Purple Reign: There are probably more than a few Northwestern fans heartbroken (or at least ticked off) over the events of the past few games. The Wildcats, of course, held fourth-quarter leads in each one, and then, of course, they proceeded to flounder down the stretch.Against Syracuse, a 37-34 loss, the Cats were up 34-27 in the fourth. (It should have been 35-27 but for a missed extra point, but anyway...) NU then let the Orange knot the game at 34. Disheartening, indeed, but not as disheartening as the interception thrown by Mike Kafka with less than two minutes remaining, an interception that set up Syracuse's game-winning field goal as time expired.
That was bad. And so was last week against Minnesota. Once again, Northwestern led in the fourth – this time 24-21. It was right about then that the team imploded. The Gophers opened the fourth quarter with the ball at their own 17 and then embarked on an 83-yard touchdown drive that consumed 6:10 of the clock; they converted three third downs on the march. A stalled NU drive and two Kafka fumbles later, Northwestern had lost 35-24 despite entering the final frame with the lead.
Two fourth quarter leads, two meltdowns, two losses.But if you think that's bad, you can take solace in the fact that Purdue has fallen on equally hard times, if not harder. The Boilermakers, who host Northwestern this weekend, sit at 1-3 with those three losses coming by a combined 12 points. Two of the losses – a 38-36 heartbreaker at Oregon and a 24-21 home loss to Notre Dame – were by a combined five points. (The other loss was a 28-21 defeat to Northern Illinois, gut-wrenching if for no other reason than it was against Northern Illinois.)
Purdue trailed Oregon 31-30 in the fourth after a blocked extra point, a miscue that forced Purdue to go for two when it brought the score to 38-36 in the waning minutes. The Boilermakers didn't convert and lost by two. That's a pretty tough one to swallow, especially since Purdue had 451 yards to Oregon's 356 and 281 passing yards to the Ducks' 163.The Notre Dame loss came in gut-wrenching fashion as well. Purdue took a 21-17 lead with 3:41 to play, but then let Notre Dame waltz in for a TD with 25 seconds remaining.
So for as bad as Northwestern's losses have been the past few weeks – a last second field goal coupled with a devastating case of the fumbles – Purdue's luck has been just as hard.To get a better the inside scoop on the 1-3 Boilermakers, Purple Reign is pleased to welcome in Rick McGlothlin, the main writer for Scout's Purdue page, the Boiler Sports Report.
OK, Rick. First off, I am curious about the psyche of this team right now. Coming off a pretty disastrous 4-8 campaign in 2008 – a season in which the Boilermakers won just two Big Ten games – people probably didn't expect PU to win nine games. So it's not like the losses should be eating people up. But the way the team is losing – that seems like it could get grating. How is the team feeling? Is there optimism in getting so close? Or are players and fans gloomy after such heartbreaking setbacks? Are the padded rooms on campus all full?Rick McGlothlin: Well David, from everything I witnessed post-game to even comments from the players today, they believe that what they've went through to date has made them stronger. While interviewing coach Hope, QB Joey Elliot, DE Ryan Kerrigan, CB David Pinder and RB Jaycen Taylor after the heartbreaking loss to Notre Dame last Saturday night, each one of them said the focus is on conference play now.
They said "Yeah, the loss hurts," but time to move and use these close games - not only to Notre Dame - but to NIU and Oregon, as learning tools. One of the more interesting comments that underscores that feeling came from Joey Elliot in out post-game talk. He said " We'll be just fine. I think offensively and defensively we put ourselves in a position win the ballgame there at the end, in fact we did that two or three games now. Where else would you rather be as an offense or a defense than on the field, trying to win a ballgame after 4 quarters, not getting blown out.As for the Boilermaker fans, no, they're not gloomy - just hoping that the team can pull out one of these nail biters and be in the hunt in the Big Ten. There seems to be a definite "Any given Saturday" in the atmosphere this year in collegiate football, so perhaps that will lend itself to a surprise team in conference play for the '09 season.
PR: Along with the psychological stability of the program and its fans, I am also curious about first-year coach Danny Hope, who was Joe Tiller's handpicked successor. He didn't inherit a juggernaut from Tiller, whose teams won just five Big Ten games in 2007 and 2008. What do people think about Hope? The handpicked-successor thing has always seemed like it could be a bit awkward – did this guy get the job because he EARNED it, or because
RM: I think It's a wait-n-see proposition at this point, but I can tell you he raised some eyebrows with his ability to land so many Florida recruits in just his first year, as well as having some top potential recruits from the Sunshine state ( and elsewhere in the U.S. ) interested currently. He has the players excited and they love his enthusiasm and positive outlook. I'm sure there were many fans that were left scratching their head this past Saturday night regarding the time out late in the game against Notre Dame, but overall I think he's done a good job thus far in his first season and most fans realize we have been close to winning each and every game. With a break here or there this team could be 4-0.While he's formulated which players are his most dependable and capable, there's probably some areas that he's still getting a feel for as it relates to game situations. Though I wouldn't suggest I know a thing about what coach Hope is thinking, it would seem rather normal to have to go through a few games to get a better understanding of ALL the players. Obviously there are learning curves in everything and that goes for coaching too, but I think the overwhelming majority of fans are going to give him the benefit of the doubt this season.
