option at tight end. Of course, incoming freshman O.J. Ross, the highest-rated member of Purdue’s recent class, will have every opportunity to break into the mix at receiver.

You have to appreciate just how successful Purdue has been in producing standout defensive linemen, particularly at end. Ryan Kerrigan, a first-team all-Big Ten pick last fall, is the next link in the line. He was outstanding in 2009, easily ranking among the most underrated defenders in the country, when he made 66 tackles (18.5 for loss) and a team-best 13 sacks, the latter total also pacing the Big Ten. Let’s keep going: Kerrigan’s 18.5 tackles for loss ranked fourth in the Big Ten; his 66 tackles led all Purdue defensive linemen; and his seven force fumbles, which tied a school record, led the nation. Don’t allow Kerrigan to slip under the radar again in 2010: keep your eye on the senior.

Junior Gerald Gooden (37 tackles, 8 for loss, 4.5 sacks) will start opposite Kerrigan, while sophomore Kawann Short returns on the interior of the line. Short started 12 games as a rookie, making 48 tackles (4 for loss) and a pair of interceptions. The biggest issue — the only issue, in my mind — for this defensive front will be replacing Mike Neal. A handful of unproven prospects will battle to replace the early N.F.L. draft pick, such as Brandon Taylor, Kevin Pamphile and Eric McDaniel, among others. Taylor has the bloodlines to excel: his father, Lawrence, played some football.

Few teams in the country return all of its starters at linebacker, as Purdue does in 2010. Senior strong side linebacker Jason Werner made a triumphant return to the field in 2009, one season after sitting out an entire year due to injury. Werner made 77 tackles (14.5 for loss), 4.5 sacks and an interception, performing far better than he ever did prior to his back injury. He received a sixth year of eligibility, which was great news for this Purdue defense. Juniors Joe Holland and Chris Carlino round out the linebacker corps. Carlino, who starts in the middle, made 71 tackles (2 for loss) and an interception last fall. Holland, an immediate starter on the weak side for the Boilermakers, finished second on the team with 81 stops a season ago.

Position battles to watch

Secondary Unlike the front seven, which returns nearly intact, the Purdue defense faces a rebuilding project in the secondary. All four of last season’s starters must be replaced: one, free safety Torri Williams, led the team in tackles, while multiple-year starting cornerback David Penders was a second-team all-conference selection as a senior. There’s little returning experience, though junior Albert Evans did serve in an important role last fall. He’s projected as the starter at free safety, replacing Williams, though Evans did not participate during spring practice due to an injury. Before going any further, understand this: Purdue will open back up the competition at strong safety and the two cornerback spots when its true freshmen arrive in the fall. However, as the Boilermakers entered the summer, a few players had distanced themselves from the pack due to impressive performances during the spring. One was sophomore Chris Quinn, little-used last fall, who currently stands atop the depth chart at strong safety. It helped that JUCO transfer Mike Eargle arrived in time to participate during the spring; he gained some experience in Purdue’s defensive system; Eargle should earn significant playing time at cornerback, if not a starting role. If there is one returning contributor assured of a starting role, it’s junior cornerback Charlton Williams. He’s played in 21 games thus far in his career, though often on special teams and rarely in meaningful game situations. Yet he’s embraced the opportunity to earn a starting spot, and was the most consistent defensive back during the spring.

Game(s) to watch

Home games against Minnesota and Indiana. Purdue should enter Big Ten play with no worse than a 3-1 mark, so landing two wins in West Lafayette against inferior opponents will leave the Boilermakers needing only one additional victory to return to bowl play.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell I like Purdue to be bowl eligible in 2010. Missing both Penn State and Iowa in Big Ten play helps. But this team is very easily talented enough to land at least six wins; so was last year’s team, in my opinion. However, while I believe the Boilermakers extremely capable of making at least a one-win improvement on last season’s mark, there are some reasons for concern. Quarterback is one: Marve has talent, as he showed with the Hurricanes, but he’ll struggle duplicating Elliott’s numbers. Losing Bolden stings, though I’m very high on Al-Terek McBurse’s potential; in fact, as I said above, McBurse has 1,000-yard ability. I like Purdue’s front seven on defense, though the secondary worries me. That group, more so than any other, will receive a significant boost from the arrival of several incoming freshmen in the fall. There remain more positives than negatives, and a relatively smooth schedule — an easy non-conference slate and several winnable conference home games — should allow Purdue to at least reach six wins. I think this team capable of winning seven games, in fact. I like the job Danny Hope has done.

Dream season Purdue’s return to bowl play is a happy one: 9-3, 6-2 in the Big Ten, and challenging for a January bowl heading into the season’s final weekend.

Nightmare season The Boilermakers drop to 4-8, with only a single win coming in conference play. Disappointing.

In case you were wondering

Where do Purdue fans congregate? For recruiting coverage, fans meet at Gold & Black Illustrated and Boiler Sports Report. For blogs, check out Hammer and Rails and Boiled Sports. As always, list other options in the comment field below. As a loyal reader pointed out below, Off the Tracks is a Purdue blog I missed.

Up Next

Who is No. 64? Our next university is the only alliteratively-named non-B.C.S. conference program located east of the Rockies, south of the Mason-Dixon line.

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Comments

  1. jjtiller says:

    “The last time Purdue began a season against the Fighting Irish was 1984, when the two teams opened the brand new Hoosier Dome in Indianapolis”

    And a good Purdue blog: http://www.offthetracks.org/

  2. Nate says:

    University of Utah?

    Paul: Nate, as you can see above, I made a slight mistake on the hint. I originally put west of the Rockies, though I meant to put east. That’s actually a pretty big mistake.

  3. birdland says:

    Troy Trojans?

  4. BoilerFan says:

    If only Purdue could turn a couple linebackers into DBs…the depth in the middle is amazing. You mentioned Werner, Carlino, and Holland, but Higgs and Beckford both showed signs of promise last year as true freshmen and are every bit as talented as the incumbents, in my opinion.

    (I wouldn’t include offthetracks.org; it’s just an old placeholder version of what’s now Hammer and Rails, which you mentioned.)

  5. David S. says:

    In the course of looking to see whether Tennessee Tech is in the Sun Belt Conf., I discovered that Louisiana Lafayette is.

  6. M Meyer says:

    It’s gotta be the Southern Methodist Mustangs!

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