Big Ten Game Preview: Purdue

Ohio State will hit the midpoint of its Big Ten title defense with a mid-October clash at Purdue. The Boilermakers are rebuilding during the first year of Danny Hope's tenure, and looks ahead to see if danger will be lurking in northwest Indiana.

Purdue Oct. 17, Ross-Ade Stadium (West Lafayette, Ind.)
Head coach Danny Hope
2008 record: 4-8, 2-6 Big Ten (T-9th)

Joe Tiller's Purdue teams were known for dynamic passing offenses, and Hope says he'll run the spread just like his predecessor. However, even Tiller had admitted by the end of his tenure that the offense wasn't a novelty anymore, and the Boilermakers dearth of playmakers over the past few seasons sent them in a downward spiral. Can Hope quickly restock a program that has plenty of holes to fill?

What We Know: Purdue has an athletic defense that troubled some Big Ten squads, such as Ohio State. The Boilermakers should be solid along an offensive line that returns four starters. The spread offense, when working, still can be trouble for opposing defenses.

Major Questions: Those four starters are the only ones returning on the offensive side of the ball; can the skill positions reload after a lackluster year of production in 2008? Just how close will Hope's spread mimic the one run under Tiller for more than a decade? Can an undersized defense stop the run? And will the freshman class be able to add the skill so desperately needed across the board?

Offensive Overview: Hope told the media during the spring that he'll run a similar spread offense to the one that Tiller operated, though a few tweaks – such as more running by the quarterback – might be in the offing based on what Hope picked up during coaching stops at Louisville and Eastern Kentucky after coming to Purdue with Tiller.

So while there might be a few subtle changes, expect to see lots of throwing the ball again in 2009 at Purdue, especially because it suits the talents of fifth-year senior Joey Elliott, who will take over as the starting quarterback.

Elliott might not have been the presumed starter coming into the season if Purdue still had the services of Justin Siller, a converted running back who did remarkably well (59-106, 496 yards, 3 TD, 2 INT; 167 rushing yards, 2 TD) in 2008 given his lack of experience.

But Siller's academic issues ended his chance to stay on the '09 squad, leaving the starting role to Elliott. He aspires to be a coach once his Purdue career comes to an end, he's not guaranteed to play like a smart, experienced hand; playing behind Curtis Painter for the past three seasons, Elliott has thrown just 49 passes with two touchdowns and two interceptions.

Elliott will be tasked with finding consistency for Purdue that was sorely lacking during 2008. The Boilermakers exploded for 48 points against Michigan and 62 in a season-ending blowout of Indiana – the two worst defenses, statistically, in the Big Ten – but were held to less than 10 points in half of the eight Big Ten games.

The usually explosive Purdue passing offense again finished high in the Big Ten in yardage, accumulating 249.6 per game to place second in the league. However, that total was well below the 300 yards Tiller's teams averaged five times in his tenure, and Purdue was able to total just 16 passing touchdowns against 13 interceptions.

There wasn't much of a running threat to rescue the Boilermakers, either. Despite the presence of the quick and agile Kory Sheets in the backfield, Purdue was last in the Big Ten in rushing yards per game with 124.8. The Boilermakers were outrushed by 50 yards per game in 2008.

While Greg Orton and Desmond Tardy did their best and totaled 69 and 67 catches, respectively, the Boilermakers lacked a true breakout threat at the receiver position as well. Both of those players have exhausted eligibility as part of the total vacuum of skill position starters out of West Lafayette.

With Painter, Sheets, Orton, Tardy, wideout Brandon Whittington and tight end Jerry Wasikowski all having left, Purdue will need to restock the cabinets.

There are some solid options but a true lack of depth at the running back and wideout spots. In two seasons as a reserve, Jaycen Taylor has showed he has versatility, averaging 5.6 yards per carry and pulling in 37 passes, but he's coming off of missing the '08 campaign with a torn ACL. Dan Dierking ran just nine times last year for 34 yards, and 5-9 scatback Ralph Bolden had just eight carries.

At wideout, Keith Smith is back after making 49 catches for 486 yards and two touchdowns. At 6-2, 226 pounds, Smith is a good possession receiver but not a game-breaker; his longest catch of 2008 was for 31 yards.

The only other player returning who had more than 10 catches last season is Aaron Valentin, whose explosiveness was shown during a 79-yard catch against Indiana and a 57-yarder vs. Central Michigan. He had 11 catches overall.

A large cast of players, including converted cornerback Royce Adams and a host of incoming freshmen, will compete for the rest of the playing time.

At tight end, junior Kyle Adams returns from a redshirt year forced by injury and gives the Boilermakers a threat underneath and in the red zone. As a reserve player in his first two seasons, he made 14 catches and scored three touchdowns.

Rating Purdue's offensive line seems particularly difficult given the team's offensive strategy. With just one healthy back they trusted all season, the Boilermakers had the least rushing attempts in the conference, so the lack of a complete rushing attack and the 10th-place finish in the league in yards per game can't necessarily be blamed on the line. Purdue averaged 3.8 yards per carry, tied with Northwestern for eighth in the league and just 0.1 behind seventh-place Michigan.

Despite throwing the most passes in the conference, Purdue allowed just 2.0 sacks per game, good for fourth in the league. However, no Boilermaker lineman was even an honorable mention All-Big Ten pick by the league or the coaches.

Left tackle Zack Reckman, left guard Eric Hedstrom, right guard Ken Plue and right tackle Zach Jones all return, though because of injury none started all 12 games. Projected center Jared Zwilling, a fifth-year senior, also got four starts at guard at the end of the year with Hedstrom out. Jones has made 24 consecutive starts, while Reckman has 18 in his career.