Once we see what happens in conference play, I think that will give us a better indication of the direction of the program. While upset at the loss to ND he didn't look panicked or dejected or uncertain. He knows he has a relatively young, inexperienced team that will be able to utilize the knowledge and situational experiences of each game this entire season and put them to full use down the road.
There's no question that Hope's appointment as head coach was earned. Having served on the staff of the Boilermakers for many years and heading up the offensive line from the 1997 season through 2001, You might be familiar with some of the names that played under him at that time: Kelly Butler, Brandon Gorin, Matt Light, Gene Mruczkowski and Chukky Okobi. They all played in front of another guy you may have heard of: Drew Brees.
Once he left Purdue he was an assistant with Louisville before being named the headcoach at Eastern Kentucky, where he also played his college ball. I think Purdue traditionally likes to give opportunities to former players/coaches because they're considered "family", but even so it's a matter of earning the position, no doubt. The long-time fans who have been around for years understood the selection and knew who Danny Hope was and what he did for the program.The "bandwaggoners" are always going to have their negative responses when things don't go perfectly and when it comes time to hire a new coach. Some may have been distraught when they didn't see a familiar face that they watched on TV every week because they think you have to furnish the mega-million dollar contracts to get the better known coaches. But "better known" and "more money" doesn't always guarantee a winning program. Ask Charlie Weis.
PR: Well, it sounds like peope – most of them, anyway –have a realistic outlook this season. That's good that players are able to see the silver lining in these close losses, that the coach isn't berating his team and that fans aren't overreacting after four games. And besides, you're right – with a few different bounces, the team could be 4-0. Same goes for NU and that late pick (and missed PAT) at Syracuse, as well as the fumblitis that doomed the Cats late against Minnesota. (You could argue, though, that NU is a break or two away from being 1-3. What if that last-second field goal against Eastern Michigan didn't pan out? How would overtime have gone?)Anyway, enough about games past. Let's look ahead to this Saturday. A few things really stood out during all those long nights researching in the Purple Reign archives. First, Northwestern and Purdue own the ninth- and 11th-ranked scoring defenses, respectively, in the Big Ten. The Boilermakers are giving up and average of more than 30 points per game, and Northwestern is conceding 27.5. So these Ds have struggled a bit.
Now, there are a million things that can skew a defense's numbers – like, say, if the offense has a tendency to cough up the ball deep in their own zone (see: Northwestern, which gave away possession on its side of the 50 against Syracuse and Minnesota. Multiple times.) That being said, the numbers don't always lie. Is Purdue's defense a little leaky?RM: Well, leaky isn't the word I'd use, but rather the word "inconsistent" at this point. Imagine shutting out Notre Dame for almost 30 minutes (the entire second half) only to allow them to drive 80 yards in the final few minutes of a game to pull out a win. So, yes, I'd say that Purdue is suffering more from inconsistency than a leak. What is probably the most frustrating is the defense was supposed to be the strength of the team and where the majority of the veteran leadership originated. While the second of the ND game certainly showed what they're capable of, it hasn't been put together for four complete quarters in a single game.
PR: Adding weight to the "this may be a shootout" theory, both teams are among the top five in the Big Ten in scoring -- Northwestern averages 33 points per game (third in the Big Ten) and Purdue averages 32.5 (fifth). That's a negligible difference between third and fifth -- half-a-point -- and according to the numbers Purdue is as good on O as the Cats.What's more, NU's Mike Kafka and Purdue's Joey Elliot are 1-2 in the conference in passing yards per game. Kafka is good for 262.2 yards, and Elliot 240. Kafka is second in the nation in completion percentage and has thrown for 300 in the last two games. Indeed, with injuries abound in NU's backfield, Kafka has been called upon to do a lot recently. And for the most part, he's done it.
But hey, Wildcat fans know about Kafka (and probably have an opinion – not necessarily a good one – about the embattled senior). Tell us about Purdue's backfield. Of course there's Elliot, who completes 60 percent of his passes. But the Boilermakers also have Ralph Bolden, the conference's leading rusher. One of Purple Reign's favorite stats is yards per carry minus a guy's longest run, the thinking being that an 80-yarder can artificially inflate numbers that, really, aren't that good. However, even if you take away Bolden's season-long – a 78-yard scamper – he's still productive. On the season he has a 6.2 per carry average, but without the 78-yard run, he's still getting well over five yards a pop. On paper, Elliot and Bolden look like a hell of a tandem. Do they look as good on the field?
