Purdue may be crawling out of its sinkhole

Mark Emmert

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Homecoming week has arrived at Purdue, and Darrell Hazell is around to enjoy it.

That may not seem like much of an accomplishment for the fourth-year Boilermakers’ football coach. But consider where things stood just a week ago. Purdue was coming off a 50-7 loss to Maryland in its Big Ten Conference opener, a game in which it was outgained 400-10 on the ground.

Even a lukewarm Purdue fan base — the team is averaging a mere 35,583 in three home games — was starting to grumble after Hazell was left with an unsightly 8-32 record that included only two Big Ten victories. When a sinkhole emerged in the south end zone at Ross-Ade Stadium, the jokes wrote themselves.

Then something even funnier happened. Hazell’s freshman place-kicker may have saved his job with a 28-yard overtime field goal that sank Illinois on Saturday. By Monday, the Purdue coach was telling local reporters how much he admires Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz, whose Hawkeyes are double-digit favorites in Saturday’s 11 a.m. game at Ross-Ade, where the literal and figurative sinkhole is gone for now.

Purdue football coach Darrell Hazell may have saved his job last week when the Boilermakers won at Illinois. Now he's looking for his first two-game Big Ten Conference winning streak when Iowa comes to town Saturday.

“He started at Iowa a long time ago and struggled for his first couple years,” Hazell said of Ferentz, who was 3-19 in 1999 and 2000 at the beginning of his Iowa tenure.

“You study that. He's the guy that stayed the course. Because of it, he climbed to the top. I mean, obviously Big Ten champion, all those things. That's why you like him so much, because he's really steady.”

Ferentz rebounded to lead the Hawkeyes to a 7-5 record and an Alamo Bowl berth in 2001. He is in his 18th season, with 131 victories and counting. No wonder Hazell is taking comfort in that longevity. He has two years left on the $12.75 million contract he signed in December 2012.

"I'm really happy, and I'm really happy for those guys, because they go through so much and they hear so much, but yet they come back to work every single day," Hazell said after the victory at Illinois left Purdue with a 3-2 record, 1-1 in the Big Ten.

"They try to block it out as much as they can for an 18- to 22-year-old guy. All they do is try to please you, and that's what you want."

The losing, and the incessant talk about Hazell’s job security, had created a cloud over the program. It was evident in July at Big Ten media days, when the coach and his three players put on brave faces and spoke about better days on the horizon.

“It’s been building in the locker room. You don’t really see what’s going on in-house. It hasn’t been out of nowhere,” Purdue junior linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley said then of what he described as his team’s “swag.”

“I think now we’re at a place where results will show and we’re not accepting anything less. We’re not going to make these claims that things are going to happen; we’re going to show you with our actions.”

Those words certainly felt hollow after the debacle at Maryland.

After that one, a defiant Hazell said: “We’re 2-2 and we have to make sure we’re ready to go for practice Tuesday and make the improvements. If we don’t, it can't get worse, right? It could get worse, but we’re not going to let it get worse.”

Predictably, that quote didn’t soothe a public who had witnessed that shattering loss and five other games in which the Boilermakers surrendered at least 50 points in Hazell’s three-plus years. Indianapolis Star sports columnist Gregg Doyel likened Purdue to a high school team. Bentley, a team captain, was forced to the sideline with an injury for the Illinois game. Another disaster seemed inevitable.

But Hazell was prophetic, at least for one week. The Boilermakers ran for 231 yards, survived a missed Illinois field goal on the final play of regulation, forced a fumble on the Illini’s opening possession of overtime and celebrated lustily after Dellinger connected on just his third career field goal.

The victory — and how well Purdue played last year in a 40-20 loss to Iowa — got Ferentz’s attention.

“I think they've improved with every year,” Ferentz said of Hazell’s tenure. “These guys, to me, are on the right path and they're very capable of playing very, very good football. So we've got to get ready.”

Waukee alum Anthony Nelson learning on fly with Iowa’s D-Line

Iowa (4-2, 2-1) is coming off a hard-fought 14-7 victory at Minnesota. An advantage in the rushing game was key to that.

Hazell, with some newfound job security, expects a similar game Saturday. He has been preparing for Ferentz’s teams dating to 2004, when he was hired as an offensive assistant at Ohio State.

“The one thing about Iowa that you know where they're going to be defensively. They're going to play their shell. They're not going to substitute personnel or not going to match personnel with personnel,” Hazell said Monday.

“So it's not a great mystery as to what they're going to play defensively, but you still have to execute because they're good players across the board. Physical. They're never out of position. You have to make those tough yards.”

Hazell hopes his team is toughening up just in time.