Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Big Ten Football Previews – Part VI

Editor's Note: This is the sixth in a series of my annual summer Big Ten football previews. Check back weekly (approximately) to see who’s next...

Team: Purdue Boilermakers

Tidbits … Purdue has won at least a share of six Big Ten titles in its history, however, only once did the Boilermakers not share the title – 1929. Purdue is one of 16 schools to play in a bowl game in nine of the last ten seasons. Since 1997, only Michigan, Ohio State and Wisconsin have won more Big Ten games than Purdue.

Past Predictions/Results:
2006 Prediction/actual: 8-5, 4-4 (T-6th), Insight / 8-6, 5-3 (T-4th), Champs
2005 Prediction / actual: 7-4, 4-4 (T-5th), Outback / 5-6, 3-5 (8th)
2004 Prediction / actual: 7-4, 5-3 (4th), Outback / 7-5, 4-4 (T-5th), Sun
2003 Prediction / actual: 10-2, 6-2 (T-2nd) / 9-4, 6-2 (T-2nd)
2002 Prediction / actual: 8-4, 5-3 (T-4th) / 7-6, 4-4 (T-5th)
2001 Prediction / actual: 9-2, 6-2 (T-1st) / 6-6, 4-4 (T-4th

Returning Starters: 9 offense, 9 defense, 2 kickers

Key Returnees: QB Curtis Painter, WR Dorien Bryant, WR Greg Orton, WR Selwyn Lymon, TE Dustin Keller, RB Kory Sheets, C Robbie Powell, RG Jordan Grimes, RT Sean Sester, DE Cliff Avril, LB Dan Bick, SS Justin Scott, CB Terrell Vinson, P Jared Armstrong

Key Losses: LG Uche Nwaneri, LT Mike Otto, DE Anthony Spencer, LB George Hall

Looking Back ... 2006 really went according to script, well, my script for the Boilermakers anyway. Purdue had to replace seven defensive starters and both kickers and was still trying to solidify the offense. Everything started off according to plan, with a pretty easy stretch to open the season but after winning four straight, Purdue came back to earth, losing four of five. The gold and black ended with three wins in a row before the dreaded trip to Hawaii where seemingly no Big Ten team leaves unscathed. The season was capped off by a bowl loss, but that bowl berth got the Boilers back on track after seeing an eight year streak snapped in 2005.

On the bright side of a rather up and down campaign was the success of the aerial attack. Curtis Painter looked like Drew Brees at times and the Purdue offense its old self. The problem was a rather bad defense and a horrid kicking game (8 of 20 on field goal tries). Still, 2006 gave the coaching staff a chance to rebuild its defense for a run in 2007. The trouble is, Ohio State and Michigan are back after they were not on the slate the past two years, so things don’t really get any easier for the Boilermakers. Last season I spoke of it getting close to do or die time for Joe Tiller. It would be tough to run out a coach who has had such sustained success, but Purdue fans have to be antsy. After all, the Boilers are pretty consistently a .500 or so team in league play and that means limited opportunities to hit the national spotlight with marquee bowl games.

Outlook - Offense ... A season ago, two current Boilermakers (Curtis Painter and Dorien Bryant) led four individual offensive categories in the Big Ten. The offense as a whole was fifth in scoring (26.0 ppg), first – by far and away – in passing offense (291.6 ypg), and first in total offense (415.7 ypg). The only negative was the rushing attack. The Purdue ground game was more or less grounded at 124.1 ypg – good for tenth in the conference. So, what does that mean for 2007? A lot. Minus the left side of the offensive line, every single starter is back. Key depth returns. The passing attack might only get better. The ground game should definitely improve. It’s back to basketball on grass in West Lafayette and Boiler fans everywhere have to love the prospects heading into fall…

When a baby faced sophomore named Curtis Painter took the reigns of the offense midway through a forgettable six-game losing streak back in 2005, who would have thought that he would be the next great passer to don the old gold and black? Well, he has certainly become a force to be reckoned with and perhaps one of the most oft overlooked signal callers in the Big Ten, if not college football. The senior led the Boilermakers to the sixth best aerial attack in the nation a year ago and led the Big Ten in passing average (284.6 ypg) and total offense (292.3 ypg). He has a boatload of weapons returning and is primed to battle Chad Henne for honors as top quarterback in the league this fall.

Talent wise, there is little drop off from Painter, but when it comes to experience, the stable of QBs is quite green. Joey Elliott saw some mop-up duty last fall and has plenty of potential, but is not as mobile as Painter and will be pushed for the second string role by star recruit Justin Siller. Siller, a 6-4 true freshman with a bevy of tools if not the polish to match (yet), may be employed in other ways with the offense as well but given what Purdue returns, don’t be surprised to see the coaching staff try and put a year between the super recruit and Elliott.

