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Friday, June 29, 2007

Know thy Opponent 2007: Toledo Rockets


With the season being a little more than two months away now and the hype finally turning from the boring world of speculation that is recruiting to real live football action I felt it was time to start talking about who we will actually be playing on the field this year. Thus begins a weekly look at each of the 12 opponents for the 2007 season, starting with our opener against Toledo.

For the record I do not normally like going on the road to face a MAC school. No real good can come from it. If you’re a Big Ten program and you win, you really haven’t done anything to get the fans excited except what was expected. If you lose then you’re already in a deep hole before your first home game. Unfortunately as the MAC schools continue to get better we’re going to see more and more of these types of games. This season Indiana, Iowa, and Penn State will join us on the road at MAC schools. Wisconsin (at UNLV) and Minnesota (at Florida Atlantic) also have road games against non-BCS opponents, as the reality is that only Michigan and Ohio State seem to still be above these types of road games.
As we all remember the Joe Tiller Era started with a road trip to Toledo, and it is a bizarre coincidence that the most important season of his tenure begins the same way. I remember thinking after that 36-22 loss that this Tiller guy was no different than our previous coaches. I was only a senior in high school at the time, weighing my options between going to Purdue and Bradley University. Though I had been a Purdue fan for years thanks to my father (School of Pharmacy 1975), I had not yet decided to go to his alma mater. It was the next weekend’s shocking win over Notre Dame, which I attended with my brother-in-law and his brother that went a long way to helping me decide my college choice. I know it’s pretty lame to decide on a school simply because of football, but it meant a lot to me that Purdue simply had football, while Bradley did not. That 1997 team did much to help me decide on where I went to school, and I would argue that had we not followed that Toledo loss with a six-game winning streak and bowl appearance I may not have gone to Purdue.

But that was then and this is now. In 10 years we still have not progressed to the point where going Toledo is considered to be an automatic win. Any time a MAC team gets a home game against a Big Ten squad it is a bear trap because the MAC team will be playing to make their season in front of their home fans with the upset. That’s what we face in this game, and the Rockets are more than capable of pulling it out.

Last season for the Rockets:
Toledo has long been one of the premier programs in the MAC, which makes last year’s 5-7 record more of an aberration than the norm. They lost a triple overtime game at Iowa State while pulling out a double-OT game at home against Big 12 opponent Kansas. This shows me they are not afraid to go against bigger programs, so they certainly won’t fear us. Some strange losses in MAC play came against Ball State, Eastern Michigan, and Kent State. While the Cardinals were a respectable club and held their own well against us, IU, and Michigan, the other two are head-scratchers. EMU has long been at the bottom of the MAC and the Golden Flashes were a rather mediocre 6-6. They lost to football powers Army and Buffalo, which should say something. It should be noted though that 2006 was Toledo’s first losing campaign after 12 straight winning seasons.

Toledo Offense:
Here is where the big fear begins. Jalen Parmele is a big 222-pound bruiser of a running back who went for 1,170 rushing yards last season. Since everyone short of Timmy form South Park seemed to have a big rushing day against us last year this could be a huge problem. Behind him there is plenty of raw talent in DaJuane Collins, Dontae Jones, and Morgan Williams, but not a whole lot of experience. They lost two key backups with Scooter McDougle deciding it was okay to shave points and Richard Davis deciding it was okay to break in to someone’s house, but the talent is there for a big game against us.

Last season the real struggle for the Rocket offense came from the quarterback position. Aaron Opelt appears to be the front-runner for the job, and he is the type of quarterback that could cause us some problems. He’s a spread quarterback who is not afraid to run the ball if necessary. He’s not quite a proven passer yet, but allegedly had a big spring and is expected to be one of the best quarterbacks in the MAC. If he is on his game from day one and our defense isn’t, we’re in serious trouble.

