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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. 76: Purdue

Ten years ago on this past Nov. 18, Drew Brees-led Purdue clinched a Rose Bowl berth by defeating Indiana, 41-13, capturing in the process the program’s fourth consecutive Old Oaken Bucket. Oh, those were the days – that was the program’s high-water point under the since-departed Joe Tiller, who compiled an 87-62 mark over 12 years in West Lafayette. Purdue celebrated the 10-year anniversary of that momentous occasion by coughing up an 11-point fourth quarter lead against Michigan State, ending its slim bowl hopes, and put some icing on the cake by losing to Indiana – at home, no less – to cap an ugly, injury-laden 2010 season. That makes three straight losing seasons for a program that experienced 10 non-losing seasons during Tiller’s dozen years in charge, which is an unwelcome feeling for a fan base that waited a long, long time for teams good enough to challenge the Big Ten’s best.

Conference
Big Ten, Leaders

Location
West Lafayette, Ind.

Nickname
Boilermakers

Returning starters
16 (7 offense, 9 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 65

2010 record
(4-8, 2-6)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 81

2011 schedule

  • Sept. 3
    Middle Tennessee
  • Sept. 10
    at Rice
  • Sept. 17
    S.E. Missouri St.
  • Oct. 1
    Notre Dame
  • Oct. 8
    Minnesota
  • Oct. 15
    at Penn St.
  • Oct. 22
    Illinois
  • Oct. 29
    at Michigan
  • Nov. 5
    at Wisconsin
  • Nov. 12
    Ohio St.
  • Nov. 19
    Iowa
  • Nov. 26
    at Indiana

Last year’s prediction

I like Purdue to be bowl eligible in 2010. 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. 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.

2010 recap

In a nutshell You can blame injuries. You’re allowed, seeing that Purdue lost a pair of starting quarterbacks, one for the entire year, its leading receiver and its leading running back. Those sorts of injuries would derail even the best team in the country; for Purdue, they were devastating. The missed stars didn’t really come into play until the heart of Big Ten action: the Boilermakers were 4-2 at the midway point, 2-0 in the Big Ten. Then the bottom dropped out, beginning with a 49-0 shellacking at Ohio State, continuing with a 34-point loss at Illinois and concluding with losses to Michigan State and Indiana – the latter in overtime – by a combined seven points. It was 4-8 when the dust settled, a one-win drop from Danny Hope’s debut campaign, and significant questions were raised as Purdue turned the page and looked towards 2011. Is Hope the right man for the job? When will the Boilermakers return to Big Ten contention? Can this team stay healthy in 2011?

High point The 2-0 start to Big Ten play. The road win over Northwestern was clearly Purdue’s finest win on the year; the remaining three victories came over Western Illinois, Ball State and Minnesota.

Low point The 0-6 finish. The defense was abysmal, the offense only slightly better. No other Big Ten team enters 2011 needing a win more so than Purdue – not a conference win, just a win.

Tidbit Purdue has had only one 10-win season in program history, the second-fewest in the Big Ten. Indiana, lowly Indiana, is still waiting for its first double-digit win season 124 years after it first fielded a team. Purdue’s 10-win year came under the woefully underrated Jim Young in 1979; the star of that team was another underrated Big Ten star, quarterback Mark Herrmann.

Tidbit (recruiting edition) The Florida well is beginning to dry up. Perhaps the defining characteristic of Hope’s first class, back in 2009, was the number of recruits inked out of the Sunshine State: 14 of 20, 70 percent, were from Florida. The 2010 class had 7 of 24 recruits from Florida, or about 29 percent. Hope signed a mere 15 recruits in February’s class, but only three were from Florida – 20 percent. So the inroads made early have not been maintained, it seems, if we simply go off what we see in each signing class.

Former players in the N.F.L.

29 DE Cliff Avril (Detroit), LB Akin Ayodele (Buffalo), 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 (Houston), TE Dustin Keller (New York Jets), DE Ryan Kerrigan (Washington), CB Brandon King (Indianapolis), LB Niko Koutouvides (Tampa Bay), OT Matt Light (New England), DE Alex Magee (Tampa Bay), 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 (Cincinnati), LB Shaun Phillips (San Diego), S Bernard Pollard (Houston), RB Kory Sheets (Miami), LB Anthony Spencer (Dallas), DT Craig Terrill (Seattle), S Torri Williams (Houston).

Arbitrary top five list

Athletes in comedies
1. Alex Karras, “Blazing Saddles.”
2. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, “Airplane!”
3. Cam Neely, “Dumb and Dumber.”
4. Dan Marino, “Ace Venture: Pet Detective.”
5. O.J. Simpson, “The Naked Gun.”

Coaching

Danny Hope (Eastern Kentucky ’81), 9-15 after two seasons with Purdue. Hope served a one-year stint as the coach-in-waiting prior to taking over for Joe Tiller prior to the 2009 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 its 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 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. Momentum has stalled a bit, thanks to injuries and ineffectiveness, leaving Hope without tremendous job security as heads into his third season.

