Preview: Hope Growing for Purdue

Projected to be the conference's doormats at the beginning of the season, Purdue and first-year head coach Danny Hope made the pundits look right to start, beginning the season 1-5. But after back-to-back wins against Ohio State and Illinois, there's a different swagger in West Lafayette, something Wisconsin will see first hand on Saturday.

MADISON – After back-to-back losses, Wisconsin football stepped away from the limelight to get healthy, get relaxed and get focused on a five-game stretch that will separate a great season from another average one.

Throw in the fact that the Badgers are anxious to wash the bad taste out of their mouths, the Badgers are ready for the layoff to come to an end.

"We know we let two games slip away from us," senior Jae McFadden said. "I did feel we got better after the bye week and are more prepared for Purdue and the rest of the season."

That journey starts Saturday with a home match-up against a Purdue squad that has gone through an extensive face lift since the last time the Badgers saw the Boilermakers on their season schedule. In 2006, when the Badgers beat the struggling Boilermakers 24-3 in West Lafayette, Purdue's mantra under coach Joe Tiller was pass, pass and pass some more.

Now under first-year head coach Danny Hope, the Boilermakers have changed their M.O., looking to deviate from a throwing empire to a balanced unit that doesn't have to rely on one strength to give them success.

Although the change seemed foolhardy when the Boilers started out 1-5, including a five-game losing streak, hope is starting emerge. Winners of two straight games for the first time since 2007 - including a 26-18 upset of then-No. 7 Ohio State two weeks ago – Purdue finds itself with an outside chance at a bowl game.

"I was really pleased with the attitude of our football team, especially when things weren't going well," Hope said. "They did a great job of sticking together and believing they were going to win and doing all the things that you want a football team to do from a practice standpoint to increase (its) chances of winning.

"The wins are huge. They put more wind in your sails and they feed your soul. They certainly make it all worthwhile, but this was a very resilient football team from the beginning."

That balanced offense is led by a fifth-year quarterback Joey Elliott and the conference's second-leading rusher in tailback Ralph Bolden (153 carries, 720 yards, five scores). After playing second fiddle for three seasons to Curtis Painter, Elliott has been solid in completing 60.6 percent of his throws for, 2,022 yards, 14 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.

"He's been great for our football team," said Hope of Elliott. "He's a guy with great work ethic and goes out there and gives it his all in practice. He was a really hard worker last year and went out there to compete for the starting job. I am not surprised seeing the success he's having."

Success has also stemmed from the Boilermakers taking care of the football. Starting off the season minus-9 in the turnover department, including a six-turnover performance that caused Purdue to blow an 18-point lead in a loss to Northwestern, the Boilermakers have a plus-4 in their last two wins, including their first zero turnover game against Illinois.

Junior defensive end Ryan Kerrigan has been one of the keys to that defense, especially against Ohio State when he sacked Terrelle Pryor three times and forced two fumbles. Leading the conference with 7.5 sacks, one more than Schofield, Purdue is fourth in the league in sacks (21) because of Kerrigan's improvement.

"He's gotten better and better throughout the course of the season," Hope said. "He's a more physical player this season than he was last season. I think he represents the rest of our team from the standpoint. He's not a finished product yet. He certainly has some areas he can improve in and can become an even more dominant player than what he is."

The area of improvement can be seen in Purdue over the past two weeks, but the areas of improvement in Wisconsin have yet to be displayed. Spending the bye week improving in pass defense and emphasizing finishing football games, the Badgers will get the chance to show that their first half hindrances are a thing of the past.

"Iowa is known for the run game and we shut that down, but they passed all over us in the second half," McFadden said. "With a team like Purdue, we know that we have to improve."

Purdue (3-5, 2-2 Big Ten) vs. Wisconsin (5-2, 2-2 Big Ten)

Date/Time - Saturday, October 31 at 11 a.m. CT

Stadium – Camp Randall Stadium (capacity: 80,321/FieldTurf)

Television - ESPN2 (Pam Ward and Ray Bentley)

Radio - Wisconsin Radio Network (Matt Lepay and Mike Lucas)

Series – Series tied 39-29-9 (UW leads 22-12-5 in Madison)

Last Meeting - Wisconsin won, 24-3, on Oct. 21, 2006 in West Lafayette

Wisconsin Notes:

Wisconsin has played the 11th-toughest schedule in the country thus far, according to NCAA statistics, and second-toughest in the Big Ten behind Iowa. The two teams UW has lost to (Ohio State and Iowa) have a combined record of 14-2.

Four of Wisconsin's five wins have come by eight points or less. Under Bret Bielema, the Badgers are 14-5 in games decided by eight points or less.

Wisconsin's defense has limited its opponents to less than 300 yards of total offense in four of its last seven games, including the last two in a row.

Purdue Notes:

The Boilermakers have turned their first offensive possession of a game into a score five times in eight tries this season (three touchdowns, two field goals).

Purdue is 20 of 23 inside the red zone (17 touchdowns, three field goals).

Bolden and wide receiver Keith Smith have accounted for 52 percent of Purdue's first downs this season (85 of 162).

The Boilermakers have outscored the opposition 69-30 in the first quarter.

Junior wide receiver Keith Smith leads the Big Ten with 59 receptions and 771 receiving yards.

Prediction

History tells a story, so do statistics. One of the glaring things that jumped out from the Purdue defense was that the Boilermakers have allowed opponents to rush for an average of 156.2 yards per game, ranked second-to-last in the conference. Opponents have rushed for 18 touchdowns, the highest total in the league.

Guess who might have a field day on Saturday?

John Clay carriers the Big Ten and ranks sixth in the country with 21.9 yards per game (that's among the nation's top 100 rushers) and the UW offense ranks second in the conference with 184.4 yards per game on the ground. Clay is tops in the Big Ten in rushing average (102.3) and touchdowns (7). I have a feeling he might be anxious for this match-up after failing to break the 100-yard barrier in his last two outings.

Wisconsin is a seven-point favorite, a low number considering the previous statistics, but about spot on when you look at the struggles UW has had at cornerback. Purdue's pass-happy offense could make things interesting should the Badgers a) continue to struggle in the secondary and b) not win the turnover battle, a major factor in sending UW to losses in its past two games.

If Wisconsin wants to be considered contenders for future Big Ten titles, they need to win the games in which they are the hands down better team. Lately, that hasn't been a problem, as UW has won 22 straight home games against unranked opponents.

The problem is the ranked conference opponents, something we probably won't find out about until next season.

Wisconsin 38, Purdue 23

Worgull's Predictions

Straight up: 5-2

Against the Spread: 4-3


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