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Sunday, July 29, 2007

Know thy Opponent 2007: Iowa Hawkeyes

At this point in the season, with Iowa being game eight following a very rough three game stretch against some of the 'name' teams of college football, we should have a good idea of how special the 2007 season is. The Iowa game then will either be a must-win to regain some momentum, or a must-win to keeps hopes alive for a big season.

Let's face it, if we're going to be the team we are expected to be on paper we have to win the first four games against Toledo, Eastern Illinois, Central Michigan, and Minnesota. A loss in those four games probably diminishes our chances of getting a win in the next three against Notre Dame, Ohio State, and Michigan. Any loss in those four would therefore likely mean a 3-4 record coming into the Iowa game.


Winning all four though sets the stage for taking this year from average to special. I don't think there is any serious chance of us being 7-0 going into the game, but 6-1 is certainly possible with 5-2 being more likely. If the program itself is going to take a step forward from the struggles of the past few seasons then we have to demand at least one win in the three game stretch before Iowa, and we need to be at least competitive in the other two games if not grab another one of them. Going 0-3 in that stretch will tell me that we still cannot play up in weight class, and that maybe it will be time to move another direction.


I admit we have been spoiled a bit under Tiller by comparison to the Akers and Colletto years, but the time has come to move forward. You don't play the game to be average and make mid-tier bowl games every year. You play to compete for championships. I appreciate what Tiller has done in West Lafayette, and if he can turn the corner this season hat is fantastic, but we have to stop wondering what would have happened if Kyle Orton had held on to that ball against Iowa and start turning things around now. If we're 4-3 or worse coming into this Iowa game we're fighting just to make a bowl again this year. If we're better, then we can start thinking about playing on New Year's Day again possibly with a win.


Last season for the Hawkeyes:


I think Iowa as a program is reaching a point that we did a few years ago. They have had some great success under Kirk Ferentz in sharing a conference championship twice and going to a BCS bowl (in 2002), playing in a few other New Year's Day bowls like the Outback and Capitol One, but have stepped back into the middle tier of bowls lately. They are only 13-12 the last two years, but two of those wins have been over us. In reality, their stretch from 2002-2006 isn't much different from our 1999-2004 stretch.


I expected Iowa to win the Big Ten last year and probably drank a little too much of the Drew Tate Kool-Aid. The Hawkeyes started 4-0 with wins over Montana, Syracuse, Iowa State, and Illinois, but fans had to be concerned with beating Syracuse in overtime. Iowa struggled mightily in that game, and it was a precursor for the rest of the year. From that point forward Iowa went 2-7, beating only us and Northern Illinois to barely qualify for a bowl game. The turning point was a 38-17 loss to Ohio State at home in a highly hyped game that many Iowa fans felt would be the statement of a big year. Iowa recovered to kill us the next week, but then lost games to Indiana, Northwestern, and Minnesota. A team as strong as they were had no business losing these games. How else do you explain them beating us by 30 points, then turning around and losing three games to teams we handled without too much trouble?


Last year's 47-17 loss in Iowa City was probably the worst we had played all season long. It's disappointing to know that we played solid teams like Wisconsin, Penn State, and Notre Dame better than we did Iowa with the way the Hawkeyes finished the season. We gave up 539, 47 points, and we were pushed around all day.


Iowa should be about 5-2 coming into our game with wins over Northern Illinois, Syracuse, Iowa State, Indiana, and Illinois, but losses at Penn State and Wisconsin. They also get the break we've recently had with now Michigan or Ohio State. We'll be in about the same position as them in the Big Ten standings come October 20th, so this one will likely be for bowl positioning.


Iowa Offense:


One big advantage we seem to have on our schedule this year no one seems to be mentioning is the number of teams we are facing with new quarterbacks. Some, like Notre Dame, are strong recruits, while others, like Minnesota, are less heralded. For the fourth time in five games we'll face a green QB as Jake Christiensen will be given the reigns of the Iowa offense full time this year. Of the new quarterbacks we will face however, he probably has the most experience. Christiensen started a game last year in place of the injured Tate, and completed 23 of 35 passes for 285 yards and a pair of TD's to go with a pair of interceptions in five more games. He's a good guy, but Iowa will miss Tate's leadership for a little while. In what may be a welcome relief for us Christiensen is not a running quarterback, so that element of danger is taken away a bit.


The strength of Iowa will be its running game, and once again our front seven needs to be ready after getting pushed around in Iowa City last year. Of all the poor showings against the run last season Iowa may have been the worst, as we were never able to get any kind of a push against their offensive line. This year the line is a bit of a question mark early, and may be a tad undersized. Dace Richardson at left tackle is the best performer at 6'6" 305 pounds, and the other side looks to be anchored by 6'7" 305 pound Kyle Calloway. Rafael Eubanks controls things in the middle as one of the top centers in the Big Ten. The other two positions are a bit of question mark right now and will get settled as the season progresses. As many as 10 guys are competing for starting spots along the line, so the lineup in game one could be vastly different than the one we see in West Lafayette.


Running behind that line will be Albert Young and Damian Sims, who split time last year for more than 1,400 yards. Young is a proven talent who had a 1,334 yard season in 2005, but has struggled with injuries since. We didn't see him last year, but Sims ran for 155 yards and 2 TD's against us. Sims is the home run hitter who has the speed to break off a big run from time to time. Paving their way will be fullback Tom Busch, who has primarily been used as a bulldozer in his career but has been known to catch a pass or two in goal line situations, as he did last year in our game.


Probably the biggest reason Iowa struggled last year was its passing game on the receiving end. Dominique Douglas led all true freshmen in the country last year with 49 catches and totaled 654 yards. Andy Brodell appears to be the other top returning pass catcher, who had 159 yards receiving in each of the final two games last year against Minnesota and Texas. Look for Iowa to use its passing game more to compliment the running game rather than throwing the ball all over the field. The receiving options are dangerous though and cannot be ignored.


Iowa Defense:


Iowa's defense is one that is not flashy, but very rarely makes mistakes and because of that keeps the team in games. This year's unit appears to be no exception, and should look a lot like last year's unit. Eight starters return from a unit that was good, but not great last year. Much like our own unit, they will look to improve by forcing more turnovers and getting more pressure in the backfield.


Generating that pressure up front will be a defensive line that has everyone back, but didn't do a whole lot. Still, they should be improved this year. Ken Iwebema has the size at 6'4" 267 pounds to be a great rushing end, and Mitch King generated 5.5 sacks from one of the defensive tackle position last year. Redshirt Freshman Adrian Clayborn is also a highly-touted recruit who will get into the rotation as an end this year. What the line has in experience it lacks in overall size, and if our big line can handle them we should be able to move the ball.


Iowa has produced some quality linebackers of late, and middle linebacker Mike Klinkenberg appears to be next in line. Klinkenberg had a whopping 129 stops last year and seemed to be in on almost every play. He will make the defense go and is a great run-stopper. A.J. Edds (a local kid from Greenwood that got away) and Mike Humpal are the other two starters as of right now, and are both good playmakers. There isn't a ton of athleticism here and if we can use the speed of Bryant and Taylor against them we can have a successful day.


One huge advantage we will have though comes in the secondary. Adam Shada and Charles Godfrey are good tackling corners, but will struggle to contain Orton and Lymon on the outside. We might remember Shada from his 98-yard interception return late in last year's game. Brett Greenwood and Harold Dalton will be the starting safeties and they also tackle well, but against pass coverage is a weakness. The defensive unit as a whole is good about not giving up yards after the catch, but we should be able to generate plenty of yards against them. It will be up to us to turn those yards into points though.


Iowa Special Teams:


Austin Signor will be back as the kicker, and he saw some duty last year hitting both of his field goal attempts and all five extra points. He also has a leg as one field goal was from 41 yards. Ryan Donohue will be the new punter and he is reported to have a strong leg, but still hasn't seen any game action yet as a redshirt freshman.


Iowa struggled last year in both aspects of the kickoff game, managing barely more than 17 yards per return while giving up over 23. We were one of the best kickoff coverage teams in the nation last year and I like having Bryant and Sheets back there against their coverage unit.


Intangibles:


We're about even in this department and it seems like the recent history of the series has heavily favored the home team. Iowa's win in West Lafayette two years ago has been the only time of late that the visiting team has pulled off the win. The question of experience on the offense comes up as well since the line will be in flux all season long and Christiensen is still getting his feet wet.


As far as overall team experience I would give us the edge with the number of starters we have returning on both sides of the ball, but how we finish the three game stretch before this will be critical. Hopefully we will have some confidence after a win or two instead of being in desperate need of a win to save a season. If we've lost three in a row (or more) before this game it could easily turn into another long losing streak.


Game Outlook:


This game should be easier for us match up wise than the previous three games. Many are expecting the Hawkeyes to have a big season because they miss Ohio State and Michigan, and they very well could have a successful season, but they aren't an overwhelming team on either side of the ball. They are certainly a good team, but I see them as competing with as competing with us to be the top of the next tier of teams behind Michigan, Ohio State, Wisconsin, and Penn State.


