Before each Minnesota football game, GopherDigest will ask five questions of an opposing beat writer. This week, we spoke with Purdue beat writer Brock Reish of the Exponent (West Lafayette, Indiana) to preview the Gophers' Week 6 away game against the 1-4 Purdue Boilermakers.
1) Purdue is 1-4 to start the season, but it feels like there's being strides made this season compared to the last few. What have you learned about this team through five games?
BR: The biggest and most important thing about the Purdue football team right now is the fact that they have not lost hope in themselves, in the coaching staff or in the program as a whole. Talking to the players each week, nobody is less confident this week than they were in week one. You can tell when a team has given up and accepted a bad record as an indicator of what they are, and Purdue is far from doing that right now.
2) How has the offense looked under redshirt freshman quarterback David Blough compared to Austin Appleby? What are your thoughts on Blough's play so far?
BR: This is something I have talked to John Shoop and David Blough about quite a bit. In his first start, Blough showed some characteristics of a redshirt freshman. Shoop pointed out some plays where he checked down when he had something open deep, just sticking with the more comfortable throw. In practice and even in the Michigan State game, Blough seems to be growing more and more comfortable in the pocket and comfortable looking deep when that's where his read takes him. The line is giving him plenty of time back there and I think that's a huge part of what he's done so far.
Comparing him to Appleby, there's really more similarities than there are differences; the biggest difference is the one the coaching staff pointed to for the mid-season change in the first place: turnovers. Appleby just wasn't taking care of the ball the way they needed him to. The team didn't seem to miss a step after the switch though. Blough has been a solid leader and everyone respects him on the field as much as they did the junior, Austin Appleby.
Personally, I've been impressed with Blough's play thus far. His decision-making has been pretty solid and he's playing within himself, doing just what the coaches are asking of him by not playing outside his own ability. Purdue doesn't need a superhero under center; they need someone who, to use the coaching staff's term, can "make the makeable plays."
3) True freshman RB Markell Jones already has six touchdowns and is averaging almost seven yards a carry through five games. How would you assess his play and is he the clear starter for this weekend's game?
BR: Everyone had high hopes for 2014 Indiana Mr. Football, Markell Jones, but I think he's exceeding even those. I thought he would be a solid compliment to D.J. Knox, but he's proven he can be leaned on as more than a relief back. He does not go down in the backfield and that's probably what the team loves most about his style.
As far Jones getting the start, I don't think you can make that call yet. The only reason Jones got so many touches and racked up so many yards against Michigan State is Knox was hurt. I don't think Darrell Hazell is going to make that swap this week. Could it happen later, if Jones' production is consistently exceeding that of Knox? Sure. But I don't forsee Hazell making that change after Knox misses one start while fighting an injury. I think Knox gets the start and a chance to prove he's fully recovered. I do, however, expect the Knox/Jones touch ratio to move consistently toward the freshman.
4) What are the strengths of the Purdue defense and who are a few names to keep an eye on for the game this Saturday?
BR: The strength of the Purdue defense is solid, not extraordinary, play accross the board. I know it sounds cliche to say that success for a unit depends on everyone, but in the case of the Purdue defense, it's true. The D-line and ends have been able to pressure quarterbacks and rush passers. The linebackers have been solid despite numerous injuries dating back to fall camp. The secondary is anchored by two experienced corners.
Middle linebacker Ja'Whaun Bentley is probably the No. 1 guy to keep an eye on. He leads the team in tackles (26) and tackles for loss (7.5). He's only a sophomore, but he's proven to be an asset for the defense. The team demonstrates enormous confidence in Bentley. Gelen Robinson, who plays the rush end spot, is increasing his threat level for opposing offenses. The sophomore was suspended for the first two games due to an offseason incident, but he and defensive coordinator Greg Hudson both feel he's caught up to where he should be at this point in the season. Those are the top two defensive guys I watch out for on game day.
5) What are the keys for the Boilermakers if they're going to beat the Gophers and what's your prediction for the Minnesota vs. Purdue game and why?
BR: Purdue has to establish a running game, bottom line. So far this season, when the ground game has got off and running, Purdue is in the game; when Knox and Jones can't pick up traction, the contests quickly grow out of hand. With the impressive game Jones had last week, putting up over 150 yards, Purdue found themselves just three points short of beating the No. 2 team in the nation in a game, I might add, where the Boilers gave up 14 points on first-half turnovers. That leads me to the next key. Purdue has to take care of the ball. The coaches preach it. The players preach it. Everyone who wathces the games can see it.
If those two balls don't end up on the ground against Michigan State, Purdue very possibly could have picked up a big win on the road.
Blough needs to be comfortable throwing deep, but not reckless looking for the long ball. If the ground game does what it needs to do, Blough's quarterback style is more than enough to lead the offense to a lot of points on the board and a check in the "W" column.
I've got Purdue winning this one, 31-10. I believe this team has been on a constant upswing despite the 1-4 record and they will ride the game, especailly the second half, they played against Michigan State into their first Big Ten home win under Hazell. The Purdue defense is more than strong enough to hold the Gopher offense, which has clearly been struggling, to less than two touchdows. Blough's fast adaption to the starting role along with the consistent play from the running backs and steadfastness of the offensive line will have the Boilers up early. I expect Purdue to come out of the gate fast, and I don't think Minnesota will have what it takes to keep up.
Prediction: 31-10, Purdue.