Sports writers Chad Leistikow and Chris Cuellar break down the Hawkeyes' match up against the Boilermakers of Purdue.
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – An Iowa defense that stopped stodgy Minnesota in its tracks last week faces a veritable video game Saturday.
The challenge the Purdue offense will pose for the Hawkeyes in the 11 a.m. game at Ross-Ade Stadium (ESPN2) includes not only figuring out who will take the field, but where they will line up.
The Boilermakers (3-2, 1-1 Big Ten Conference) have been showing the old dogs of the league some new tricks this season. A lot of bells and whistles, with a train motif.
The Iowa travel to West Lafayette, Ind., to face Purdue on Saturday. Here are three storylines to follow during the game.
What the rest of the football world calls the “Wildcat” formation, Purdue calls the “Amtrak.” In a 34-31 victory last week at Illinois, wide receiver Bilal Marshall took a handful of direct snaps from center, rushing twice for nine yards and completing an eight-yard pass to his quarterback, David Blough.
Another formation featured two offensive linemen split out wide. Purdue calls that one “Polar Express.”
And return specialist Malik Kimbrough saw time on offense for the first time in his college career, catching three passes for 51 yards.
“He's quick; got really soft hands; he maneuvers through traffic and tight spaces very quickly,” Purdue coach Darrell Hazell said of Kimbrough.
“So we have to have him in the package every single week. Seeing how we can get him to five to seven to eight touches, because more than likely he's going to have a chance to break one of those.”
If this sounds like desperation, well, Purdue is looking for its first two-game winning streak in four seasons.
The Boilermakers have used 19 freshmen this season.
The north end zone hasn't been renovated since 1983. Danny Lawhon/HawkCentral.com
Top receiver Domonique Young was lost for the year with a leg injury in last week’s win. Marshall will start in his place, although he is unlikely to stay put out wide.
Top tailback Markell Jones didn’t play against Illinois because of a shoulder injury, but is expected to return Saturday against Iowa. He’ll be paired with freshman Brian Lankford-Johnson, who ran for 127 yards against the Illini but also left with a shoulder injury.
The revolving door of young playmakers, and the make-it-up-as-you-go schemes they’ll operate out of, will require the Hawkeyes to maintain their discipline Saturday. If they do, there will be plenty of chances to make big plays.
Illinois intercepted Blough, a sophomore, twice last week. Iowa (4-2, 2-1) is coming off a game in which it forced three turnovers and held the Gophers to 4-of-16 on third and fourth downs.
“You’ve just got to come to the game with that mentality that you’re going to get the ball out, set your offense up. We talk about it a lot during the week in practice,” said Iowa safety Brandon Snyder, who had a fumble recovery and interception in the 14-7 win at Minnesota.
Iowa’s strong defensive effort started with terrific play from its trio of defensive tackles, and that will be vital again at Purdue. The Boilermakers gained 231 yards rushing against Illinois, but had only 10 the previous week in a 50-7 loss to Maryland. Gadget plays are cool and all, but any team that can’t run effectively is likely doomed from the start.
“It's not glamorous,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said of run defense. “You have to be tough-minded. You have to take care of your spot, which a lot of times means you're doing the heavy lifting and the linebackers trot over and make a tackle.”
Minnesota ran for only 102 yards against Iowa, with a long gain of 11. The Hawkeyes’ three previous opponents had averaged 210 yards on the ground. That was a significant leap for the interior of an Iowa defense that was expected to be a strength this season.
The defensive tackles had clearly grown tired of hearing about it.
“I don’t think we’ve played the best but I don’t think we’ve been a bunch of slaps out there either,” senior Faith Ekakitie bristled after the Minnesota game. “A lot of our shortcomings have been from little mental errors, guys not being where they’re supposed to be. But as far as competing game in, game out, we’ve done that. Today we came out, we competed a little harder.”
Stopping the Purdue run will be the first order of business. But the Boilermakers rank seventh in the nation in third-down conversions, with a 51.8 percent success rate. Keeping them corralled can be like herding kittens. That’s where the discipline will come in for Iowa.
The Hawkeyes spent some precious practice time this week preparing to defend the Purdue gadgetry.
“Hopefully your system is solid in its foundation where you have ways to rule things out,” Ferentz said.
“But no question. You've got to cover it. The muddle-huddle or whatever you want to call it, the fake extra point stuff. You've got to rule that out. You've got to go through it and all those crazy things.”
None of it is crazy, though, if it works. That’s what a frisky young Purdue squad that is a 13-point underdog is hoping to accomplish.
“He's a good player with the ball in his hands. We know that,” Hazell said of Marshall, the Amtrak conductor. “I think it also makes defenses prepare for something else. If they can take 10, 15 extra minutes preparing for the Amtrak, that means they're not preparing for other parts of our offense.”