We think we've got problems? Purdue limps in to this weekend's tilt a very serious contender for the title of worst Big Ten team of all time. They're 1-8, the lone win coming by 6 points to 1-win 1-AA Indiana State; they went more than a month without running an offensive play inside their opponent's red zone, and the only two stats in which they're in the top half of the Big Ten are punts and onside kicks attempted. Oh, and they have 85 scholarship players. So, yeah.
Anyway, to find out just how things could have gone so horribly wrong, I reached out to Travis Miller of Hammer and Rails, and he provided some enlightening information. Check Hammer and Rails later today for my answers to his questions, including my take on Christian Hackenberg's upside, why Penn State's managed to steady the course despite the sanction, and the reasons for Penn State's struggles on the road.
Black Shoe Diaries: Obviously it's just his first year, but has that stopped Purdue fans for calling for Darrell Hazell's head?
Hammer and Rails: Not really. There is definitely some outcry as most people are split between the "He needs time because Hope left a mess" and "At least Hope won with these players, Hazell is overpaid and needs to go." I am closer to the middle. There is no doubt that this season has been a disaster, but I think Hazell is a good coach for the long-term if the players can start producing. I had high expectations (if you call 6-6 high) for the season coming in. I had hoped we could beat the four I schools (Iowa, Indiana State, Indiana, and Illinois) and find two other wins for a bowl game. Instead, it has been a disaster. We’re 1-8 with our only victory coming over an FCS team that is no 1-9. In that game they were missing their best player (running back Shakir Bell) and Purdue needed an interception in the final minute as they were driving to take the lead. I knew we were in trouble when we struggled in that game, but I never saw it being this bad.
BSD: Purdue finally made it into the red zone last week against Iowa, running their first offensive play inside the opponent's 20 in over a month. How is that possible?
HaR: Our offensive line is terrible. Sadly, they started the season with four seniors, but have been unable to generate any kind of a running game or protect the quarterback. They have given up 28 sacks and only Washington State, who often doesn’t even bother to run the ball, has a worse rushing game. Akeem Hunt and Brandon Cottom entered the year averaging over 7 yards per carry and are down to 3.5 and 3.0, respectively. I take that back. The offensive line would have to improve to be considered terrible.
BSD: Have there been any bright spots on the offense? Does Penn State's defensive ineptitude give Purdue fans any hope that maybe this is the week for a breakout?
HaR: Just about the only bright spot I can think of is freshman DeAngelo Yancey, who at least had consecutive 100-yard receiving games against Northern Illinois and Nebraska. He was a big surprise as a true freshman, but since those two big games he has three catches for 43 yards. He was a nice deep threat for awhile there, but now we can’t even give Danny Etling time to throw to him. Hunt and B.J. Knauf have also been effective with some underneath screens because of their speed, but it all comes down to the line. They are so consistently bad it prevents Purdue from sustaining any drives.
BSD: By the numbers, the defense has been just as bad. Is that backed up by an eye test, or is it just a product of the offense putting them in difficult situations?
HaR: I would say both. Early on the offense wasn’t doing them any favors with any three-and-outs. When they do have a chance to get off the field they often cannot do it. I honestly fear third and 12 more than third and 1 because at least on third and 1 there is a chance we might bust through and make a stop on the run. Time and again there are receivers completely uncovered on third and long and there is no pass rush at all that prevents a quarterback from finding them. For much of the season it has looked like Purdue is playing only seven guys on defense and facing 15 when they have the ball. That’s about how bad it looks.
BSD: Aside from "everything," what will need to go right for Purdue to pull off the upset?
HaR: I think you’re going to need to have the Penn State from the Indiana game show up. No offense, but what the hell was that? Most teams can accidentally run for 250 yards against IU, and Penn State only ran for 70? Do you need to sit in the corner and think about what you’ve done? Purdue would have to stop the run at that level, hope Hackenberg pays like a freshman, and even then I don’t have confidence our offense can get out of its way long enough to score more than once. The only reason we reached the red zone against Iowa was because of a muffed punt. Purdue has only 13 touchdowns, and two have come from a short field due to a muffed punt. Please tell me your returner rubs Crisco on his hands before fielding kicks. It will make me feel better.
BSD: All jokes aside, this Purdue team is one of the worst Big Ten squads in recent memory. What's happened to the program since Joe Tiller cranked out 8-win teams like an assembly line?
We haven’t had anything resembling a good, solid, Big Ten caliber linebacker in 10 years. That has been the biggest swing and a miss the entire time. We don’t have a problem with developing NFL caliber defensive linesmen (Kawann Short, Ryan Kerrigan, Mike Neal, etc.), but the back seven has consistently been atrocious. Landon Feichter is the third former walk-on to start multiple games at safety in the last five years. I like the kid, but safety is far too important of a position to be combing the walk-on ranks for starters. [ed note: tell me about it] Offensively the production has been getting steadily worse. Teams figured out Tiller’s "basketball on grass" and I blame much of where we are now on the 2005 season. That was a year where many considered Purdue to be a dark horse national title candidate. There was no Ohio State or Michigan on the schedule and we started the year in the top 15 with an experienced quarterback and supposedly a good defense. Then the defense went out and couldn’t stop anyone in a six game losing streak that made us miss a bowl for the first time in nine seasons.
Everything has just gotten steadily worse since. We’ve beaten only two ranked teams in the last 10 years, one of which was Illinois in 2011 when they started 6-0 before entering their current spiral. Now, we can’t even beat the bad teams on our schedule like we used to. As for this year’s offense, I have no idea why it is so bad. I wrote about this earlier, but 1981 Northwestern is generally considered to be the worst Big Ten team ever. They went 0-9 in league play, got shut out four times, and scored only 75 points against conference foes. Right now, through five Big Ten games, Purdue has scored only 31 points. Just 17 have been scored when you would consider the games were competitive (we trailed Wisconsin 14-10 and were tied 7-7 with Iowa). Somehow we have to score 45 more points in three games to be better than that Northwestern team.
BSD: How do you see this one shaping up?
HaR: More of the same. Maybe Purdue gets some stops and hangs around a bit like it did against Michigan State and Iowa, but I don’t have any confidence in the nation’s worst offense to actually score. By that I mean score at all. Purdue has 21 points in the last four games. 14 of those 21 came on a long pass against third stringers in the final minute and 7 came from the botched punt last week at Iowa.
Well, there you have it. If we Penn State fans felt down on ourselves, just remember: At least we're not Purdue. Thanks again, Travis, and remember to read Hammer and Rails all season long (but especially later today).