MADISON - Bringing back a lot of the same personnel from the worst season in program history, senior tailback Raheem Mostert was part of a summit of all the key figures in the Purdue offense: fellow running backs, offensive linemen and quarterbacks.
The goal at the start of the meeting was simple: discuss how to better improve the running game, the blocking up front and the protection calls. By the end of the meeting, Mostert said the group was committed to studying and building their craft. More importantly, they were hungry to start winning.
“We had one big meeting about the interior, how we were going to run the ball, how we were going to pass, who we were supposed to block, who picks up the blitz, we’ve done all that,” said Mostert. “We knew we were going to have a rough year last year with the new coaching staff and the new change. Now that we know who are coaches are, what our coaches want us to do and how we’re going to execute, it brings a brightness to the team.”
Although Purdue (3-6, 1-4 Big Ten) likely won’t be playing in a bowl game for the fifth time in seven years, it’s evident the Boilermakers – which hosts No.25 Wisconsin (6-2, 3-1) Saturday at Ross-Ade Stadium - are starting to make progress under second year coach Darrell Hazell.
Winning one game a season ago (squeaking by a FCS opponent), Purdue has won a Big Ten road game for the first time since 2012 and been competitive during a three-game stretch where its opponents were a combined 29-5 overall and 14-3 in the conference.
“You prepare every year in the Big Ten that you’re going to have a tough schedule,” said Hazell. “I think you take each game for what it’s worth … This is such a great league and you better be ready to play each and every week to play at the highest level.”
The Boilermakers haven’t got the results over their audacious three-game stretch, but they haven’t been embarrassed. Against the Spartans, the nation’s No.5 rushing defense, Purdue’s offense put up 31 points, rushed for 129 yards and scored three touchdowns.
The Boilermakers led Minnesota most of the game on the road until the final five minutes and gave Nebraska fits in Lincoln last weekend, holding the Cornhuskers to a season-low 297 yards. Three of Purdue’s losses are against teams ranked in the top 15 in the country and its six losses are against teams with a combined record of 40-11.
For Hazell, the greatest measure of progress between this year and his first year is confidence.
“Right now they believe they can win,” said Hazell. “We weren’t at this point last year in terms of that. They step on the field every Saturday believing they can win the football game.”
A good portion of the confidence comes from preparation and the players’ familiarity with the coaching staff, but the main difference is the offense. Through nine games last year, Purdue averaged 11.8 points per game, which included scoring a combined seven points in a three game span against Nebraska, Michigan State and Ohio State.
This year Purdue is averaging 26.7 points with five 30-plus point performances, thanks in large part to the members in that early offseason meeting helping the offense average 174.6 rushing yards per game.
“I feel like our running back stable is very confident,” said Mostert. “We have a lot of guys with experience. We’re excited that we have this opportunity to show people what we’ve got. We’ve got backs that can be that dynamic back. We’re trying to focus on our craft and what we have to do to win games.”
With Purdue receiver Danny Anthrop, who leads team with 38 catches for 616 yards and four touchdowns, missing the rest of season with a torn ACL, the Boilermakers will lean even heavier on speedy senior tailbacks Akeem Hunt and Mostert by playing wide open and spreading the field.
Hunt leads Purdue with 706 rushing yards and five touchdowns. He is averaging 5.55 yards per carry for his career, which ranks fifth in school history for players with at least 200 career attempts.
Mostert is a four-time Big Ten champion for Purdue’s track team, holds a school-record in the 60-meter dash, a Big Ten Championship-record in the 200 meter and is the school’s all-time leader in career kickoff return yards (2,127). Mostert has 480 rushing yards, 85 receiving yards and 569 kickoff return yards this season.
“(They’re) as fast as we've played all year long as far as sheer speed,” said Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen. “I would bet the fastest, when you win the 200 and the 100 in the Big Ten, I don't know that much about track, but I know that's really fast when you win a race like that, and it shows up on film. Both those young men are very good football players and very, very fast.”
Wisconsin has won the last eight meetings in the series and the last five meetings on the road. It’s just another seemingly impossible test that Purdue is embracing.
“We feel we’re ready. The coaches have literally sat down with us and we feel really confident in our ability. We’re ready to do what we have to do to win games. Coach Hazell and the coaches emphasized to us that we’re going to win some games, and we understood that as an offense and a team.”