Same Old Purdue? Buckeyes Hope So

Joe Tiller famously brought the spread to the Big Ten in the mid-1990s when he took over at Purdue. With his retirement after the 2008 season, there were questions whether new head man Danny Hope would continue the basketball on grass. Ohio State probably hopes so, given its success at stopping the Boilers the past two seasons.

Just about everyone questioned says that Purdue is running a similar offense under first-year head coach Danny Hope that it did under spread guru Joe Tiller the previous 12 seasons.

The No. 7 Buckeyes might want to hope so Saturday when the teams meet in Ross-Ade Stadium.

During Tiller's last two campaigns, the Ohio State defense seemed to have the Purdue's number. Even with well-known signal caller Curtis Painter flinging the ball around the past two seasons, the Boilermakers totaled just 10 points – seven of which came on a garbage-time touchdown. Purdue totaled 74 yards on 43 carries, and Painter was a combined 54 for 111 (48.6) percent with just one passing TD.

So in the words of Oliver Twist, the Buckeyes might be saying, "Please, sir, we want some more" of the Boilers' spread offense.

"For us, it's really just been being able to cover the wide receivers," safety and team captain Kurt Coleman said. "Being able to cover them early and allowing our defensive pressure to get after them. Curtis Painter threw into a couple of bad situations the last two years, so if we can affect them early, I think that's the way the game will kind of work itself out, but if we allow them to drive down the field and get a couple of scores, things could be different."

As for those wide receivers, Purdue still uses a good bunch of them. During last Saturday's loss at Minnesota, the Boilermakers used a shotgun, three-plus wideout formation nearly 60 percent of the time, including a number of four-WR and empty sets.

On the other hand, the Boilermakers were in the I-formation around 33 percent of the time, especially in short-yardage and first-down situations. So while Tiller's famous spread that took the Big Ten by storm in the mid-1990s isn't dead, there have at least been some tweaks.

"They've probably lined up in the I with two backs a little bit more," OSU head coach Jim Tressel said. "If you had to say what's their primary formation, it would still be three wides and a tight end, which when they had (tight end) Dustin Keller and those kind of guys, that was their base. I think the kid threw it almost 50 times Saturday, didn't he? Against Minnesota? So that's not far from what they've typically done."

Tressel did have a point. While the Boilermakers have added in more running formations into what they've done, there has still been a focus on throwing the ball in West Lafayette. Quarterback Joey Elliott, a first-year starter as a fifth-year senior, did toss the ball 47 times as the Boilermakers tried to come back from a deficit against the Golden Gophers on the way to a 35-20 loss on Saturday.

While Elliott hasn't had a day like Drew Brees had in 1998 – when he threw 83 times at Wisconsin – he has averaged 35.5 passes per game, putting him on pace to finish eighth in the single-season Purdue annals in passes. The Boilers are second in the Big Ten in passing at 265.0 yards per game.

What has irked Hope up to this point is Purdue's inability to turn those yards into production. Because Elliott has thrown nine interceptions against 12 touchdowns, he is sixth in the league in passing efficiency and the team is seventh in scoring (28.5 points).

"(Elliott) accrues a lot of yards and he's a great quarterback; the spirit that he embodies is really important for our football team right now," Hope said. "But we are not excellent right now in the throwing and catching part, at some of the things that are important for us to really cash in on all of our opportunities. We don't always go to the first progression. We need to get more detailed in that area, and we need to be more detailed in route running.

"We become excellent, or make excellent progress, in those two areas, we can become even more efficient in the passing game and accrue a lot more yardage. We are not far away from being able to really pass the football."

The first two games – a win against Toledo and a heartbreaking late loss at No. 12 Oregon – Purdue had the benefit of a strong running game to back up Elliott, as Ralph Bolden ran for a combined 357 yards to lead the NCAA. But he hasn't topped 70 yards in a game or scored a touchdown in the four games since as teams have adjusted; Minnesota loaded the box with eight players when Purdue showed a traditional run set Saturday.

"We came in the season with very, very strong running game, and people have come to play Purdue with a defense to stop the running game," Hope said. "Some different schemes and different plans to, you know, load up the front a little bit, to make sure they don't get out numbered a whole lot in the box, and that's limited our running game some."

While some of the early running success came out of things like the I-formation, Hope said that nothing has really changed because running the ball was still a part of the original system he and Tiller brought to Purdue in '90s.

"It's changed some but it's the same offense from a play-calling standpoint. The same system is in," Hope said. "But inside of that system are tools you can build any offense with, and that's what (offensive coordinator Gary) Nord's staff has been able to do."

The Buckeyes can only hope the results are the same as the past two years come Saturday.

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