Players to watch

I can’t imagine that Rob Henry won’t start the season opener against Middle Tennessee State, even if Robert Marve make a full recovery from the second A.C.L. tear of his young career. What Henry brings to the table is athleticism; as a passer, he’s still a work in progress. But he’ll only grow better in time, and it’s important to remember that he was thrown into action well ahead of schedule as a redshirt freshman in 2010: Henry still led the Boilermakers in passing (996 yards, 9 touchdowns) and rushing (547 yards) despite his clear unease in passing situations. It’s clear that Marve is the better passer – he did fine in his four games on the year – and, if Purdue so chose, he’d be the best fit in an offense predicated on the passing game. But Henry’s blend of running ability and growing passing skills makes him the centerpiece of the offense. Also, don’t forget about how highly his teammates think of Henry: though only a sophomore, he’s one of Purdue’s captains.

Henry should cede the team’s rushing lead to junior Ralph Bolden. Hopefully. Bolden missed all of last season with an A.C.L. tear, the first in a long line of injuries that decimated the backfield before the start of Big Ten play. Bolden had a breakout 2009 campaign, speeding along for a team-best 935 yards on the ground to go with 20 receptions for 261 yards. He can be a big-time difference-maker: if 100 percent, Bolden is a guy who can total around 1,500 yards of total offense. But if he’s not healthy, Purdue is going to need JUCO transfer Akeem Shavers or sophomore Reggie Pegram to step up; unfortunately, Al-Terek McBurse transferred without making an impact.

One year after being a question mark, the offensive line is a strength. This is mainly due to last year’s growing pains, as three new linemen – one a converted defender – suffered through some missteps as starters before growing more and more comfortable as the year wore on. Four starters are back in 2011, three of them seniors: left tackle Dennis Kelly, right guard Ken Plue and right tackle Nick Mondek. Kelly’s the best of the bunch; Mondek, the former defensive lineman, is progressing nicely; and Plue, an honorable mention all-conference pick last fall, responded well to Hope’s spring challenge of being more consistent. Center Peters Drey, a junior, suffered a minor shoulder injury during the spring and should be ready to go come the fall. The lone new face up front is junior left guard Rick Schmeig, who has the versatility to play either guard spot and center.

The Purdue defense is sorely lacking in confidence – that’s what a six-game losing streak to end the year will do to an overwhelmed group. Solid through the first half of the year, the defense collapsed Ohio State on Oct. 23, allowing 49 points, and never recovered: in all, Purdue allowed 37.2 points per game in its 0-6 finish. Now, the offense certainly didn’t do the defense any favors, and it’s important to note that this defense was really far too young to be counted on to carry the team on a weekly basis. So while the defense needs to improve, it needs help from its teammates on offense.

Of course, the biggest story on defense is the man who isn’t there: Ryan Kerrigan. Purdue is not going to lead the Big Ten in sacks for the second straight year – the Boilermakers had 31 a year ago – without Kerrigan, that much we know. So end is a significant concern, as you’d expect. Senior Gerald Gooden has talent – not Kerrigan-level talent, though few do – but has yet to become a complete player, and he won’t be a factor unless the light turns on during his final season. Junior Robert Maci will start on the opposite side after being a leading reserve over the last two years. Purdue’s hoping that some of the younger ends, like redshirt freshmen Rashad Frazier and Ryan Russell, can make a difference; I wouldn’t be surprised if both assume major roles in 2011.

The interior of the line is in great shape, thanks mainly to junior Kawann Short’s development into one of the Big Ten’s best. He came into his own last fall, becoming a far more physical presence, and the numbers showed it: 41 tackles (12.5 for loss) and 6.5 sacks, helping Short land second-team all-Big Ten accolades. Can he keep up his development without Kerrigan drawing attention? That’s the big question for Short, and the big question for the line as a whole. Starting alongside Short is sophomore Bruce Gaston (26 tackles, 4.5 for loss), who started 10 games as a freshman.

There’s speed to burn at linebacker, where Purdue looks to have its finest starting trio under Hope. Two productive starters return, with Dwayne Beckford (84 tackles) back in the middle and Joe Holland, once again, manning the strong side – that’s four straight years in the starting lineup for the senior. This pair can really move, as most of their predecessors have for the Boilermakers, and both should be line for all-conference honors. There’s an open spot on the weak side, but sophomore Will Lucas is the clear answer for the Boilermakers. He played pretty well as a first-year player, totaling 43 tackles over all 12 games, two of them starts.

All four starters are back in the secondary, which is great news for a group that scuffled through waves of good and bad play a year ago. As with the defense as a whole, the secondary really struggled down the stretch; through six games, however, these Boilermakers weren’t terrible. One concern, however: the cornerbacks in particular must step up their game now that the pass rush is due to take a step back.

