Opponents preview: Purdue defense

Part three of BadgerNation.com's preseason analysis of the Boilermakers

Purdue has an elite defensive line, a solid corps of linebacker and a secondary that is very good at filling versus the run. That secondary is not quite as adept in pass coverage, though, so the Boilermakers can give up chunks of yardage. However, this is one of the Big Ten's four best defenses.

2004 by the numbers

Total defense: 345.3 yards allowed per game (No. 40 nationally); 335.6 in conference-only games (4)
Scoring defense: 17.2 (15); 19.5 (4)
Passing defense: 239.9 (89); 220.8 (8)
Passing efficiency: 118.9 (49); 110.9 (4)
Rushing defense: 105.3 (14); 114.9 (2)
Touchdowns allowed: 21 – 15 passing, 6 rushing; 15 – 10 passing, 5 rushing
Third-down defense: 34 percent; 34.1 (4)
Turnovers gained: 15 – 8 interceptions, 7 of 19 fumbles (105); 10 – 6 interceptions, 4 fumbles (7)
Net punting: 35.9 (56); 34.3 (8)
Kick coverage: 20.9 (71); 23.5 (9)
Punt coverage: 7.5 (30);

Defensive line analysis

The strength of Purdue's very good defense is undoubtedly its defensive line, which is one of the best fronts in all of college football.

Senior tackles Brent Grover (6-foot-3, 303 pounds) and Brandon Villarreal (6-2, 289) are an imposing tandem that does a very good job of controlling the interior.

Villarreal is a disruptive force who had 17.5 tackles for loss last season, third-best in the Big Ten. He also had 50 tackles, 5.5 sacks and three pass breakups. A starter for all 12 games last season, Villarreal played in 13 games as a reserve in 2003 and 12 games as a reserve in 2002. In those two seasons as a backup he accumulated 57 tackles, including nine for loss.

Grover is a four-year starter, an extremely productive, workmanlike player in the middle. Grover is not flashy, but last year he did have 41 tackles, with six for loss and an astounding eight pass breakups. He also blocked one kick. He has played in 38 games the past three years, starting all 25 the past two seasons and nine in 2002. Between his freshman and sophomore seasons he produced 65 tackles.

Few, if any, teams in the nation can match that type of talent in the middle with Purdue's pass rushing ability on the edge. Junior defensive end Ray Edwards (6-6, 270) is the best at his position in the Big Ten. An extremely active player, Edwards had 45 tackles, 11 for loss, and eight sacks last season. He was an honorable mention all-conference choice and a semifinalist for the Ted Hendricks award for the nation's best defensive end.

He is flanked by junior Anthony Spencer (6-3, 263), with senior Rob Ninkovich (6-3, 251) filling in as the most dangerous reserve lineman in the Big Ten. Spencer started all 12 games last year and was an honorable mention All-Big Ten choice. He was tied for sixth in the conference with 7.5 sacks and tied for the Big Ten lead with three forced fumbles, to go along with 33 tackles.

Ninkovich played all 12 games as a reserve and had eight sacks, tying Edwards for second in the conference. He also had 23 tackles, 9.5 for loss, and four pass breakups. Last season was Ninkovich's first at Purdue after transferring from the junior college ranks.

With three players rotating at end who are all capable of a double-digit sack total, it is no wonder that Purdue led the Big Ten in that category (35 in all games; they were third in conference-only games with 18) and will likely do so again this year.

Sophomore Gene Bright (6-4, 250) is another capable reserve at end.

Redshirt freshman reserve defensive tackle Ryan Baker (6-6, 267) is a promising player. Junior defensive tackle Dan McGowen (6-0, 279) has played in 12 games in his career, 10 last season, with five career tackles.

Linebackers analysis

This is not a particularly exciting group, but they get the job done. Middle linebacker George Hall (6-2, 250) has the size, instincts and tackling ability to be a good one in the Big Ten, and he wracked up 92 tackles (6 for loss) last year. Hall also led the team with two interceptions.

Fifth-year senior Bobby Iwuchukwu (6-2, 246) returns on the strong side as another solid run stuffer. He started the first eight games a year ago before being sidelined with a knee injury. He had 40 tackles and four for loss last year. He played in all 26 games his freshman and sophomore seasons, mostly on special teams, and had 18 tackles. Impressively, he has blocked five field goals in his career.

Sophomore Stan Keglar (6-2, 227) is the returning starter on the weakside. He had 61 tackles, including four for loss, last season.