Our offense should be able to move the ball well against their defense, but it will be critical to finish drives with points, since yards don't win ballgames. Defensively this will be a welcome game for what could be a worn out defense at this point. We know they are going to run the ball and we need to be ready for it. Last year we got manhandled and this year we need to turn the tables. A solid defensive effort in this game should mean a big win for us.


PREDICTION:


This is a statement game and a turning point game all in one. It may well be the most important game of the season regardless of our record coming into it. Iowa is a team that, on paper, we should be able to beat, but I can see us struggling against them. A win in this game should qualify us for a bowl game if we haven't qualified already, and will go a long way toward saying what bowl game that will be. Purdue 31, Iowa 21.




Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Know thy Opponent 2007: Michigan Wolverines



It's been a long absence, but I am back after a week-long summer trip to New England. I'll save you the details, but it allowed for a much needed break to build more anticipation for the coming football season. This year I will be attending 10 games in 12 weeks. That total includes all seven Purdue home games, a trip to Bloomington for the Bucket game, a trip to Miami for my wife's homecoming (hopefully not a last visit to the Orange bowl), and an October 13th trip to Ann Arbor for my first visit to the Big House.


I have been looking forward to seeing a game at Michigan for a long time. The Wolverines are one of the most successful programs in NCAA Division 1-A history with 860 wins, the largest stadium in all the land, 42 conference championships, and 11 National Championships. Michigan is one of those programs that everyone wishes they could be. I am in awe of the fact that this is just another home game for them, yet there will be more than 111,000 people in the stands and a guaranteed sell out. We can't even sell out 62,500 seats for half our games, yet Michigan has such a demand for tickets they are adding even more seats.


Of course, it also helps the Wolverines were very good last year, and for several years before that. They could be even better this coming season. All that winning tradition naturally translates into quite a following. This team has been to 32 consecutive bowl games, 26 of those being of the New Year's Day variety, and barring a complete disaster 2007 will be the next in that string. Our history pales in comparison to theirs, and this year our team, even a good one by our own modest standards, will likely pale as well.


Last Season for the Wolverines:


Even though the Wolverines were 11-2 last year, the season was deemed a failure for one reason. An 11-0 start was tarnished by losing at Ohio State, denying them another Big Ten championship and berth in the National Championship Game. They still very nearly got a rematch, but were instead sent back to the Rose Bowl as a consolation prize. Once there USC beat them for the sixth time in eight rose Bowl meetings. Most teams would gauge that as a fantastic year, but this is Michigan. Because Michigan lost to Ohio State for the fifth time in six years, this time with the highest stakes in the rivalry's history, Lloyd Carr is now feeling the pressure despite what he has accomplished as head coach.


When you take away the final two games Michigan was one of the best teams in the country. A particularly notable stretch included blowout wins over Central Michigan (who had a great year and won the MAC) and Notre Dame, followed by Wisconsin's only loss on the season 27-13. The victory over the Badgers prevented the BCS title game from being an all-Big Ten affair, as an unbeaten Wisconsin squad likely would have gotten the nod over Florida. From that point on the Wolverines seemed to go on cruise control, with the best win coming 17-10 at Penn State. Perhaps the oddest game of that stretch was on November 4th when Ball State gave the Wolverines quite a game in Ann Arbor. The Cardinals were a play or two away from pulling off one of the largest upsets in college football history, and I don't know if it was a case of them playing the game of their lives or Michigan just not being all there mentally.


We haven't seen Michigan since 2004, but the key weapons are still the same from that game in West Lafayette. Chad Henne and Mike Hart both started that game as freshmen, and will start this game as well-seasoned veterans this time around. History has not been kind to the Boilermakers when it comes to the Wolverines, even since coach Tiller turned things around 10 years ago. We have only beaten Michigan once in that time, the fewest wins against any regular opponent, and that game took an amazing second-half turnaround to accomplish.


The schedule before our game has some nice balance for a team trying to win a national championship. Michigan opens at home with Appalachian State, breaking a 74 year streak of not playing anyone outside of Division 1-A. If you're going to break that streak you might as well break it against the best, as the Mountaineers have won back-to-back Division 1-AA titles and could probably hold their own against most of the MAC and Sun Belt. After that an intriguing stretch of home games against Oregon, Notre Dame, and Penn State should all provide strong tests. Michigan only goes on the road once before facing us, traveling to an improved Northwestern before facing MAC doormat Eastern Michigan the week before our game.


Michigan Offense:


One word: Eeep! For us to have any shot in this game our defense will have to be worlds better than it has been the last two years. Even then it will have to play one of the best games in Purdue history to pull out the win on the road. As a freshman against a much better defense than we currently have Hart ran for 206 yards and a touchdown three years ago. Henne struggled a bit with only 190 yards and an interception, but last year he only threw eight picks against 22 scores. Hart has already rushed for more than 3,600 yards in his career, and if not for a 2005 season fraught with injuries he would be pushing for the all-time Division 1-A rushing record.


While Henne and Hart are legitimate Heisman candidates, the Wolverine offense is much more than those two. Mario Manningham returns as the top receiver. He led the Wolverines in receiving yards and touchdowns even though he missed four games with a knee injury. Manningham's speed will be an issue for our secondary to keep up with, and he is not the only quick receiver the Wolverines have. Adrian Arrington and Mike Massey are both solid receivers in their own right and will make us pay if we concentrate too much on Manningham.


Michigan's offensive line must only replace its right tackle, and the left side of the line features two guys that very well could be 1st round draft picks next April. Henne will have plenty of protection and hart should have some sizable holes to run through. Jake Long is a 6'7" 313-pound left tackle that will serve as a wall protecting Henne's blind side, while Adam Kraus will punish the interior of our defensive line either at left guard or center. Michigan's line is smaller than it has been in the past, but is more dangerous because of its quickness.


I am honestly at a loss as to how we expect to slow this offense down, since it will likely be one of the best in the country. It will likely take a B or even C-level game for us to even stay close unless our defense is markedly improved. Surely our D will be better by this the seventh game of the season, but will it be enough?


Michigan Defense:


The Wolverines lost quite a bit from last year's defense, but being Michigan they can plug in quality guys right away. By game seven they will be playing much better after a strong opening stretch. Michigan lost its top pass rusher in LaMarr Woodley, its top tackler in linebacker David Harris, and its best player from the secondary in Leon Hall. The offense then will likely have to carry this team early as the defense gets its act together.


Terrance Taylor is the only returning starter on the defensive line, and is a 310-pound defensive tackle. Brandon Graham is perhaps the most promising new starter on the defensive line, as he has the quickness to come off the end and wreak havoc in the backfield. Much like our own model for defensive ends, he is a linebacker moved to end to better utilize his speed.


Shawn Crable appears to be the top returning linebacker, while John Thompson will provide more quickness from the middle. The unit as a whole should be very fast, and they will likely be able to play both the pass and run well. Michigan won't be afraid to blitz and we will need to be ready to protect Painter. Michigan can afford to gamble with its linebackers because its secondary will also be incredibly fast and able to cover any mistakes. Jamar Adams is the best returning player in the defensive backfield, and he is a solid defender at strong safety against the run.


Obviously, the name of the game for Michigan's defense is speed, and it will take an awful lot of finesse to move the ball against them. Their secondary should be an interesting match against the experience of our receivers, and how we utilize the underneath passing game with Bryant, Keller, Taylor, and Sheets will be critical. Michigan had some trouble last year in coverage with just 12 interceptions, but they will hit hard and try to force turnovers that way. If we can move the ball underneath against their safeties and linebackers it will open the outside for Orton and Lymon against their corners. Morgan Trent will be the new #1 corner, but his 6'1" frame will be a challenging matchup against our tall outside receivers. Johnny Sears appears to be the other corner, but hasn't seen a whole lot of time on the field yet. Trent and Sears haven't done much in coverage in the past, and Trent especially got lit up in last year's two losses.


Michigan Special Teams:


Michigan has yet to select a kicker to replace Garrett Rivas, but it will be difficult to replace his production. Rivas hit on 17 of 20 field goals last year, but this Michigan offense will probably get in the end zone enough that only extra points will be needed. Zoltan Mesko returns as the punter and he acerage 41.6 yards per punt last year.


As far as returns go, there is no Steve Breaston to kick to anymore, so it's not quite the nightmare that kicking to the Wolverines has been in the past. Still, Michigan has a history of developing great kick returners, and I would not be surprised if someone new emerged. Perhaps the only true advantage we have comes in this area of the game, as Michigan gave up more than 22 yards per kickoff return last year. We just happen to have two pretty good returners in Sheets and Bryant, who will likely get plenty of opportunities to take one back this day.