One of the two starters is just getting better and better. Ricardo Allen is already pretty darn good: a second-team all-conference pick as a freshman, he was one of only two first-year players to return two interceptions for touchdowns on the season. His future is extremely bright, and opposing quarterbacks might begin looking towards his counterpart, junior Josh Johnson, instead of testing Allen.

Senior strong safety Logan Link is a great story: a former walk-on who did not play at all in 2008 or 2009, Link broke into the starting lineup last fall and ended up leading the Boilermakers in tackles with 91. One area where Link struggles is in pass support; one area where he excels is in getting his nose dirty, which lends a certain brand of toughness to this secondary. He’s joined at free safety by senior Albert Evans, a 10-game starter last fall. Former JUCO transfer Max Charlot provides depth.

Position battle(s) to watch

Wide receivers Keith Smith was denied a sixth year of eligibility despite missing all but two games of his senior season, robbing Purdue of its most experienced and productive wide receiver. Perhaps the lone positive stemming from Smith’s knee injury is that it gave receivers like Antavian Edison and O.J. Ross a taste of life in the starting lineup. That pair, along with senior Justin Siller, are the headliners at the position; at the same time, Purdue desperately needs to find more production from its receiver corps. Perhaps Siller can make a difference: now ensconced at receiver after spending his early career at quarterback, Siller has the big-play ability – if he can find a way to remain on the field. The rest of the receiver corps is woefully untested. Purdue thinks highly of redshirt freshman Charles Torwudzo and sophomore Gary Bush, and while the opportunity is there for the young duo to see the field it’s hard to predict either being the missing piece. The only saving grace is that Purdue isn’t expecting to do much in the passing game; Purdue just wants to do more, with half of that responsibility falling on Henry’s shoulders and the rest on the wide receivers.

Game(s) to watch

The schedule starts kindly before turning sour in October and November. Purdue needs to finish the first half of the year no worse than 4-2, which would make later games with Illinois and Indiana of the must-win variety. The Boilermakers haven’t fared all that poorly on the road in recent years, so perhaps it will be possible to go to Penn State or Michigan and pull out a win.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell Purdue’s going to win between five and seven games in 2011. The lower number is barring injuries: if the Boilermakers suffer a slew of lost starters once again, all bets are off. The higher number is really as good as it’s going to get, in my opinion, which is why Purdue falls here, not 10 or 15 spots higher. In order for Purdue to go 7-5, you’d have to see major improvement – and far more consistency – from an offense that is still findings its way. It begins with Henry, who has the athletic ability to succeed but is still not quite all there as a quarterback; he can be a weapon, but good defenses will find a way to make him move the ball through the air, and I’m not altogether convinced he’s where he needs to be as a passer. Having a weak, untested receiver corps doesn’t help matters. But the Boilermakers will certainly move the ball on the ground, thanks to Henry, a strong offensive line and, hopefully, a healthy Bolden at running back. Defensively, you see a group that will struggle getting to the quarterback; seeing as that’s the case, Purdue desperately needs the defensive backs to step up their game. That’s the major storyline on defense: a secondary that gave up yards in bunches even with a stout pass rush attempts to improve without that all-important assistance. I’m not confident that Purdue can do so, nor am I confident in an offense that may not be able to keep pace with the opposition. This isn’t a terrible team, and it could be a team that surprises some teams if things come together. Still, Purdue has some work to do in order to climb out of the bottom third of the Big Ten.

Dream season Henry headlines an offense that does enough to offset some lingering concerns defensively, helping Purdue return to bowl play at 8-4, 5-3 in the Big Ten.

Nightmare season The Boilermakers try their best, but it’s not good enough: 3-9, 1-7.

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 Rail and Boiled Sports. For another take, take a trip to Jumbo Heroes. As always, list other options in the comment field below.

Word Count

Through 45 teams 126,566.

Up Next

Who is No. 75? Tomorrow’s university is named after the site where its first classes were first held.

You can also follow Paul Myerberg and Pre-Snap Read on Twitter.

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Comments

  1. Evan says:

    Me thinks Wake Forest is next.

  2. David says:

    [Conwell's Baptist] Temple is next.

  3. Ryan says:

    Florida International? Were they started overseas? I never understand their name. It’s about time for FIU to come up.

  4. TheNooge says:

    This is a little bit low for Purdue – only because I have a feeling they can start 4-1. Then it comes down to beating someone other than Indiana for a bowl. I am thinking Iowa or Michigan have the ability to blow a game they should win vs. the boilers.

  5. Jeff says:

    My Temple Owls are next, but 75th? Yikes.

  6. Scott says:

    The Boiling Points is another great place.

  7. Riley says:

    Big 10 Rant: Purdue is a new purdue blog

  8. ledman24 says:

    Thanks for the link!

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