Sophomore tackle Dennis Kelly also has been impressive in his career and could see starting time.

Key To The Season (Off): The team's development because of gained experience as the year goes on. Not many Boilermakers have played enough downs to be counted on for standout performances, but they should get better as the season progresses. Just how much better is open to debate. Expecting this to be a consistent, high-powered offense at any point in the year would be a bit much.

Defensive Overview: Purdue limited the offenses of teams like Penn State, Ohio State, Minnesota, Michigan State, Iowa and Indiana while falling apart against teams like Notre Dame (38 points allowed), Northwestern (48) and Michigan (42), though the latter two were aided by numerous short fields.

Those blowups helped drag down Purdue's overall stats. The Boilermakers finished seventh in scoring defense at 25.1 points per game and eighth in total defense with 358.1 yards allowed.

The dichotomy between the rushing and passing stats was stark. When it came to passing yards allowed, Purdue led the conference at 183.3 per game, but the Boilermakers were just sixth in passing efficiency defense and dead last in rushing yards allowed (174.8).

Every opponent topped 100 yards on the ground, and Big Ten teams chose to run the ball on 61.7 percent of plays (308 of 499). Purdue was the only league team that defended fewer than 200 passes. Teams ran for 4.5 yards per carry against the Boilermakers, by far the worst in the conference.

The Boilermakers were undersized and young at linebacker a season ago, and they hope to at least be more experienced this year even after the graduation of leading tackler Anthony Heygood.

Senior Jason Wermer, who missed 2008 with a back injury, returns to the lineup to play with Chris Carlino, who started five games as a freshman last year, and Joe Holland, who started every game as a freshman. All are smaller, speedier linebackers, as Werner is the heaviest at 221 pounds.

Up front, Purdue likes its two returning starters in tackle Mike Neal, who can bench press 500 pounds, and playmaking end Ryan Kerrigan. Both reached double digits in tackles for loss last year, while Kerrigan had seven sacks and Neal 5.5.

Ends Gerald Gooden and Nickcaro Golding earned time last year and will compete for a starting role, while redshirt freshmen Kawann Short and Monroe Brooks are potential building blocks inside.

The secondary returns three and a half starters, including cornerbacks Brandon King and David Pender, each of whom started every game a season ago. They combined for 21 pass breakups and had an interception apiece.

Torri Williams has loads of experience at safety and is coming off of one of his better seasons with 83 tackles, two interceptions and two forced fumbles. Dwight Mclean, who started six games last year, also had two picks.

Key To The Season (Def): If everyone continues to mature, the Boilermakers could have a solid defense. The line boasts a few players who can develop into stars in Neal and Kerrigan, while the back seven is filled with role players. Steady progression at all positions should result in a defense that has no major weaknesses.

Special Teams: Chris Summers entered 2008 looking like a possible All-Big Ten choice at kicker, but he was nothing short of terrible, making just 5 of 10 field goals and missing two huge kicks during a heartbreaking loss to Oregon in week two. Carson Wiggs replaced him and immediately grabbed the job, going 8-for-11. He made a 53-yarder vs. Ohio State but was just 2 of 5 from beyond 40 yards on the year.

Summers returns to punt after averaging 38.4 yards, but Purdue was dead last in net punting in the Big Ten. The kickoff coverage unit also finished at the bottom of the pack, and Purdue's kickers were the only in the league to average less than 60 yards per kickoff. That surely didn't help the Boilermakers' defense.

Valentin's ability to run with the football should result in Purdue having solid return units. The kickoff group was third in the league last year with Valentin leading the way, though the punt return placed just 10th under Tardy. Adams is in the mix to replace Tardy as well.

New Name To Know: WR Eric Williams, 5-11, 192, Bradenton (Fla.) Manatee – Purdue's wide receiver corps is so depleted by graduation that Williams, a three-star prospect according to Scout, has a chance to earn a starting role in 2009. Williams is one of an extensive list of Florida prospects the Boilermakers were able to land in their recruiting class, and he boasts the speed to make an impact right away.

Best Case Scenario: Reaching the middle of the pack in the Big Ten and going to a bowl game would be quite an accomplishment. To get there, Purdue will need the offense to surprise. Elliott has to manage games like a fifth-year senior to have a chance to succeed.

Worst Case Scenario: Struggling under the weight of inexperience, the offense totally goes in the tank. Without much help, the defense sputters as well, leaving Purdue stuck in the 1 to 3 range when it comes to conference wins. With nonconference games scheduled against Oregon and Notre Dame, bowl eligibility becomes a major uphill task.

OSU Game: Ohio State and Purdue played a snoozer in 2008. Once the Buckeyes asserted early dominance on defense, forced a few turnovers and earned a special teams score, Jim Tressel shut down the engines and allowed his charges to coast home with a victory.

Purdue's offense should be on a similar level in 2009, and the Boilermakers run an offensive scheme the Buckeyes seem to have figured out. The Boilermakers earned only a garbage-time score at home and at night in 2007 and got a lone field goal a campaign ago, and that was with the ballyhooed Painter running the show.

Even though the Buckeye defense is young, it should be able to match up pretty well with the Purdue offense. All that remains is for the Scarlet and Gray to put some points on the board. They might not explode against a solid but unspectacular Boilermaker defense, but the Buckeyes should be able to play a classic Tressel game at worst and finish off a victory in West Lafayette.

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