Intangibles:


The last time Purdue went into Ann Arbor and won a game Bob Griese was quarterback and I wouldn't even be born for another 13 years. It has been 41 years since we last won in the Big House, and we have only beaten Michigan 12 times in 52 overall tries. Some of our best teams in school history have gone to Michigan and been soundly defeated, while the best chance for a win in the past forty years may have come in 1995 when Jim Colletto of all people directed us to a 5-0 loss. Only Colletto, the supposed "offensive genius" could waste perhaps one of the best defensive efforts in school history by failing to score at all.


For whatever reason we simply don't play that well in Ann Arbor, no matter how good of a season we are having at the time. Our last three visits to Michigan have come when we have had a combined record of 14-1 and a top 12 national ranking, yet each time we have lost by two touchdowns or more. This year we will likely be at least 4-2, with an outside chance of being 6-0, but I don't feel we have much of a shot of winning this game.


Game Outlook:


I don't feel good about getting into a shootout with them because their offense is more balanced than ours and they can wear down the clock with Hart all day long. Unless our defense is light years better they should be able to do whatever they want. On the other side of the ball their defense will be much, much better by this point in the season and will not be an easy break for our offense after facing Ohio State a week earlier. We should be able to score a few points in this one, but not enough to keep up with them.


I'll be blunt when I say this: If we somehow beat Michigan there is no reason to think we cannot beat anyone else on our schedule. The Wolverines are the best team we will face all year, and that is because they are the most complete of all 12 opponents. If (and that is still a big if) we are 6-0 coming into this game and somehow pull off a win, suddenly we find ourselves with only a trip to Penn State and possibly Iowa standing in our way of an undefeated season.


Even I am not delusional enough to think that is going to happen. This is Purdue we're talking about, and there are two sure things when it comes to Purdue. We always lose at Michigan, and we always lose at least one game we have no business losing. At least in our next three toughest places to play, Notre Dame, Ohio State, and Penn State, we have had a win or two in the last 40 seasons and several other close calls. With Michigan we have only come within two touchdowns of victory twice since the 1966 triumph, the 1995 game and a 9-6 loss in 1972.


To this point in the season we at least have one significant edge or several minor edges over each opponent except maybe Ohio State, and even that game is at home. That is not the case here, and because of that it will be even more difficult for us to go on the road and pull of a win where we have had the most trouble doing so over the past 40 years.


Prediction:


This one could get ugly, like so many Michigan-Purdue games have gotten in the past. It will take the best game we have played in years and a lackluster effort by Michigan for us to even have a chance. That being said, I am still looking forward to adding the Big House to my list of stadiums. At least that will be one positive from the day. Michigan 38, Purdue 14.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Know thy Opponent 2007: Ohio State Buckeyes


Well, first things first. Some of you may notice that there were quite a few changes to the Notre Dame article. This is because I was in the wrong, and I realize that now. I am using this blog to hone my writing skills and use it as a resume builder. With that in mind, I was wrong in going off and pretty much attacking Notre Dame ruthlessly in the post. I got ripped for what I wrote by some people, and honestly it was rightfully so. This was wrong of me, and showed an appalling lack of class. Yes, I have a right to hate Notre Dame, as everyone has a right to hate any team. It was wrong of me to attack their traditions and fans though, and for that I am sorry.


Honestly, I felt like crap for what I wrote, because it was childish, stupid, and wrong. I have tried to salvage a little class by cleaning up the article and admitting my mistake. If anyone wants to continue attacking me from this point on it’s their own problem. I was able to write about Toledo, Eastern Illinois, Central Michigan, and Minnesota without sounding like an obsessed fan, but I couldn’t do that for Notre Dame. I was not proud about what I wrote on them, so I have gone back and changed it because in reading it I now I am a better person than that. If I cannot stop from writing crap like I wrote, then I have no chance of ever getting past this blog.


If they want to continue to attack me, blacklist me, make fun of me on their boards, then it is fine with me. I have tried to rectify the situation and I have admitted that I was in the wrong for my attacks. I want to be a better journalist than that, and it is high time that I learn that lesson of setting aside my own biases, even when I don’t like a team very much. I cannot control what other people say or think of me, but I can control what I say. I represent Purdue University with this blog, and I recognize that yesterday I did not represent that University in a good light. What I don’t understand is how someone can say I don’t support Purdue. I guess going to every home game for the last 10 years and about 10 road games in that time is not supporting Purdue. I’ve been to Purdue games in six states, and traveled as far as Hawaii for a game, but it’s not enough apparently. Neither is writing this blog, but ah well.

And with that, we move on to our next preview and put this all in the rearview.


While I am not a fan of Notre Dame, my wife vehemently hates Ohio State. God has blessed me with a wife who is as big of a football fan as I am, and she honed her craft in Coral Gables at the University of Miami. With that in mind, do not mention the 2003 Fiesta Bowl between Miami and Ohio State to her. It is a stronger hate than she holds even for Florida State. One of our first dates was the 2002 Purdue-Ohio State game, and I have never seen such hatred poured forth toward a team as my wife yelled at the Buckeyes when they came to town in 2004. I am thankful she has adopted my Boilers, and a big part of that is because we play Ohio State regularly and she has a chance to root against them. For her the game as personal, as not only did you have the controversial flag, but you had the Will Allen celebration after he obliterated Willis McGahee’s knee.


This is where the schedule begins to turn for us, with game 6. Up to this point we have a good chance to win each game. Game 6 though will be our toughest test in the first half of the season as we face our third conference champion in Ohio State.


This year’s game against the Buckeyes could be a lot like the 2002 game, as the 2007 edition of Ohio State appears ready to ride a dominant defense and get just enough offense needed in order to go back to the championship. Of our three biggest conference games though, this one is the most winnable because it is at home. Both teams could be 5-0 for a rowdy 8pm kickoff at Ross-Ade on October 6th.

Last Season for the Buckeyes:

What more could you ask for a regular season outside of a perfect season and a Heisman Trophy for your starting quarterback? Only Michigan and Illinois (The Illini?!?) came close to touching Ohio State in the regular season last year, but the season ended on a bittersweet note with a 41-14 loss to Florida in the BCS Championship game.


How much of Ohio State’s record last year was simply a product of the Big Ten not being very good last year, or were they simply an elite team that laid a monumental egg in the National Championship game? It’s not like we would have stood in their way last season had we played them, as that offense would have sliced through us for about 45 points. Ohio State scored more than 35 points in nine of 13 games last year, and allowed more than 17 points just twice: against Michigan and Florida.


Everyone is making a big deal about Ohio State being back on our schedule and how we’re going to handle the challenge. Honestly I don’t think it is that bad. In the previous six meetings, all during the Tiller Era, we’ve taken two of three at home. Two of the three on the road, as well as the other game in Ross-Ade were games that came down to the final possession. The 2002 game in Ross-Ade was especially impressive as that Ohio State team went on to win (or as my wife insists, steal) the National Title, while you could argue that we were a single play in six games from playing for that title ourselves. Okay, I’ll admit, that sounds like a stretch even coming from me.


We’ve been very competitive with the Buckeyes since Tiller arrived in West Lafayette, and a win in this game would leave Joe with three of only 12 wins Purdue would have all-time against the perennial power.

Ohio State Offense:

Heisman trophy winning quarterback Troy Smith is gone. Also gone is top running back Antonio Pittman, and the top two receivers in Anthony Gonzalez and Ted Ginn Jr. That’s 1,642 receiving yards, 1,454 rushing yards, 2,580 passing yards (Ginn threw a TD pass), and 46 touchdowns all told leaving the offense. Those are some big numbers to lose for any offense, even one like Ohio State who always has top-notch recruits waiting in the wings. This game will be our second straight game of facing an offense that is entirely rebuilt from last season with talented, but untested players.


But Ohio State’s offense returns a few more key pieces that Note Dame’s doesn’t, and one of those key pieces is running back Chris Wells. In a reserve role last season Wells ran for 576 yards and seven TD’s. This kid is a 6’1” 230-pound nightmare for our porous run defense to face. He’s quick; he’s strong, and has the potential to dominate us if our run defense isn’t fixed by this point in the season. Some are comparing this kid to Oklahoma’s Adrian Peterson, and he could be a candidate for the Heisman as only a sophomore this year.


Expect Wells to be the focal point of the offense, as the rest of the crew has yet to sort itself out. Junior Todd Boeckman will likely be the starting quarterback. He’s been around in the system for a few years but has only seven completions for 86 yards and a touchdown to his credit. Expect him to play a role much like Craig Krenzel did five years ago, in that he will manage the game well and do just enough to get the job done.


The top returning receiver is Brian Robiskie, who had 383 yards and five TD’s as a number three option last year. Ray Small and Rory Nichol appear to be the other top receivers, and both had four touchdowns in just 21 combined catches last season. As usual, Ohio State will just reload with some solid talent, but they won’t quite be at the level of last year’s crew.