The receiving corps has five players over 6’4” with some decent speed in the mix. Since we have some experience now, but not much size in our own secondary, that could be a problem. Still, they haven’t done much on the field to this point. They have been disappointing, but are waiting for a breakout performance. As long as it comes after September 1st and makes our defense look better in hindsight as the season plays out that is fine with me.

Quite simply, we are going to have to be sharp from the opening kickoff or we’re going to be in a deep hole early on. With the home crowd behind them, if we allow Toledo’s offense to get a few early scores through the air, then grind out the clock with their running game it could be an easy win for Toledo. This is a game where we need to get some big stops early and set the tone defensively. It is critical that we don’t let them set the tone with their offense, and that we keep their potential exactly where it is now, as big potential and not actual results.

Toledo Defense:
We could very well be looking in the mirror at our own defense. Toledo returns nine starters from last season, but those starters were unable to stop anyone short of the French army. Toledo surrendered more than 30 points six times and gave up more than 40 three of those times. They feature an aggressive type of defense that functions best when it is getting to the quarterback and in the backfield instead of sitting back in coverage. If they are getting into the backfield consistently they can cause us some problems.

Their defensive line is nothing special, as two starters return and they are expected to be okay against the run, but not generate much of a pass rush. There isn’t much size, but there shouldn’t be fatigue issues as their will be plenty of rotation with fresh guys off the bench. As long as our O-line stays strong we should be fine. Most of their pass rush comes from blitzing linebackers anyway.

The linebacking corps lost its top playmaker last season, but relies mostly on speed and quickness to the ball. Much like the line it is expected to be solid, but not spectacular. Greg Hay is expected to be the star here, and they will likely throw several different looks at us.
Toledo’s strength on defense is easily its secondary, specifically safeties Tyrell Herbert and Barry Church. Both were Toledo’s top tackler’s last year and are expected to be the top two safeties in the MAC. Both like to play all over the field, and will also get involved with blitzing as well as coverage. The corners are not that great though, as not a single returning corner had an interception last season. This is a hard-hitting group that tackles well, but doesn’t have a lot of speed. We should be able to use Bryant, Lymon, and Orton’s speed to our advantage. Spreading out the field while complimenting with the running game will be critical. This is a defense that attacks rather than covers, and if we can keep them guessing wrong we won’t have any trouble.

Against their defense it looks like it comes down to coaching. If we have the actual foresight to realize we’re a Big Ten team with a solid offensive line and two solid running back we can dictate the pace here. Run the ball with Sheets and Taylor while mixing up the pass well with our receivers should make things easy for us. They hit hard, so as long as we hold on to the ball and wear them down by moving the chains we shouldn’t have any problems. An offense as experienced and talented as our should be able to adapt to whatever this unit throws at us, and they won’t simply shut us down like Penn State and Wisconsin did last year.

Last year we proved we could do a whole lot of nothing by racking up yard but not necessarily points. Now we need points.

Toledo Special Teams:
There’s not much to say here, as Toledo didn’t do much field goal kicking last year. Both kickers are back, but they only hit on 7 of 8 field goal attempts, none of them longer than 39 yards. Our coverage units were solid last year, and should be able to handle their return units.

Intangibles:
One obvious plus is that that Toledo has this game at home, as MAC teams always get up for these types of games. We’re going to have to take the crowd out of this game early, and not let them get back into it. If we can negate this effect it will give us a huge advantage.

One big negative is the point-shaving scandal they are facing. It’s not exactly huge news like it would be if Ohio State or some big-name was facing it, but it has been a cloud during the off-season. This is their first game on the field since the news broke; the real question is how the team will handle it.

Then again, it’s not like we have zero off the field issues to deal with either.

Game Outlook:
The more that I think about this game the more I like it. It’s a good “no excuses” game for us. Last year was our year for growing up while beating up on lesser teams. This is a good test for us because should we pass it, we know we’ll be a better team. If we fail it, we know we’re in for a long season. We should win this game if we’re going to have any type of success this season. That doesn’t make it a lay-up, and the challenge will be good for us. It is a “no excuses” game because we’re going to need to be on from the start, a slow start will kill us. We need to be sharp early on and this is a good way to make sure of that. If the defense is sharper and can handle things, while the offense plays at the level it is more than capable of playing at, we will be fine.