No highly productive quarterback can get to the top without an NFL-caliber go-to receiver. Purdue has at least one of those in Dorien Bryant. The 5-10 senior is the best receiver in America that you’ve never heard of (outside of Big Ten country). The guy can fly. He has amazing hands. He runs his routes with fantastic precision. And he flat out produces, game in and game out. He snared 87 passes for 1,068 yards last season, both tops in the Big Ten. He has 205 catches over his first three seasons and while he doesn’t sniff the end zone as often as one might like, he is a player. Perhaps what makes him even better is the fact that he is surrounded by other weapons. Junior Greg Orton is a big target with reliable hands. His 58 receptions would have been tops on several teams last fall and he will see more of the rock this fall. The return of Selwyn Lymon rounds out the best trio of receivers in the Big Ten, if not the nation. Lymon caught 33 passes a season ago, and is blessed with great size (6-4, 215) and speed. Really, any in this trio would star for any team in the country. What a great conundrum for the Purdue coaching staff to face.

Purdue has some decent depth at wide receiver as well. Desmond Tardy turned some heads this spring and will spell Bryant when/if he needs some down time. Jake Standeford is no where near the receiver his brother John was but he has field smarts and experience with the program and can fill in for Lymon as needed. Former JUCO transfer John Whitest is extremely fast but has little to show so far statistically. Still, he can provide some punch off the bench too if he is called upon. Finally, what makes the receiving corps for Purdue so dangerous is the caliber of pass-catching tight ends that the program continually churns out. Senior Dustin Keller is a former wide out turned tight end. Keller caught 56 passes a season ago and rounds out an incredible group of pass catchers. While not the best blocking tight end around, he is a weapon and a great one at that. Sophomore Kyle Adams might be a more prototypical TE and as he continues to get better, will see plenty of the field as well. So, this all begs the question, how can’t you put up staggering numbers as a quarterback with a group like this?

The biggest weakness for the offense last season was the running game but that wasn’t due to a lack of talent. Juniors Kory Sheets and Jaycen Taylor combined for 1,457 yards and 15 touchdowns last season – numbers that if put up by a single back would gain a lot of attention. Those are tempered, however, by the fact that the Boilers played 14 games a season ago. When you boil it down, the per game average was second worst in the conference. Heading into 2007, one can assume that Joe Tiller will try to balance things a bit more even with the cache of receiving weapons at his disposal. That means more carries for the duo and possibly even more two back sets, if for no other reason, because that means Purdue would have five of its top offensive threats on the field at any given time. Another name to watch for is freshman Malcolm Harris who is a total package back with speed to burn. He may struggle to see time initially with Sheets and Taylor firmly entrenched, but he should eventually see the field, even if it means a few less carries for WR Dorien Bryant and QB Curtis Painter. No doubt, the talent and experience is there for Purdue. With a little more focus on balance, Purdue could have the best all-around attack in the Big Ten this fall.

The only position group that took a personnel hit was the offensive line. Now, that’s not to be overlooked, but given the array of skill players returning, and that three of the five starters up front come back, this is but a small concern for the Purdue coaching staff. Granted, losing the left side of your line when you have a right-handed thrower standing in the pocket isn’t totally inconsequential, but the Boilers have able-bodied – and big-bodied – replacements in line to take over for Mike Otto and Uche Nwaneri. Senior transfer Elliot Hood received a special waiver from the NCAA to skip the typical year of sitting that comes with a transfer (he came to Purdue to be closer to home as his mother has cancer) and is in line to supplant junior Garrett Miller who had been slated to take on Otto’s duties at tackle. Hood saw a lot of time in his first three years at Vanderbilt, though mainly on the right side of the line. Miller battled a bum shoulder all spring but has potential and has great size, at 6-8, despite being a little light (275). Eric Hedstrom is due to breakout. He was highly touted as a recruit and brings some heft up front (6-6, 305 lbs). The sophomore also battled the injury bug this spring but this duo should be able to help the returning starters – Jordan Grimes, Sean Sester and Robbie Powell – maintain two very impressive stats for any offensive front: tops in the NCAA in tackles allowed behind the line of scrimmage and 22nd nationally in sacks allowed per game (1.43 or one very 27.1 pass attempts).