RM: Yes, they look as good as their numbers and while Elliot doesn't have the big gun for an arm, he knows how to distribute the ball and has great touch on most of his throws. And he can throw with solid velocity and accuracy. He spreads the wealth in the passing attack and commands the huddle. He's utilized all the time he's had to spend "waiting in the wings" behind Curtis Painter to make himself as prepared as any quarterback could be in the Boilermaker offense.In the backfield, Bolden, from Folkston, Georgia, is much faster than he appears at first glance. And he's been the surprise of the season for Purdue. Having come on so strong, so quickly and just basically eclipsing Jaycen Taylor - who is a redshirt senior and a guy many picked to be the main thrust of the Boilermaker running attack. But Bolden shot out of the gate like a cannon and there hasn't really been the one-two punch or chemistry from a tandem running back situation like I expected once Bolden stepped onto the stage. Perhaps that is coming in conference play.
For now though, Bolden has received most of the game carries. 75 through 4 games, good for 510 yards and 4 TD's. But the speed of Taylor that I mention really shows up in his stats. Taylor has had only 25 carries for 115 yards, but three touchdowns and an average of 4.5 yards per carry.Taylor is extremely quick while Bolden is more powerful, but also has good speed. He's 5-9, 194 and thicker than Taylor, who is 5-10, 180. Taylor is the back who caught the wheel route from Elliot last Saturday and raced 38 yards for the go-ahead TD against the Irish. Ironically, that was Taylor's first reception on the year. Bolden, meanwhile, has caught 9 passes from Elliot, good for 133 yards (a 14 yard average) including one for a touchdown. The load carried by Bolden to this point has been much heavier than expected, so I wouldn't be surprised at all to see that begin to change.
PR: Alright, now tell us about Aaron Valetine. Dude leads the conference in all-purpose yards with 162.8 per game. And what's especially intriguing about him is that he spreads around his productivity – on the season, he's got 175 yards receiving, 138 yards on punt returns, and 330 yards on kickoff returns. Now, this is another tricky stat because having a ton of kick return yards can be an indictment on your defense – you have to get scored on to field a kickoff. Or it can mean you're a really good kick returner. So, is he a game-breaker, or the beneficiary of getting a lot of touches?
RM: Aaron Valentine is redshirt senior who is just an athlete, period. And he's both, in answer to your question. A game-breaker and beneficiary. We'd like him to not have to benefit so much from returning kicks, if you know what I mean! The Freeport, N.Y. native is 6-1, 205 and has great vision of the field when returning kicks or punts. But I think with the two fumbles on punt returns against NIU, he's started to second-guess himself and be a little hesitant at times.The guy has a great natural instinct for the seams that develop during a run back and he is also adept at creating space on his routes to get receptions that advance the ball. He's caught 17 passes thus far on the year, resulting in 2 TD's. His punt returns are averaging about 15 per chance and his kick returns are even better at over 20 yards a clip. So yes, the guy is a natural and I agree - he's had to do it more often (kickoff returns) than Boilermaker fans would like to see. The receiver you need to keep an eye on (and who has finally broken out) is the leader of receiving contingent, Junior Keith Smith from Fort Hood, Texas. So fluid, great routes and has a knack for finding a tiny sliver of an opening to create the YAC necessary to keep a drive alive. 28 catches on the year for Smith for 358 yards (almost twice as much as Valentin) and 2 touchdowns. He's become the favorite target of Elliot, or should I say, his "go to" wideout. Elliot won't hesitate to go elsewhere, but Smith is a prime target now.
PR: Lastly, let's make some predictions, eh? Purple Reign has swung and missed the last two weeks, calling for narrow NU victories in both games and instead getting narrow NU losses. But hey, if the prediction is a "W" each week, it eventually has to come true, right? Right?Well, that's the philosophy this week. Thus, in a barnburner, Purple Reign is calling for Northwestern to win by...No. Can't do it. The Cats aren't going to win. The Boilermakers almost won at Autzen Stadium, they nearly beat Notre Dame, they're confident, they're due. Let's say 37-33 Purdue. (Hey, with all the good luck that PR's previous predictions brought, maybe this is exactly what NU needs.)
What thinks you?
RM: Well, I do get a chuckle out of your reasoning behind the final score - and I have been in exactly the same frame of mind regarding my Boilers as well at times. And you're right - we're definitely due. But here's the thing for me in this game: Purdue MUST run the ball, and they must run it OFTEN, using 3 backs (Bolden, Taylor and either Jared Crank or Dierking). I'm inclined to think that the Boiler pass rush won't be as effective as necessary to slow down the NW passing game and thus must rely on long, grinding drives that take opportunities away from the Cat offense.Now, by no means do I think Purdue will stop throwing altogether. After all, this is the basketball-on-grass birthplace in the Big Ten, so Elliot will definitely get some throwing in. It's just that I don't think an air-war would be something the Boilers want to get into with Northwestern, but I could be wrong. And if it rains like it might on Saturday, that could also curtail the passing attempts for both teams.
So with that said, I'm going to say it'll be a Boilermaker victory, 24-20. I'm hoping for a solid, well-officiated and injury free ballgame for both teams and best of luck to Northwestern the remainder of the season. It was great talking with you and the other Wildcat fans David!
Big thanks to Rick McGlothlin. Purdue's got a quality Scout site, which you can find here. As always, feel free to contact David Vranicar, publisher of Purple Reign, at firstname.lastname@example.org.