Paving the way will be a solid offensive line that will be the medicine the rest of the unit needs to overcome its inexperience. Two 6’8” guys in Alex Boone and Steve Rehring will anchor the left side of the line, meaning Boeckman will likely have little to worry about on his blind side. For good measure Kirk Barton will be over on the right side at 6’6” and 310 pounds, meaning that Wells should have plenty of holes to run through. Our front seven will need to have a fantastic game in order to slow down the Buckeyes even with all the replacements.

Ohio State Defense:

Simply put, this will likely be the best defense we will face all season. Even last year when they were a question mark they shut everyone else down except Michigan and Florida. There’s also not a serious threat to them before this game as they open with Youngstown State, Akron, Washington, Northwestern, and Minnesota. They are an athletic unit that has stars in all the right places, and will be a great matchup for our offense which is expected to do some special things.


Vernon Gholston is the best player on the defensive line as he had 8.5 sacks and 15 tackles for loss last year. Our line will be solid, but will have its hands full with this guy. There are some question marks at the defensive tackle positions, but again, this is Ohio State. Their question marks aren’t nearly as large as our own. Quinn Pitcock and David Patterson were rocks in the middle last year, and both must be replaced.


James Laurinaitis is, much like his father’s WWF persona, an animal and is the key of another dominant unit at linebacker. Our offensive strategy should simply be “Stay the flock away from Laurinaitis!!” in this game. Last season he only won the Nagurski award, was a consensus All-American, and led the team in tackles with 115 tackles, four sacks, and five interceptions for good measure. He’s also a hard-hitter and forced three fumbles. Oh, and for good measure he has two other great linebackers around him with Marcus Freeman and Larry Grant. This team just plugs in All-Americans on defense.


Finally we come to the secondary, where Ohio State is also loaded. Junior cornerback Malcolm Jenkins needs to be avoided at all costs, as he’s another big, fast shut-down corner. Jamario O’Neal and Nick Patterson are the safeties who are both big hitters and can play strong against the run.


So how do we attack this defense that seemingly has no weakness? They’re athletic and big, but they do have some question marks at defensive tackle and the other corner position we might be able to exploit. Still, we got shut out at home last year against a Penn State defense that may have been as good as this one will be. If we can move the ball through the air, maybe hit on a few deep routes, we might have a chance.

Ohio State Special Teams:

Ohio State always seems to find great kickers and this year is no exception with Aaron Pettrey. Once he settled down last season Pettrey showed he was not only accurate, but had a leg as he made a couple from 50+. If the Ohio State offense can get inside the 35 it sounds like some points are going on the board.


A.J. Trapasso will be the punter and he averaged more than 40 yards per punt last year. He was also great at putting the ball inside the 20, as he did it 17 times.


Ray Small will be the returner, but fortunately we won’t have to face Ginn in this spot. The return game may be the one area where we truly have an advantage coming in, and it’s not going to be a huge advantage.

Intangibles:

This will be one of the latest kickoffs of a college game I have ever been to, and there’s a pretty good chance both teams will be unbeaten at 5-0 coming in. Ohio State doesn’t have much challenging them before our game and we have a couple tough but definitely winnable games. If anything we may have an advantage here because we’ll have been more tested at this point than the Buckeyes. CFN predicts that this game will be their only potential stumbling block to an 8-0 start and I tend to agree.


They won’t be scared of the crowd, as our paltry 62,500 fans will probably have a big Ohio State contingent with them, and this is a team that regularly plays in front of six-figure crowds. They play in prime time much more often than we do, so that won’t help us. This is a big-time program that has been in a national spotlight for the past five seasons, and playing a night game at Ross-Ade will not faze them in the slightest.

Game Outlook:

As I said earlier, of our big three conference games this is our best chance to grab a win because it is at home. The top four of the conference in Penn State, Wisconsin, Ohio State, and Michigan is very tough this year, and we appear to be on the outside fighting to be the top of the next seven. With a win in this game we can at least make an argument there should be a top five.


For whatever reason we have also played some of Ohio State’s best teams very well recently. Whether it is matchups, us rising to the occasion, or Ohio State simply not playing that well against us we have played a series of very close games, since five of the last six have come down to the last possession. If the defense (a boring refrain at this point) steps up and can contain Wells we have a punchers chance of winning this. Any win will be an upset, but we have a good shot at pulling it off.


If Wells runs wild though you can forget getting a win. We can’t get in a shootout with these guys, as their defense is going to be just too good. I don’t like the matchup of our defensive front seven facing Wells though. We faced too many good backs and got shredded last year to give me any confidence.


Hopefully our experience will play a factor on both sides of the ball. We’ll need to be more aggressive against the run, and throw the deep ball more often. If we’re going to spring an upset this year, this will be the game.

Prediction:

I hope I am proven wrong, but I don’t think we can pull it off. I just haven’t seen that edge the last few years that we need. The last time we got a big win was in 2004, but we’ve lost that edge since the Fumble. Hopefully we can get it back in this game and prove me wrong. Ohio State 21, Purdue 10

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Know thy Opponent 2007: Notre Dame Fighting Irish


Personally, I'm not a big fan of Notre Dame. I am looking at Notre Dame’s schedule in 2007 and relishing the fact they may start the year at 1-7 or even 0-8 if they lose to Michigan State in South Bend again. Of their first eight games the only game Notre Dame is more likely to win than that Michigan State game is against us, and if we play like we’re able to we should be able to win in West Lafayette.


Speaking strictly from a perspective as a college football fan, there is no team I hate more than Notre Dame. Most of it comes from the media bias they receive. Every two game winning streak is treated as a return to glory by all in the media, and every two game losing streak is treated as a panic of Biblical proportions.


I am excited about this year because I expect the Irish to struggle early on against a very difficult schedule. Let’s look at their early schedule: Georgia Tech, at Penn State, at Michigan, Michigan State, at Purdue, at UCLA, Boston College, and USC. That’s three top 15 teams (two on the road), two more top 25 teams, and two more good teams in us and Boston College. They could be eliminated from even qualifying for a bowl game by the middle of October, let alone going to the BCS again. I also recognize that this bias slightly clouds my assessment of them as a team, so I will do my best.


Notre Dame will have a quarterback that has either barely played or is an talented but injured recruit, a new running back, only a tight end recovering from a knee injury as a proven receiving threat, and a young and shaky offensive line. Yes, I recognize there are some big-time recruits here, but they have yet to prove anything on the field. When you couple that with a shaky defense that wasn’t that good last year every Notre Dame hater is licking their chops for this season. Still, they are ranked as high as 21st in some publications


CFN has Notre Dame playing six of the top 50 games of the coming season, and has them losing all six in the first eight games. If this holds true to form then the seventh game not on that list, their September 29th visit to West Lafayette may knock them out of contention for any bowl game.

Last Season for the Fighting Irish:

One quality win (Penn State), four other wins over bowl teams (Georgia Tech, Purdue, Navy, and UCLA) and Notre Dame was awarded with a BCS bowl, simply because of who they were. 2005 was no different, but at least there were wins over ranked teams in Pittsburgh, Michigan, and Purdue (yes, we were technically ranked at the time).

The last two years have been a case of an experienced team taking advantage of a schedule that featured several underperforming teams like Georgia Tech, Pittsburgh, Purdue, and Michigan State. This year the situation is the opposite, as all areas have more talent, but not much experience except in the secondary. Still, at least they beat a few bowl teams last year. I know we only beat one, and our other seven wins were against as weak if not weaker competition.


Against three opponents last year, UCLA, Georgia Tech, and Michigan State, the Irish won more because the other team screwed up than because of anything they did. They were a 7-5 team with a 10-2 record because the Yellow Jackets forgot about Calvin Johnson, the Spartans gagged, and UCLA couldn’t tackle after playing well for 59 minutes. Even in our game an inability to score in the red zone gave way to a 14 point loss. Last year was two bad defenses going against each other, we simply couldn’t capitalize in the red zone and they could. I will give credit to Quinn for performing well behind a weak offensive line though. The Notre Dame O-line gave up 31 sacks (nearly 3 a game) and Quinn still put up impressive numbers.

Notre Dame Offense:

I hope everyone brought a program because you’re going to need it with this group. The leading experienced quarterback, Evan Sharpley, has completed one pass for seven yards. The top returning rusher, James Aldridge, only ran for 142 yards in mop-up duty last year. John Carlson at tight end is the only proven returning weapon, having caught 47 passes for 634 yards and 4 TD’s before his injury. David Grimes is next with 23 catches for 336 yards and two scores, but that is about it.


Gone is Brady Quinn, who put up great numbers behind a bad line. Gone also are Jeff Samardzija, Rheema McKnight, and Darius Walker, who were really the ones that made the offense go. Quinn was a master at spreading the ball around to them and letting them make plays.


I predict the Irish will miss Walker most of all, who was too undersized to be drafted last season and could have had a monster year this year as the focus of Notre Dame’s attack had he stayed for his senior season. To me, he was the team’s most dangerous player as he amounted to more than 1600 yards of total offense last year. At least against us, he consistenly had big games and took advantage of our shoddy run defense. He would have been the focus of the attack had he returned, and would have had another dominant game against us.