The only true weakness in this unit may be the depth. Senior Dan Zaleski has been a good reserve throughout his career and stepped in nicely for Miller during spring practice. If Hedstrom, the “x-factor” slips, Justin Pierce is waiting in the wings. Pierce is the biggest road grader up front and is a terrific run blocker. Cory Benton, a former tight end rounds out the experienced depth. He will back-up Powell at center but can also play some tackle. The key here is simple, but carrying it out is far from simple – staying healthy is paramount. Purdue can run seven or eight legitimate contributors in the rotation but is generally thin here outside of that group. If the playing group stays healthy and strong, look out, Purdue could have the best offensive attack in the country this fall…

I’m hesitant to crown this team anything other than what it has been for the past several years – consistent and above average. However, the components are here for the Purdue offense to be as good as ever: A veteran quarterback with the ability to pull it down and run in addition to his good arm and bevy of receiving options. A pair of tailbacks that can grind things out or break the big play. An offensive front that has a chance to be really good. If Purdue can bring the ground game up to snuff, maintain some of the more impressive statistics and cut down on turnovers (29 lost – second worst in the Big Ten), watch out.

Outlook - Defense ... Eighth. Tenth. Eleventh. Eleventh. Sixth. That’s really all you need to know about this defense and what it needs to do heading into 2007. Purdue gave up 26.7 ppg (8th), 241.2 passing yards per game (10th), 191.2 rushing yards per contest (11th), 432.4 total yards per game (11th) and had a minus one turnover ratio (6th). It’s simple – improve upon these very un-Purdue like numbers and the wins should pile up. Yes, football is a sport that has equal importance in three areas, but really, what good is an offense like Purdue’s if the defense gives right back what the offense picks up? With nine of eleven starters returning lack of improvement will be inexcusable.

For the Boilermakers to improve, it is going to first and foremost happen on the defensive front. The question that remains – how will that happen when one of the best defensive ends in the Big Ten from last season has taken his game to the NFL? Anthony Spencer was an extremely active defensive end. He led the league in tackles for loss with 26.5, had 10.5 sacks and a solid 93 total tackles. Replacing him is probably the biggest task for the coaching staff heading into fall.

The good news is, Cliff Avril returns. Avril racked up 84 tackles, six sacks and 15 tackles for loss a season ago, but was that a result of the attention being paid Spencer? We’ll find out in a hurry this fall when Avril becomes “the man.” The other end is a bit in flux. It could be manned by Mike McDonald or the versatile Ryan Baker, although Baker is more likely at this point to start at tackle, where he started 11 games last season. Alex Magee is penciled in to start inside with Baker but could be pushed by sophomore Mike Neal. Neal is a very good pass rusher but needs to prove his long term worth as a reliable run stopper. In fact, the same can really be said for the entire line. There is ample quickness and great athleticism, both of which make the Boiler front four a force against the pass, but plain and simple, this defense needs to be better at stopping the run. Jermaine Guynn (Jr.) might be the best run-stopper of the bunch and will see plenty of time off the depth chart this fall. Senior Eugene Bright has the looks of a good pass rusher but his production has been limited over the course of his career. So, the key questions are: can Avril make fans forget about Spencer, will the run defense be spotty or dependable and generally, can the defensive front set the tone for an improved Purdue defense?

The only other personnel hit the Boilermakers take is at linebacker, where fourth-leading tackler George Hall has left a vacancy. Hall was a solid player in the middle and his leadership will be missed. Don’t think though that Purdue is in dire straights at the position. Starters Dan Bick and Stanford Keglar return and Bick has experience both in the middle and on the weak side. Bick will likely bring his team high tackles back to the middle, where he started off last season, but he will have to shake the rust of a neck injury that sidelined him this spring. He isn’t an eye-popping linebacker in the mold of the more memorable players to field the position over the years, but he has good sideline-to-sideline range and is a sure tackler. Keglar is a fifth-year senior and is big, fast and athletic. Despite being built more like a smallish DE or middle linebacker, he is penciled in to take over on the weak side. That Keglar and Bick are interchangeable is a nice advantage for the coaching staff as well. Taking on the final starting slot is former running back Anthony Heygood. The junior struggled in making the transition last fall but is fast, has great athleticism and toughness. He has versatility as well and can play the strong or weak side.

The depth chart isn’t teeming with potential starters per se, but there are a few more versatile performers that give the defensive coaching staff options. Josh Ferguson filled in for Bick in the middle during spring practice while overcoming his own injury – a broken hip in game seven a season ago. He brings some bulk to the middle. Sophomore John Humphrey came in as a touted recruit and will get a chance to turn some heads. He will push Keglar on the weak side and has tremendous speed with great pass-rushing instincts. The strength of the linebacking corps is the fact that multiple guys can plug and play at all of the positions. That means less bodies are needed over the course of the year, which in turn means more continuity and hopefully, a better performing defense. The linebackers undoubtedly need to get better at taking opposing offenses to task as they were far too reactive as a unit last season. Shore thing up here and Purdue will get more stops and win more games.

Yikes. That’s what most Purdue fans probably say when asked to consider, in one word, the contribution (or lack thereof) of the secondary over the past few seasons. A word that more readily comes to mind for me is horrible. As in, the Purdue secondary has been horrible of late. The pass defense ranked 104th in the nation last fall. The scary part? There was a statistical improvement from 2005!