We lost the last time here, but rolled off six straight wins after it. Doing that this time would mean wins over Notre Dame, Ohio State, and Michigan. I’m not deluded enough to think that. If we can’t beat Toledo what makes us think we can beat a better Central Michigan team two weeks later?

If the defense comes out slowly though and allows them to set the tone with their running game, get the crowd into it, and the quarterback runs wild, we know it will be a problem all season. If the offense is flat, Painter throws a couple early picks, and the unit as a whole does not exert its will like we should be able to do, we’re in for a long night.

PREDICTION:

We pull one out on the road by about 10 points or so. This is a season of no excuses, and we need to start with a statement right here. Purdue 31, Toledo 21 (and yes, I think we’ll make a field goal here, just another where we need to have no excuses, only results).

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

God Bless Terry Hoeppner and IU.

I briefly wanted to revive the blog from its summer slumber to do a quick post on the unfortunate passing of Indiana football coach Terry Hoeppner. If you read many of the Purdue boards since his hiring in Bloomington, he was often a caricature figure mocked for his excitement and constant rah-rah attitude. Many Purdue fans thought he was a joke for talking about getting IU into a Rose Bowl, for scheduling weak opponents, and various other reasons. To many he was a comic figure and the next in a long line of coaches at our rivals to the south that would come in talking big, but ultimately leave without a bowl appearance because he was coaching in a hopeless situation.

I, for one, was not in this camp. I was scared to death the day IU hired him, simply because his final Miami (OH) team was a top 10 team coming out of the MAC, and IU was a place he actually WANTED to coach at. Here was a guy that probably could have gotten any high profile job he wanted at the time, and he chose IU? Not only did he choose Indiana, but he had the audacity to talk about taking the Hoosiers to Pasadena in his opening press conference. These are the same Hoosiers that haven’t been to Pasadena since 1968, and have been bowling anywhere since 1994. In those 13 years every other school in the conference has been bowling at least three times, IU’s main rivals went from being worse than the Hoosiers to at least being a perennial post-season participant, and eight of the other ten schools have been to at least one BCS bowl.
His record may not say much, but Coach Hep made Indiana a better football team. If not for an unfortunate setback early last season, IU easily would have been in a bowl game as I would place good money on Indiana beating Southern Illinois and Connecticut to get that 6th win. The Hoosiers were not and still aren’t a serious threat to win the Big Ten title, but the fact they were even a serious threat as recently as last year to go to any bowl game prove that he was doing something right.

It wasn’t just seen on the field, but off of it as well. Look at the Indiana fan base for a moment. For the first time in years they had hope for the football team. Just in looking at Ebay and StubHub for tickets to this year’s upcoming Bucket game in Bloomington I can see that the days of going down the day of the game and grabbing a pair of 40 yard line seats for $20 like I did in 2003 and 2005 are over. Tickets are now selling for upwards of $90 apiece, and we could have our first sellout in Bloomington for the bucket game in years.

On the recruiting scene the mere fact that Jeremy Finch of Warren Central, a five-star recruit that eventually signed with Florida, had a drama up until signing day between the Hoosiers and the Gators shows that he was working miracles on the recruiting swing. Coach Hep was beginning to take an advantage in state that Purdue was on a downslide while IU was on an upswing. In a state like Indiana where Basketball will always be more important than football to most high schoolers, and where only a handful of schools like Warren Central, Ben Davis, Carmel, etc. are good enough to Produce Division 1-A football players on a regular basis it is important to be on top in the state recruiting wise. Between the two large institutions (Notre Dame has always recruited nationwide, so I don’t count them) Purdue had been on top since Tiller started winning ball games. The pendulum was beginning to swing the other way and that was a bad sign for Purdue. There simply isn’t enough talent in this state for both IU and Purdue to be high caliber teams at the same time, and neither school has enough pull nationally (although Purdue’s is slightly greater at the moment) to make up the difference. We have to remember, Purdue wasn’t even in the discussion over Finch, and Florida, the freaking defending national champs, had to battle IU for this kid.

