Around the Big Ten: Purdue making strides, but is it enough?
Remember Iowa football in 1999 and 2000, Kirk Ferentz's first two seasons as head coach? Those were dark, uncertain times that saw records of 1-10 and 3-9.
In a nutshell, 2013/2014 Purdue was 1999/2000 Iowa. Now, the big challenge for coach Darrell Hazell in Year 3 at the helm is to lead a 2015 breakthrough (as Ferentz did with the Hawkeyes in 2001, starting a run of 12 bowl games in 14 years).
Like Ferentz, Hazell won four games in his first two years in charge of a Big Ten Conference program (going 1-11 and 3-9). The pundits aren't sold on a breakthrough in West Lafayette, Ind. The four best-known season-preview magazines pick Purdue to finish seventh out of seven in the Big Ten Conference's West Division.
But, there are signs of encouragement simmering: Purdue returns 16 starters, including its entire offensive line and experience at quarterback.
Purdue got worse as the 2014 season went along, and if that trend continues in 2015, that'll be good news for Iowa, which hosts the Boilermakers on Senior Day on Nov. 21.
Part of that problem was injury-related and part of that was the inability to finish. Purdue led Iowa 10-0 last season before losing, 24-10, and was ahead at Minnesota 38-29 in the third quarter before falling, 39-38.
So, the spring focus in West Lafayette has been "finishing" and playing faster. Purdue increased tempo in its offense this spring under offensive coordinator John Shoop (whom Chicago Bears fans remember as their playcaller under Dick Jauron from 1999 to 2003).
"There's four or five games that we're in and you've got a chance to finish those games," Hazell told the Indianapolis Star. "A lot of that is above the shoulders — you've got to believe you can make those plays."
Still to be settled
The most important battle is at football's most important position.
Hazell did not name a starting quarterback following April's spring game. Austin Appleby, a junior, finished last season as the starter after Danny Etling struggled (including against Iowa, failing to score an offensive touchdown). Redshirt freshman David Blough also is in the QB derby; he had the best statistics of the three in the spring game, going 16-for-22 for 173 yards. In June, Etling transferred to LSU after falling to No. 3 on the depth chart.
The other question facing Purdue's offense is the health of senior wide receiver Danny Anthrop, who was cleared for full football activities in late June following December knee surgery. Anthrop is essentially Purdue's top playmaking threat (17.0 yards a catch in his career). If he's 100 percent, that helps the Boilermakers' chances at a solid September.
Purdue is on the upswing, albeit a gradual one. Because the bar has been so low for two years, to predict a Hazell Year 3 breakthrough isn't a limb experts are ready to climb on. The Boilermakers would be overachieving if they went 5-7, with three good shots at nonconference wins vs. Marshall, Indiana State and Bowling Green, and the hope of stealing 2-3 Big Ten games.
They'll be lucky to avoid 0-4 in a brutal October grind — at Michigan State and Wisconsin, home against Minnesota and Nebraska — but get Illinois and Indiana at home in November. (That said, Hazell is 0-8 in Big Ten home games.)
Best case: The defense is decent and Appleby/Blough elevates the offense, putting Purdue in a bowl for the first time since the Danny Hope era.