Now that I’ve painted a bleak picture, let’s get to the details. On the bright side, all four starters return. There is decent depth. Things can’t get much worse. On the negative side, sometimes the hope for improvement for a fully in tact returning unit is too optimistic and it ends up being what it is – i.e. a woefully average playing group. I’ll go out on a limb and predict that the group will be much better than the past two seasons. It helps to have playmakers and Purdue really has six or seven of them in the mix. Senior Terrell Vinson and sophomore Royce Adams hold down the corners. Vinson is not all that great with run support but came in as a JUCO transfer last year and made some things happen. Adams is a potential star and will continue to get better with experience. Strong safety Justin Scott was the consistent player of the unit last year and brings senior leadership and experience. His athleticism makes him a threat to create big plays for the defense all game long. Brandon Erwin had a fair true freshman campaign and should be able to take what he learned and build on it for 2007.

The depth chart should be led by Torri Williams, but it all depends on how he handles himself after off field issues and a couple of big injuries dating back to 2005. He is a safety with a world of talent, but will it be put to use? Sophomore David Pender is a fast corner back with good size that could also make an impact. Finally, Aaron Lane is a somewhat limited but game junior that plays the corner. He is smart and tough but needs to stay healthy to help this pass defense get better. In Purdue’s glory days with tough as nails defenses, it started with the secondary. The same needs to happen this year. If the D hopes to be more than average and keep the potent offense on the field, it needs the secondary to make plays and make them often.

Let’s be frank – the Purdue defense was abysmal last season. Was it an aberration or is it a trend? This year will provide the answer. Two seasons in a row is working towards a trend. Three is a trend. The defense needs to shape up or the potent offense will be standing on the sidelines. That gets you nowhere. Need proof? Just call former MSU signal caller Drew Stanton. He’ll tell you all about what it means to have a porous defense. Purdue has potential in all three playing groups. No one needs to turn into a top five draft pick, but everyone needs to step it up a notch. Do that and the season will become a rousing success…

Outlook - Special Teams ... Both kickers return for Purdue this fall. On one hand, that’s good. Punter Jared Armstrong was a God-send. He led the conference in average yards per kick, landed 16 inside the 20, had a strong and accurate leg. On the other hand, you have sophomore Chris Summers. Summers has a great leg but he was an almost unforgivable 8 for 20 last season. The big problem here is confidence, or a lack thereof. That means Tim Dougherty will continue to get a chance to fight for the job. If no one emerges, the battle will continue all season long. The return game is not near where it needs to be at this point, especially given the talent in the fold but in general, Purdue should hopefully see some improvement in this oft overlooked third phase of the game.

9/1 – at Toledo
9/22 – at Minnesota
10/13 – at Michigan
10/20 – IOWA
11/3 – at Penn State
11/17 – at Indiana

Key Games: 9/29 – Notre Dame, 10/6 – Ohio State, 10/13 – at Michigan, 10/20 – Iowa, 11/3 – at Penn State, 11/17 – at Indiana

Prediction ... On paper, I really like this team. The problem is, I have said that in the past, over-predicted and been burned. The schedule gets tougher with Michigan and Ohio State coming back while Wisconsin and Illinois rotate off. The out of conference slate is actually a bit tougher than it looks. MAC teams are never cupcakes and to start out on the road at Toledo could be tough. Still, I expect Purdue to take advantage of a fairly soft OOC slate and to muscle to four wins over a tough Big Ten slate. The Sporting News says Purdue has the third toughest conference schedule and I agree. It is well balanced though, with an equal number of tough home and road games. There will be a late stumble in Bloomington that will be the only real glitch in an otherwise solid season.

OOC: 4-0
B10: 4-4 (wins over Minnesota, Iowa, Northwestern and Michigan State)
Overall: 8-4, 6th in the conference, Alamo Bowl berth


Dan Meyer said...

Andy, I'd love for you to be right, but you are at the extreme optimistic edge for the Boilers this year. Catching CMU and ND at home and Toledo on the shores of Lake Erie doesn't sound like a 4-0 start unless you at LEAST Penn State/Wisconsin caliber--and we aren't. In the league, I also went 4-4 but with a win over IU (especially with the tragic death of Hep--remember NU's struggles last year) and only a split in the Minny/Iowa games. A Boiler win over Penn State would be a big (albeit pleasant) surprise and we will do well to keep the Michigan and OSU games close. I'm guessing 7-5, but 6-6 is very realistic and I could conceive of the Boilers staying home in December/January.

cidsports said...

Iowa vs. Purdue is a huge game for each team. Iowa has done well, since 1979 and the arrival of J. Hayden Fry in this series and Coach Ferentz has continued it.