PURDUE: Three Days and Counting

The play of the two teams' tailbacks and special teams figures to be critical in this weekend's battle between Indiana (3-8/1-6) and Purdue (3-8/1-6) for the Old Oaken Bucket. Today HoosierNation.com looks at three of critical head-to-head battles as we continue our day-by-day preview of this weekend's match-up with "Three Key Match-Ups"…

Bill Lynch vs. Joe Tiller - There's always a little something extra on the line when these two teams battle for the Old Oaken Bucket, but there's no disputing the fact that this has been a very disappointing season for both teams. Purdue had visions of a possible New Year's Day bowl and Indiana pictured itself making a second straight bowl appearance. Instead, the two teams head into the match-up with identical 3-8 overall marks and 1-6 records in the Big Ten, and the loser will finish all alone in last place in the Big Ten. As both teams gear up for the season finale, whichever team plays with the most emotion and purpose will have a decided advantage in this match-up. That will fall on the coaching staffs to make that happen during the week. In Purdue's case, one would think Tiller would have an edge since he will also be coaching his final game in West Lafayette. But that extra incentive didn't prevent Purdue from having its worst season of the Joe Tiller era. In Indiana's case, the Hoosiers will return the majority of its starters next season, and a win in West Lafayette could provide the team with a good bounce heading into the off-season. The week leading up to this match-up is critical, and both coaches will be put to the test to get their teams ready to go.

IU TB Marcus Thigpen vs. PU TB Kory Sheets - both tailbacks will be critical to their teams' hopes Saturday, but it will be in different ways. While Sheets averages 20 carries per game and has had 16 carries or more in all but one of Purdue's game this season, Thigpen has had double-digit carries only once (17 vs. Illinois). Purdue's hope is that it can pound the Sheets at the IU defense and wear them down over the course of the game, and Indiana's goal is to hit the Boilermakers with some big plays from Thigpen. Six of Thigpen's nine touchdowns this season have come on plays of 50 yards or more, and Indiana is going to need some big plays from its offense if it's going to put points on the board against Purdue. While the Boilermakers have struggled to a 1-6 league mark, they've been solid at times in defense. Five of their seven conference foes have scored 22 points or less, and they've held good offenses such as Ohio State (222 total yards) and Michigan State (300 yards) in check. Considering IU's ineptitude on third downs this season, there's little to suggest the Hoosiers will be able to put together double-digit play scoring drives Saturday. Instead, the big play with be paramount if IU is going to be successful.

IU Special Teams vs. PU Special Teams - Special teams was supposed to be a strength for the Hoosiers this season, but it hasn't necessarily been the case. Austin Starr has struggled and IU's punt return team has made more gaffes than big gainers this season. In the last four games, the Hoosiers have started four drives at either their one or two-yard line because Ray Fisher has opted to not field an opposing punt and allowed it to roll inside IU's five yard line. It happened twice against Penn State last weekend and once against both Central Michigan and Northwestern. Those generally wind up being wasted offensive possessions as IU simply tries to get out from the shadow of its own end zone and give punter Chris Hagerup some room to operate. That has to change this weekend. IU should have some chances to make some plays against Purdue on special teams, particularly when the Boilermakers punt. Purdue punter Chris Summers is not only averaging just 38.4 yards/punt, but he's also had two blocked and three returned for touchdowns. That suggests that there will be an opportunity to make plays on special teams if IU is willing to make the effort.

What's coming up:
On Monday - Five Numbers to Note
On Tuesday - Four Names to Know
On Wednesday – Three Key Match-Ups
On Thursday – Two Big Concerns
On Friday – One Bold Prediction

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