The offensive line must also replace three starters, and at times last year had trouble protecting Quinn with the guys they had. When you put a young guy back there with little experience he could get knocked around quite a bit. Even someone with Quinn’s numbers struggled his first two years, and Quinn’s 2004 game against us in South Bend reminded me a lot of Painter’s 2006 game in South Bend in terms of getting a ton of yards, but not a ton of points.


So who is left? Well, we of course have Jimmy Clausen. When it comes to being compared to a recruit though, do you really want to be compared to Ron Powlus? I say this only because of the disappointment Powlus turned out to be in South Bend, not as a slight to Clausen's ability. He'll have a good career, but it will take awhile for him to learn the offense fully. Right now it's a three way competition between him, Evan Shrpley, and Demetrius Jones. Of those three options Jones would do the most damage to us, as we struggle to contact an athletic quarterback that can run.


In all of Division 1-A Notre Dame only has more returning lettermen (30) than two schools: Iowa State and Navy. This is out of 119 programs, and very few of those lettermen have extensive game experience. Travis Thomas, James Aldridge and Armando Allen appear to be the early candidates at tailback, but they are short on experience as well. Carlson is a great tight end to throw to, but Grimes and George West are unproven commodities. Notre Dame will likely rely on the running game early, and even that will take some time to get going as the line develops.


Yes, the Irish have a very highly touted recruiting class. Yes, this will be their fifth game and third on the road and thus make them more seasoned, but you can’t rely on that many young guys and expect to be great. Our defense is expected to be better (it’s hard to get much worse), maybe even significantly better, but Notre Dame’s offense is going to be worse than it was last year. In a year or two they could be a dominant force, but it will bog down at times this year.

Notre Dame Defense:

The Irish have a solid guy to build around in the secondary, as I am of course referring to Mr. Tom Zbikowski. His numbers weren't great last year with 79 tackles, 1 forced fumble 1 TFL, 1 fumble recovery (for a TD), and no interceptions, but he was still a 3rd team All-American. He’s a good tackler, fast, and a hard-hitter, but needs more production than last year to live up to the hype.


The rest of the defense is undergoing a major overhaul after getting mauled in big games last season. Corwin Brown is taking over at defensive coordinator and is implementing a new 3-4 scheme. He has never been a defensive coordinator before, but does have NFL coaching experience. Maurice Crum the top defender at linebacker, and will be key in that 3-4 attack. Crum had 100 tackles last year with 10 of them coming in the backfield for negative yardage. He also had four sacks and an interception in being the best player on a bad unit.


Basically this unit faces many of the same questions that the offense does. There are a couple of proven players (Zbikowski did have a good 2005, better than 2006) and a whole bunch of untested guys with talent. When you couple that with the fact they will be learning a new scheme that adds even more uncertainty into the mix. The unit didn’t give up a lot of points in some games last year, but much of that was against some really bad teams. Against the best teams they got smoked for more than 40 points in all three losses.


The defensive line returns only one player with significant stats from last year in Trevor Lewis, and the strength is in the linebacking corps. This won’t be the worst defense in the country based on talent alone, but they won’t be the best either and that will hurt the Irish as the offense grows up. They will be better by the time they face us, but will it be enough?

Notre Dame Special Teams:


If there is one area where Zbikowski is worth the hype it is this one. He averaged nine yards per punt return last year and is a threat to take it to the house every time. Notre Dame must replace its kicker as the theme of relying on untested guys holds true. This will be big as the offense won’t be scoring as many touchdowns and will need more field goals from the special teams.


Geoff Price was a solid punter last year averaging more than 45 yards per kick, but often out-kicked his coverage. If he can pin the ball inside the 20 more he will be dangerous, but will still need the defense to come through and stop drives after his big kicks.


This unit will be critical to Notre Dame’s success this year. If their kicking game struggles like ours did last year the whole team will struggle, much like ours. Notre Dame easily could have a season mirroring our 2006 season where they move the ball, but come away with no points because of uncertainties in the kicking game and an inability to finish drives with touchdowns.

Intagnibles:

With all the youth in all three factors of the game it’s hard to believe that Rivals.com already has Notre Dame ranked 30th, and others have them as high as 21st. They’re banking a lot on some solid recruiting classes and the coaching ability of Charlie Weis. There’s a ton of talent there because of Weis, probably more raw talent than we have, but that talent needs to prove itself and will struggle at times this year.


There are things I like and dislike about Weis. I like the attitude he has that if you don’t win the game then your effort wasn’t good enough. With him there is no such thing as a moral victory and honestly it’s an attitude dozens of teams (including our own) sorely need. He is coming in with the goal of winning every game this year and that attitude will go a long way. A lot will be said about his ability this year to turn something around with a team that on paper looks like it could struggle early. Still, I think Weis is honestly a better coach than we have right now.


A big plus the Irish will have is that by this time they will be battle tested more than us. We have some tough games, but nowhere near as tough as Notre Dame’s first four games. Only Michigan State is a bit of a breather before they come to face us, and even that has been an adventure as the Spartans have won five straight in South Bend. They will be a better team by game five than in game one, and we need to be ready for that.


Notre Dame also will not be intimidated by our home crowd, as two years ago we were about as jacked up as I have ever seen us for a home game and we fell flat on our faces. While I believe Purdue has an advantage, though not significant, in most all the other categories, I give Notre Dame a huge advantage in intangibles, coaching, and sheer dumb luck.

Game Outlook:

While I would love to say we should crush this team, I know this is not the case. How do we react if Notre Dame springs a couple of upsets to start the season and is on a bit of a roll coming into this game? It's certainly possible with the talent there., as I can see them at the very least splitting their first four games.


How will we be playing at this point in the season? Again, it comes down to the defense and how they are playing. Let’s face it, no one has any confidence in our defense to stop anyone right now, and until proven otherwise we have to accept them as a liability. We could very easily roll to a big win in this game, or crumble against a team that is long on raw talent, but very short on experience.


We will have to have our offense get rolling early and put points on the board unlike last year. Selwyn Lymon went nuts on them, and we certainly have the receivers to do so again. If we can balance our running game nicely we can keep their inexperienced offense off the field and tire down their defense. Our defense will also need to get into the backfield and disrupt their passing game before it can get going.


Also key will be containing Zbikowski in the return game. I remember the 2001 game at Ross-Ade when a special teams play, specifically a 100 yard kickoff return from Vontez Duff killed the momentum we had just gained. So many of these Purdue-Notre Dame games recently have turned on a play like that, so we have to make sure we make that play.


Our offense is better than their defense. Our defense should hopefully be better than their offense. If we can’t win this game, we may not beat the Irish for a long time.

Prediction:

Notre Dame’s inexperience in all areas is way too much of a factor and anyone who thinks this is a top 25 team has them overrated. Give them a year or two and they could be very, very good. This year though I think they will take a step back. We still have a history of letting teams like this hang around and I predict a late touchdown will be the difference in a close game. Purdue 31, Notre Dame 24.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Know thy Opponent 2007: Minnesota Golden Gophers

I received my official 2007 football yearbook in the mail this week and it provides an interesting contrast to much of what I have read about opponent number four on our schedule. College Football News seems to think that Minnesota will be a very strong team this year under new head coach Tim Brewster, expecting them to win about eight games. The Purdue yearbook thinks the opposite, predicting that the Gophers will struggle to adjust to a new style of play and to having a new quarterback. Both publications agree that the September 22nd game in the Metrodome will be a critical game for both teams.

This is the first opponent on our 2007 schedule that we played in 2006, and, as always seems to be the case; it is the opener of the Big Ten portion of the schedule for both teams. Being the fourth game of the season both teams should be starting to find a groove and there's a very strong chance both will be 3-0 coming into this one. Once again Minnesota plays a very light schedule before getting into the conference. The Gophers open with Bowling Green and Miami (OH) at home before going to the other Miami to play Florida Atlantic.


Why does this game always seem to be a critical game for either team? It is probably this way because the teams have bee so similar over the past few years, yet we have had the advantage by going 7-1 in the last eight meetings. We've both been in the middle of the pack in the conference, and each time we've beaten them it has put us just a little higher bowl-wise. On September 22nd in Minneapolis it could be more of the same, because we always seem to play classic games in the Metrodome, and with Minnesota's new stadium opening in 2009 this will be our last (probably ever) indoor Big Ten game.


Last Season for the Golden Gophers:


We need to write Minnesota a big thank you card for burying our 2000 Outback Bowl collapse even further in college football history. While Marshall erased a 38-8 deficit against East Carolina in 2001 for a 64-61 win to begin the healing, Minnesota topped the Pirates by blowing an even larger 31 point lead. Ironically, That Marshall-ECU game also took us off the hook for scoring the most points ever in a loss in Division I history after we dropped a 1993 game to, you guessed it, Minnesota in the Metrodome 59-56. Only Jim Colletto could score 56 points on the road and lose.