Though he has not played, freshman Kyle Williams (6-2, 212) is probably PU's most athletic linebacker and maybe its most well known. One of the top linebacker prospects in the nation in the class of 2004, he initially signed with Iowa, but did not qualify academically and never enrolled in school. Instead, he ended up at Purdue last January. He can be considered somewhat of an enigma now, but Williams has a great deal of talent and should see the field this year as one of the defense's top reserves.

Sophomore Cliff Avril (6-3, 231) played in 12 games as a true freshman last year and started the last four on the strongside after Iwuchukwu's injury. He had 36 tackles with three for loss.

The backup at middle linebacker is sophomore Dan Bick (6-1, 216), who played in 11 games as a special teams player last year, recording eight tackles.

Secondary analysis

Despite having an elite level pass rush (though it did taper off in Big Ten play) the Boilermakers were mediocre to poor against the pass last season. All four starters return to the secondary, but the team took a big hit when sophomore reserve Torri Williams (6-2, 200), probably the team's best safety in coverage, had to undergo surgery to repair ligament damage to his right foot. This after Williams broke his leg during spring workouts. He could miss the entire season as a result of the latest injury.

Williams' injury puts more pressure on junior strong safety Bernard Pollard (6-2, 225) and senior free safety Kyle Smith (6-4, 215) to improve in coverage, though it also lightens the burden on Smith of potentially losing substantial playing time.

Pollard and Smith are exceptional tacklers and big-time hitters who are great in run support, making big contributions to the league's second-best run defense. But they leave something to be desired in coverage.

Pollard led the team in tackles last year with 96 (3.0 for loss) and added one sack, five pass breakups and an interception in a second-team all-conference season. He started 12 games and played in 13 as a true freshman in 2003, and was fifth on the team with 66 tackles.

Smith started all 12 games last year at free safety. Originally a walk-on quarterback, he is also entering his third year as the team's holder for extra points and field goals.

Smith is a heady, dependable player who was third on the team with 76 tackles last year. But he is not much of a ball hawk, having just three pass breakups and zero interceptions last year.

With Williams out, the depth at safety is a suspect collection of little used veterans and green freshmen. The top reserve is redshirt freshman Lance Melvin (5-9, 193), an athletic player who could also serve as the team's punt returner.

At cornerback senior Brian Hickman (6-0, 178) is entering his second year as a starter. He tied defensive tackle Brent Grover for the team lead with eight pass breakups last year and was fifth on the team with 52 tackles. He is an adequate coverage man who should be improved after seeing truly extensive action for the first time in his career last season. A very good tackler, he is yet another PU defensive back who is strong in run support.

Sophomore Paul Long (6-2, 193) started seven games last year in place of the injured Antwaun Rogers and did a good job establishing himself in the position. Long, a converted safety, has great size for a corner and should be a better all-around player after garnering so much experience as a redshirt freshman. He is not going to be an elite cover guy but he can develop into a dependable player in that regard.

The top reserves at corner are an untested but talented redshirt freshmen duo in Fabian Martin (5-11, 188) and Zach Logan (6-1, 174).

Special teams notes

Dave Brytus (6-4, 225) returns as the punter after a successful freshman campaign in 2004. Brytus averaged 40 yards per punt last year and placed 15 inside the 20, against just three touchbacks. But Purdue was a mediocre eighth in the league in net punting last year.

Purdue's kick coverage is also in need of improvement.

Matching up with Wisconsin

The Badgers' bread and butter will be their running game, which bodes well for Purdue. The Boilermakers defense is built on stopping the run and should be among the best in the nation at doing so this season.

Wisconsin does not match up well up front, though few teams will with Purdue. Joe Thomas should be fine at left tackle, though he will be challenged by the Boilermakers' trio of high caliber defensive ends. Opposite Thomas, though, will be either Danny Kaye or Kraig Urbik, capable young talents who at this point in the season will have some significant experience under their belts. But that is not likely to be enough for them to be in good shape against Edwards, Spencer or Ninkovich. UW's interior line could be in for a long day against Grover and Villarreal as well.

If Purdue controls the line of scrimmage, its linebackers will clean up in the running game, even with fullback Matt Bernstein often clearing a Boilermaker out of the play. And if the Boilermakers slow down the running game and can put the heat on John Stocco, the Badger single caller will have a tough time taking advantage of Purdue's coverage deficiencies in the secondary.

This matchup is not as lopsided as the above suggests. UW does have an advantage at receiver and do not expect the Badgers' running game to get shut down—just slowed. How well UW perseveres at home against one of the league's best defenses will determine the outcome of this game.

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