It is ironic that the day of Hep’s passing is the same day Indiana will be breaking ground on the expansion of Memorial Stadium. 12 years ago, before Tiller game to Purdue it would have been considered laughable for the current renovations to Ross-Ade to occur. They only came to fruition after four bowl games and a Rose Bowl appearance. Hep managed to get a similar commitment from IU after only two years and not even a single bowl game. The expansion of Memorial Stadium will be his legacy in Bloomington, and if the Hoosiers turn it around from here and go on to build even a modestly successful program like our own in West Lafayette he will be remember as the foundation of that program.

Coach Hep may have only had a 9-14 (9-12 considering two of those losses were games actually coached by Bill Lynch) record in his two years in Bloomington, but he brought them a long way. Consider this: The last game that their previous coach Gerry DiNardo coached; his team got absolutely destroyed in the 2004 bucket game 63-20 in a game that wasn’t even that close. That day Purdue was the most dominant I have ever seen them offensively, and Indiana couldn’t have played better defense if they were allowed 15 men as defenders. The fact Purdue dropped two more easy touchdown passes in the first half means it could have been even worse.
Fast forward to last season. It was an ugly, ugly game in West Lafayette, probably one of the ugliest displays of football I have ever seen. Still, Indiana was right there in the game and two key plays, a fumble inside the five yard line and Jake Standeford’s punchout were the difference. In two years Coach Hep brought the Hoosiers from being utterly humiliated to within two plays of knocking of their hated rivals and getting to a bowl game.

I liked coach Hep. I thought he was a fantastic hire and I was looking forward to him improving Indiana so the IU-Purdue football rivalry would mean something again. In the last ten years we’ve had one IU win because of a monsoon, two relatively close games (2006 and 1999), and a whole bunch of blowouts. I have no delusions of seeing Indiana-Purdue unseating Ohio State-Michigan as the Big ten’s go to game on its final Saturday in November, but it would be nice to have it mean something again outside the state of Indiana. It would be nice to see ESPN go through the highlights on rivalry Saturday and give more than a passing mention and a score to the Old Oaken Bucket. Shoot, Harvard-Yale got more highlights last year than our game.

So where does IU go from here? It’s tragic that this is the second year in a row that a Big Ten team has to overcome the sudden, unexpected death of a coach. Last season Northwestern had a very young team that wasn’t expected to do much anyway, and some would say they still overachieved a bit in finishing 4-8. They too came close to a bowl game, blowing that infamous Michigan State game at home and losing to a 1-AA team. The Hoosiers have a guaranteed win to start the year in Indiana State. I will also give the Akron game and probably the Ball State game, even though the Cardinals nearly got them in Muncie last year. That means between Western Michigan, Northwestern, Illinois, Michigan State, and, yes, even us, they have five chances to pull off the other three wins they need. I don’t think bill Lynch is nearly the coach that Hoeppner was, and with Hep there would be little doubt in my mind the Hoosiers would go bowling this year. Lynch lost to a 1-AA team at home last year. I know there were other circumstances behind them, but there’s still no excuse whatsoever for a Big Ten team to lose to a 1-AA team at home. I think the Hoosiers will go bowling with the previous three wins, plus wins over Michigan State, Northwestern, and Illinois.

No matter what though, this will be the season that will be remembered in Bloomington as the season of Hep. If they go to a bowl it could spring board them into the next level as a program, which is a level already crowded in the Big Ten with us, Minnesota, Northwestern, and Michigan State as that middle tier. If they don’t go, it may be a long time before they come close again. Either way terry Hoeppner has left a lasting impression on this program, and I hate to see him go even as a Purdue fan. God bless him this day, and my prayers are with the Hoeppner and IU families.