Still, it takes a special kind of suck to blow a 31 point lead in a bowl game, and that is what the Gophers did. Minnesota was up 38-7 more than halfway through the third quarter! All they really had to do was simply fall down on the ball every play and they could have run off most of the clock. Even more astounding is that this was from an offense that is known for running the football. With a 31 point lead and less than a quarter and half to go any quarterback throwing a pass should have been benched immediately and any coach calling a passing play should have been sent home. Nevertheless, they couldn't finish the job; the pass defense (which was actually worse than ours last year) folded like Milli Vanilli's career, and gave up a 44-41 loss in overtime.


This, of course, cost Glen Mason his job, and rightfully so. It also meant that Minnesota finished 6-7. Still, things could have been worse. A nice three game win streak over Indiana, Michigan State, and Iowa at least saved Mason's job temporarily, and meant that we would have a win over a bowl team. A bowl game is a bowl game and the Gophers showed some promise in recovering to make the Insight Bowl. When you couple that loss, the loss to us, and a tough loss to Penn State on a bad pass interference call in overtime they nearly had a nine win season. Elsewhere the Gophers had predictable losses to California, Ohio State, Michigan, and Wisconsin.


CFN says that Minnesota dominated us in the loss in West Lafayette last year, while I tend to question that. Both teams gained 421 yards, so that was a push. Minnesota had about a seven minute lead in time of possession, but that was offset by the fact that they had both turnovers in the game and committed nearly twice as many yards in penalties. We also blocked a field goal attempt. Really the game down to one play: Pender's tipped pass to Hall for an interception in the end zone. For two very even teams, what else could you expect? Where was the domination? This was an even game between even teams.


This time the game is in Minneapolis, and, we all remember our last trip to Minneapolis. Looking at our schedule shows that a loss in this game could possibly start another six game losing streak.


Minnesota Offense:


It's hard to believe, but Minnesota and not Indiana currently has the longest Rose Bowl drought in the Big Ten. One thing both publications agree on though is that this won't be the year the drought ends, and the biggest reason for that will be the offense. Brewster wants to bring in more of a spread offense, but it will be running more from the spread as opposed to passing. With an inexperienced quarterback under center Minnesota will have little choice but to run the ball early and often.


Whoever starts at quarterback will be making his first Big Ten start in this game. As of right now the leading candidate for the job appears to be junior Tony Mortensen, but that isn't saying much. In two years Mortensen has seen very little of the field, completing only 11 of 34 passes for 145 yards, a touchdown, and three interceptions. While Bryan Cupito never set the world on fire statistically, He was a solid starter for three seasons and will be missed in Minneapolis. Mortensen is big and mobile, but redshirt freshman Adam Weber may be more suited for the offense. Whoever gets the start will be a running threat, and therefore needs to be watched.


The heart and soul of the offense will be running back Amir Pinnix. Two years ago the combination of both Laurence Maroney and Gary Russsell absolutely killed us in Minneapolis, rushing for 292 combined yards, gaining another 76 yards through the air, and scoring three touchdowns. Last year Pinnix ran for 173 yards and had 47 yards receiving, but did not get in the end zone. Overall he ran for nearly 1,300 yards last year, and more of the same is expected this year. Jay Thomas is expected to be a speedy option in the backfield with him, but there isn't a whole lot of depth. If Pinnix goes down with an injury the whole Minnesota offense is in trouble.


The receiving corps lost standout Logan Payne, but returns Ernie Wheelright as the best option. As we remember, the 6'5" Wheelright is the one that got out-jumped by the 6'1" David Pender on the critical play of last year's game. Wheelright is streaky, and #2 option Eric Decker impressed in spring ball, but doesn't have much experience. As usual, Minnesota will have a dominant tight end in Jack Simmons. Coach Brewster is responsible for making fantasy owners drool over Antonio Gates in San Diego, and wants to do the same with Simmons. The unit as a whole has good size, but little experience. Because of their size and speed we should expect our secondary to be tested deep.


The starting unit of the offensive line will be solid as always, but nothing spectacular. There is very little depth as former walk-ons are filling back-up roles. Minnesota allowed the fewest sacks in the Big Ten last season, but last year we were able to get to Cupito for three sacks and five total tackles for loss against a much more seasoned line.


Basically this is another untested unit, but a strong one. It's no secret Minnesota will run the ball, and our front seven will need to be ready for that test after getting run on profusely the last two years.


Minnesota Defense:


Ten starters return to a unit that is expected to carry the team this season. No returner will have more of an influence than Willie VanDeSteeg. The 6'4", 255-pound monster end was a terror last year with ten sacks, but the defense as a whole was better only when compared to our own in the Big Ten.


VanDeSteeg will be a beast to handle, especially with the entire left side of our offensive line getting its first Big Ten road start. On the other end Willie Dyson, who has some talent but very little experience will look to take advantage of any double teams that VanDeSteeg draws. The rest of the line is speedy, but undersized. If we can contain their pass rush our line should be ale to open some holes for the running game, as everyone ran on these guys last year. Remember Jaycen Taylor had a very solid game against them last season, scoring a pair of touchdowns.


The linebacking corps will be the strength of the defense, as it has the most returning experience. Four players have at least some starting experience and Mike Sherels was the leading tackler a year ago from the middle linebacker position with 104 stops. Because they were so worried about the run last season they struggled mightily in stopping the short passing games of most teams. If this is Minnesota's weakness, it is our strength. As long as it is not forcing turnovers like it did last year, the linebackers can be exploited.


The secondary last year was terrible, and was even worse than our young unit. All four starters return, but they will need to be more aggressive than last year. They can make plays and tackle well, but generally everyone got smoked last year when it mattered, specifically in the bowl game against Texas Tech when they couldn't master the concept of simply tackling someone and letting the clock run. They will be more aggressive though and at least try to make something happen. Still, Curtis Painter has to be looking at three game films of seeing Drew Brees playing Minnesota and smiling knowing he has an excellent chance of carving up the Gophers like Brees did.


Minnesota Special Teams:


Jason Giannini is back and would be a nice role model for our own Chris Summers to follow. Two years ago as a freshman Giannini struggled, but had a good day against us in the Metrodome, just like Summers last year against Minnesota when he made two medium-to-long field goals. Last season Giannini was much more consistent, but doesn't have much distance, and that is what we want out of Summers, who already has the distance. Justin Kucek is also a junior who handled punting duties last year, averaging about 40 yards per punt.


The big danger to watch is cornerback Dominic Jones as a returner. He's is the top cornerback and also a dynamic kick and punt returner. He is more than able to break off a big one and change momentum in a hurry.


Intangibles:


Two years ago we had a ton of experience with lofty expectations heading in Minneapolis and completely collapsed defensively. Any number of times we could have clinched the game with just one defensive play on either the final drive or in overtime, but it's like we quit after Dan Bick's interception return for a TD put us up 28-20 with a little over five minutes left. It was a lot like last year's Hawaii game, honestly.


Again we have a ton of experience back, but not nearly the expectations of two years ago. This is probably because we would normally have high expectations, but have proven time and again we can't live up to them, so people are wary of us and won't make the same mistake again. Minnesota will have the home crowd and if they're behind the team it can be an intimidating place to play.


This year's Gopher team is a little different than two years ago though because of the inexperience at quarterback and the new coaching staff. No one really knows what to expect from them, as evidenced by the wild oscillation of their expectations. Even though they will likely be 3-0 coming in, that 3-0 won't have proven as much as our potential 3-0.


Game Outlook:


Again, our defense is the real question mark here. We're facing an offense that has the potential to move the ball, but may struggle because of the quarterback position. It's a test because I know Minnesota will runt he football, you know Minnesota will run the football, and hell, dogs know Minnesota will run the football. We know exactly what is coming and it will be up to us to stop it. Also, it is very hard to rely on an inexperienced quarterback in the Big Ten, or anywhere else for that matter in college football.


If our defense is gelling well by this point, and we should know how well it is gelling after the Toledo and Central Michigan tests, I see us having a relatively easy time. Minnesota couldn't stop anyone last year and I can see our experienced offense running roughshod all day against a team that struggled with even understanding the concept of the forward pass last year.


The two big keys will be keeping Painter on his feet and not giving the ball away on turnovers. If there are any kind of injury concerns with Minnesota's top offensive guys they will have a rough day.


I like that we will already have a road game and a night kickoff before this game. It is just one more way that the Toledo game, if we win it, will be a nice stepping stone for us.


Prediction:


Almost every game in the past 15 years in the Metrodome between these two has been a wild affair. We can't forget that our last two visits also ended in overtime. I know the miracle in 2001 is still fresh in my mind. I can see Minnesota keeping this close, but I honestly agree with GBI's assessment more than CFN's. We're the better team, and we should win. Purdue 38, Minnesota 24

Friday, July 06, 2007

Know thy Opponent 2007: Central Michigan Chippewas

Okay, I’ll admit it. It’s a really, really slow day at the ol’ temp job, but until this blog starts paying high dividends it needs to be there. At least there is the time to do some writing and think about college football appearing on the horizon.

Up next in this 12-part preview is what I view as our most dangerous non-conference opponent in 2007. I know this will cause an uproar with any Notre Dame fan that comes across this site, but I qualify this game with a caveat. Pretend you’re Purdue and you have two opponents sitting on your schedule, but you don’t know their names. Both teams won 10 games last season. Both teams lost to Michigan by more than 24 points last year in successive weeks. Both teams also feature offensive-minded coaches who like to spread the ball around.

Team A won its conference championship and is favored to do so again this season. They return seven starters on offense, seven on defense, and the bulk of those returning offensive starters are key playmakers. Team B is coming off of two straight BCS bowl appearances where it got trounced each time despite having a high caliber offense. Nearly everyone who even touched the ball offensively the past two years needs to be replaced, and Team B has a defense that barely slowed anyone down and hasn’t seen vast improvement. Team A is expected to be better this year, while Team B is expected to be significantly worse.

Team A is starting a sophomore at QB that blew up last year and is expected to be even better this season, while team B has yet to settle on a starting quarterback, and may go with a true freshman with an injured elbow.

One final factor comes from Team A getting it’s best shot to make some national noise by facing us, while Team B will view us as their fifth toughest opponent at best. On the other hand, we will be much more focused on Team B than we likely will be against Team A.
Which team do you think is more dangerous?

Team B, is of course, Notre Dame, while team A is none other than our third opponent on the season, the Central Michigan Chippewas.

Last Season for the Chippewas:

2006 was a banner year for the Chips as they went to their first bowl game in 12 years and won 10 games for the first time since 1979. Central Michigan started last year at 0-2 after losing a very close 31-24 game at home to Boston College, then dropping a road contest at Michigan 41-17. In the Boston College game the Chips had a chance to tie late deep in their Eagle territory but an interception in the final two minutes sealed the deal. CMU later dropped games to Kentucky (45-36) and Northern Illinois (31-10), losing all four games to bowl-bound teams. Central’s only wins over a bowl teams before its bowl game came against Western Michigan by a 31-7 count, and against Ohio in the MAC chacmpionship 31-10. They may have only played in the MAC, but six bowl-bound opponents for a MAC squad isn’t bad.

The Chippewas capped last season with a 31-14 win over Middle Tennessee State in the Motor City Bowl. This was the program’s first bowl game win ever, and it gave the Chips a 3-4 overall record against bowl teams in 2006. Historically the Chippewas have been up and down. They won a Division II National championship in 1974, but have only been to three total bowl games. They now appear to be in an upswing, and are projected to repeat as champions of the MAC. We should be able to get a good feel for how we’ll perform against them as they play Toledo the week before coming to West Lafayette and the week after we face the Rockets.

This is a much, much different team than we faced in the only two previous meetings. In 1999 we torched the Chips 58-16 and blanked them 48-0 a year later in the rematch. We also should get used to seeing them as they will be returning to Ross-Ade Stadium in 2008.

Central Michigan Offense:

This is why this is a very dangerous team we cannot afford to overlook. It all begins with quarterback Dan LeFevour. He took over in the first game last year thanks to an early injury to Brian Brunner and made the offense the best the MAC had to offer. Brunner returns as a backup, but LeFevour is only a sophomore and has all the makings of being the next great MAC QB. LeFevour threw for 3,031 yards and 26 TD’s last year while showing his mobility by running for 521 yards and seven more scores. Not only was the offense good, but it was efficient as well. They expect him to throw a bit more, as he has a solid stable of backs behind him to take the running load. Still, he knows what to do when he takes off with the ball.

Ontario Sneed and Notre Dame transfer Justin Hoskins figure to be the top two running backs, and Marcel Archer also figures to be in the mix after seven TD’s last year. Sneed is the number one guy for now, having rushed for 1,829 yards in two years and 12 scores. He’s also a threat as a receiver out of the backfield, with 848 yards and 10 more TD’s. Hoskins is expected to push Sneed for playing time, and Archer will get his share of carries as well. All three backs are very quick, which means our defensive front needs to be on its game or we will get run out of our own stadium.

It doesn’t look any better when you look at the receiving corps. Bryan Anderson is a solid #1 guy with 4.5 40 speed who had 867 receiving yards as a redshirt freshman last year. Last season he was also a first-team All-MAC performer. He is backed up by a stable of guys that is not long on experience, but has plenty of talent.

Central Michigan loves to run a spread offense and will spread the ball around between six or seven guys all day. Overall all their offense will look quite a bit like our own as they also return three lineman, but will have to replace their left tackle as Joe Staley went to the NFL as a first round pick. Drew Mormino was also an All-MAC performer who is now in the Miami Dolphins camp.

Overall this offense has the potential to blow us up if our defense hasn’t taken a big step forward from last season. We cannot afford to get in a shootout with these guys, as the longer they hang around the more confidence they will get on the road. It will be up to our front seven to keep the running game in check, make sure LeFevour doesn’t take off for big gains, and the secondary to hold on against a major test. Our three linebackers are in for a long day as this team can pass and run well.

Central Michigan Defense:

Seven starters return, but this wasn’t a very impressive group last season. In all four losses the Chippewas gave up at least 31 points. The strength of Central Michigan is clearly its offense, and they expect the defense to perform just well enough so the offense can get back on the field and score more points.

Up front the line will look to replace defensive ends Dan Bazuin (2nd round draft pick) and Mike Ogle who both played very well last season, but are gone to graduation. Expect a lot of rotation between four different guys at the end positions, and the defensive tackles to be solid. This is a group that may not generate a lot of pressure, but they won’t break like a snotty kleenax against the run.

The linebackers look to be an underrated group led by Red Keith and Ike Brown. Brown has only one game at outside linebacker because of a knee injury, but he had 12 tackles in a game and a half before being hurt. Keith notched 127 tackles last season to lead the team. They are a very physical group that swarms to the ball, but they don’t pass rush much.

In the secondary three starters return, but they didn’t do much last year when there was a better pass rush. Because of that they aren’t expected to do a whole lot this year either with less of a rush. They didn’t have many interceptions as a unit, and really got torched early on last year. Mediocre is the best way to describe them.

Overall the defense doesn’t sound like much and it will be important for our offense to get rolling at home in what looks to be our final tune-up before the schedule begins to turn. We should be able to mix it up and move the ball well here, and I feel this will be much like the Toledo game in that we will need to control the clock and keep their offense off the field while wearing down their defense. Painter should have all day to throw against a weak pass rush, and as long as he doesn’t throw it into the other team’s hands we should be fine.

Central Michigan Special Teams:

Brett Hartmann is the new kicker, but he is an untested commodity with a big leg. The punting game is very solid after averaging 42 yards per punt last year and 20 punts inside the 20. A big advantage we have is that we were one of the top kickoff coverage teams last year and Central Michigan was horrible at returning kicks. They barely averaged more than five yards per punt return and 18 yards per kick return. With Jared Armstrong as a weapon we can win the field position game and help out our defense immensely.

Their coverage unit wasn’t that great last year either, so it could mean a big return or two from Sheets and Bryant. Anything we can get out of the punt return game will be a plus.

Intangibles:

Central Michigan is breaking in a new coach after Brian Kelly left to take over at Cincinnati this season. Butch Jones is the new coach and has been the architect of the powerful West Virginia offense the last two years. He’ll have games against Kansas and Toledo to get his feet wet before this one, but has a strong enough offense to bring the Chippewas into West Lafayette at 2-0.

While much of the offense is young, it is very experienced after last year and will only get better as the season progresses. They also played in Michigan Stadium last year against the Wolverines and made a game of it for a half before Michigan took over. Since this game has already been announced to be on national TV via ESPN2, the Chips will look to make some noise on a rare national stage. It is the experience this club has that makes them so dangerous. If they open the season with a win at Kansas and a home win against Toledo we had better give them our full attention.

Game Outlook:

This may be the first real test our defense will get. Toledo has the talent to test us in game one, but they have not backed it up with consistent results yet. Eastern Illinois simply shouldn’t be a problem. Central Michigan has produced results on the field and we need to be concerned because of it. We should be coming off of a walkover win against Eastern Illinois, so the defense will likely get some rest by not playing the entire game. They will need it for this game.

Our offense should be able to move the ball against the Chips a bit easier than against Toledo, and it will be important for them to dictate the tempo and control the clock. Our offense isn’t built for that though this game could degenerate into a shootout much like last season’s Miami game. If there are two games that simply scream that we should allow our offense to move the ball and keep the other offense off the field they are this one and Toledo. Will we do so is another question.

The key to this game is not letting them hang around. If we getup early on them and build a big lead we should be able to maintain it. If we let them hang around we will be in trouble. This could be a lot like the Bowling Green game in 2003, where we didn’t put them away until they hung around long enough to beat us. In that game we were the better team, but just let them hang around and hang around until they finally said, “Okay, since you’re going to let us stay close we’re winning this game.”

If the defense is playing significantly better than last year, especially the front seven, we will win. If this game becomes a shootout we’ll be in trouble. It should be a good test and not your typical MAC blowout.

Prediction:

I’d feel better picking this game if I had seen us play a game already, but I haven’t yet. Central Michigan honestly scares the bejesus out of me, and I don’t even know what a bejesus is.
If it opened the season I’d feel even more nervous, but this is game three and we’ll have clamed down just enough to handle things well. Purdue 28, Central Michigan 24

Monday, July 02, 2007

Know thy Opponent 2007: Eastern Illinois Panthers


So I lied and it’s not a weekly feature. It’s more of a, “I got bored at work in my new temp job and decided to write more.” It’s good for content and traffic purposes anyway.

So here we are looking at week two, and for the first time since 2001 Purdue will begin its season on the road, meaning the return to Ross-Ade Stadium of football will not be our first look at the Boilermakers. While this season’s opener, previewed last week in this space, will be an interesting test, the home opener should face about as much doubt as last season’s home opener against Indiana State. The reason? We’re facing yet another 1-AA sacrificial lamb that is coming to West Lafayette for a paycheck.

As we know, last season things did not quite go as planned against the mighty Sycamores. Even though Indiana State came in on a very long losing streak and statistically as the worst team in Division 1-AA, the Trees managed to hold their own and only trailed by five points with about five minutes left in the third quarter. We were one disastrous turnover away from falling behind to a team that honestly had little business being on the same field as us. I’ll give the Sycamores credit, they played about as well as they could, took full advantage of every mistake with the two botched punts, and made our bad defense look even worse by scoring 35 points.
Still, they gave up 60 points. The offense had little trouble moving the ball all day long and performed about as well as expected.

This year’s 1-AA home opener Eastern Illinois isn’t nearly the pushover that Indiana State was, but they shouldn’t provide much of a test. Last season was a banner year for Division 1-AA as Colorado, Northwestern, and Indiana all fell victim at home to teams from the lower division, but in two of those three games the larger school was playing one of the better 1-AA teams.
Southern Illinois inexplicably knocked off IU in a game the Hoosiers would later regret deeply as it prevented them from going to Detroit for the Motor City Bowl. The Salukis then qualified for the 16-team 1-AA playoffs and even won a game. New Hampshire was one of the top teams in 1-AA last year and Northwestern was struggling to find its way when the Wildcats got ambushed in Evanston. New Hampshire’s Wildcats also qualified for the 1-AA playoffs and also won a game there. Only Montana State, which beat Colorado, did not make the post-season among those three teams.

One of those teams that made the 1-AA post-season is the same Eastern Illinois Panther squad that will visit Ross-Ade Stadium on September 8th.

Last season for the Panthers:

We face a schedule that features seven teams that went to bowls last year, and Eastern Illinois could almost be considered an eighth. Eastern Illinois finished the regular season at 8-4 last year and lost a first round playoff game to Illinois State 24-13. Surprisingly enough, Purdue and Eastern Illinois had three common opponents last season despite being in different divisions. Both teams visited Champaign to face the Fighting Illini. We won a cold, turnover-filled game 42-31 while they were blasted for one of the Illini’s two wins 42-17. Both teams went to Hawaii for a loss, with Eastern Illinois’ coming at a 44-9 count. Both teams also hosted Indiana State, as the Sycamores followed up their visit to West Lafayette with a 31-21 loss the very next week in Charleston, Illinois.

Though they finished 8-5 overall, Eastern Illinois played a tough schedule. They also had a regular season loss 44-30 to Illinois State to go with the playoff loss, and they lost 15-9 to a Tennessee-Martin team that also made the 1-AA playoffs. The Panthers shared the Ohio Valley Conference crown with Tennessee-Martin, making them the third conference champion (along with Ohio State and Central Michigan) on our schedule this year.

Still, when playing 1-A competition, even the likes of Illinois who was one of the worst teams in Division 1-A last year, they managed only 26 points while giving up 86. Eastern Illinois also went to the playoffs in 2005, 2002, 2001, and 2000 recently, but has not won a playoff game since 1989. They were the Division II National champs in 1978

Eastern Illinois Offense:

The Panthers used to have Tony Romo! That’s good to know in case this game comes down to a winning field goal and the Eastern Illinois holder botches the snap to preserve the win for us. Seriously though, according to the Eastern Illinois football spring prospectus they run a multiple pro-set offense with only five returning starters. This isn’t a good sign, as I don’t they reload in quite the way the Michigan’s and Ohio State’s of the world reload with NFL caliber talent.

They will have a game under their belt already when they travel to West Lafayette, opening against Tennessee Tech at home on August 30th. They will also be in somewhat familiar territory as the real reason for this game has come out. Head coach Bob Spoo used to quarterback the Boilermakers and had an 11-5 record as the starter after Len Dawson in 1957 and 1958. Spoo is also our former quarterbacks coach, and is returning as head coach after missing last season due to medical reasons.

The Panthers return quarterback Cole Stinson and wide receiver Micah Rucker as playmakers from last season. Rucker was a third team 1-AA All-American with 966 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns. Two key starters on the offensive line also return. Norris Smith also returns at running back. Smith rushed for 656 yards and 6 TD’s last year in a reserve role, and is listed at 5’9” 220lbs. The Panthers lost one of the top backs in Division 1-AA as Vincent Webb 1,405 rushing across the graduation stage with him.

Rucker appears to be the only serious offensive weapon back, and with any improvement by our defense whatsoever we should be able to dominate a young, undersized unit. It will take a special effort by the entire Panther offensive unit to keep up with us.

Eastern Illinois Defense:

On paper it looks like the defense will be the strength of the team early on. Seven starters return from a unit that did fairly well against most 1-AA competition, but got torched against the upper division. Middle Linbacker Donald Thomas lead the group as the Ohio Valley Conference Defender of the Year with 127 tackles. As a unit, EIU were third in the country in turnovers forced last season. The Panthers took the ball away 36 times in 13 games last year, averaging nearly three takeaways per game, finishing just one turnover behind Boston College and Nevada.

The Panthers have an ‘attack the ball’ philosophy on defense, but lost all four defensive backs from last season. That screams one word to me: MISMATCH. This new unit will have to learn on the fly against what will likely be one of the best offenses in all of college football when they face us. As we learned last season, you cannot play as a one man defense for long, and their one man isn’t nearly the caliber that Anthony Spencer was. Look for us to be able to move the ball fairly at will, but expect a turnover or two from a team that specializes in taking the ball away.

Eastern Illinois Special Teams:

Zach Yates is a one man show for the Panthers, doing the kicking and the punting. He hit on 75% of his field goals last season at a 12 of 16 clip, while averaging 36 yards per punt. He also hit on 33 of 38 PAT’s and had a long of 47 yards on a field goal. Their return game is nothing special as Quentin Ponius averaged little more than 20 yards per kickoff return and Adam Kesler averaged only 4.1 yards per punt return.

Intangibles:

Well, the Panthers are expected to contend for their third straight conference title and be a top 15 team in Division 1-AA. That did little for them last season as similar expectations produced blowout losses at Illinois and Hawaii when they stepped up in weight class. Simply put, we’re the deeper, more talented team and should have little trouble in this one.

There is also the factor of this game likely being the biggest stage Eastern Illinois will play on all season. Look for some guys to blow up in their best chance to impress some pro scouts.

Hopefully Bob Spoo will enjoy his return to Ross-Ade Stadium though. It’s always nice to see a Boilermaker come home.

Game Outlook:

This is probably our only lead-pipe lock victory of 2007. I am a firm advocate of there being no reason whatsoever for a 1-A program losing to a 1-AA team ever. Colorado was a horrible team last year and Northwestern was horrible at the time of playing New Hampshire. Only IU’s loss to Southern Illinois was a real surprise, and even then they had the distraction of Hep being gone. We won’t be as bad as any of those teams this season, and I don’t expect anything to distract us majorly from this game. Simply put, we’ve got a lot to worry about as a program if we somehow lose this game.

Unless Tony Romo finds some more illegibility and the rest of the Panthers play absolutely out of their minds we should win in a walk. Eastern Illinois might be able to hang around for a quarter or two, but ultimately our depth and superior talent will prevail. You should expect a game when plenty of second and third string guys will get a look, and barring some mistakes in the punting game like last year against Indiana State we should have our easiest game of the year.

Prediction:

Eastern Illinois will get a score or two with the talented Rucker, possibly another with a takeaway deep in our own territory, and maybe a long field goal, but that’s about it. Our offense will roll early and often. It would be nice to get a 100 yard day from both Sheets and Taylor. Purdue 49, Eastern Illinois 13