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Saturday, October 11, 2008

Halfway home

As Purdue reached the midpoint in its season today I have mixed emotions. They are exactly where I predicted they would be according to my Know thy Opponent previews over the summer. I predicted a 2-4 first half with the only wins coming over Central Michigan and Northern Colorado. It feels like it should be more. I think we honestly felt like we would get better quarterback play to this point. That better play likely have us at 4-2 or maybe 6-0 in a dream world. I will admit that since the defense quit on us, the Notre Dame loss would likely have happened regardless. Painter’s numbers have been way down from the past, but that is far from the only reason we are now 2-4.

What is frustrating is that there have been enough encouraging signs to feel like we can be so much better. After quitting against Notre Dame’s poor running attack, our defense held one of the best running backs in the country below 100 yards today. Had they played like they did against Notre Dame, Wells would have had 300 yards and 4 TD’s today easily. It seems like once we fix one thing, something else goes wrong. Against Notre Dame we actually had Curtis Painter become the mad bomber, moving the ball well. That should have been enough for a win, but the defense simply quit in the second half for no reason whatsoever.

Today’s game was surprisingly winnable. The defense played the type of game we have needed in order to beat a ranked foe. They really did last week too. To me, if we’re such an offensive-oriented team, we should win every game in which our defense holds a team to 20 points or fewer. That’s a reasonable expectation for the types of offenses we have had. Instead, we have scored 9 points with allegedly one of the best senior quarterbacks in the nation that past two weeks. Six of those points came with him getting splinters in his butt on the bench.

So where do we go from here? There was enough effort and passion on defense to see today that a bowl game is still salvageable this season. In fact, of all six remaining games there is not one I can point to as a guaranteed loss. The game at Michigan State is the closest one to that category. All we need to do is hold serve at home against three teams we should beat (ironically with Minnesota as the toughest) and steal one on the road. At this point any bowl game would be a win for the season, even Detroit again. It would also allow Tiller and Painter, whose legends are certainly tarnished, to save at least a little face at the end of their careers.

Positives from the Ohio State game:

The Defense – If these guys can replicate this effort the rest of the year it will pay dividends. 222 yards is what we normally give up in a half. Even in giving up just 20 points last week we surrendered well over 400 yards. Today we allowed next to nothing in the passing game and held two very good running players in check. It’s a shame the offense decided not to show up and we handed them seven points on the blocked punt. If you take that away, give Purdue a field goal attempt after the Painter fumble, and give Wiggs a make at the end of the first half we’re in a position to win a 9-9 game at the end. I know that’s a lot of ifs, but for once those ifs don’t fault our defense one bit.

The defense gave us a chance to win. Even six of the nine points it did give up were the result of a short field after turnovers. It was actually the best effort of the season and one of the best in years. Their performance today gives me at least a little hope for the rest of the season. All we can ask is that they give us a chance to win, and they did that today. At this point I will take what I can get.

Carson Wiggs – I have long been a supporter of Chris Summers even in his struggles, but it is clear that Wiggs is something special. Just imagine what he can do if we ever give him an attempt closer than 50 yards. I think it also helped Summers with his punting a little. If having two specialists helps this team the rest of the year I am all for it. In Wiggs, the kid only broke the school record for longest field goal ever.

Kory Sheets – For the second week in a row Kory gained some tough yards when we needed them. I know 59 and 67 yards in consecutive games isn’t much, but we must consider our history. These were the two best defenses we will face all year. They are the types of defenses that we normally struggle to get anything on the ground and completely abandon the running game against. In previous years, Kory might have had 40 yards in the last two games combined. Things get easier from here on out, and I expect Kory to thrive.

Sheets even had the best quote after the game. "The game evolves every day and our offense has to evolve and change with it before we get left behind in the dust and don't win any more games," he said. Well said, Mr. Sheets. Well said. This is yet another area where we show flashes of imagination once or twice per game, but almost seem afraid to do anything else.

Negatives from the Ohio State game:

Curtis Painter – I have tried to give Curtis the benefit of the doubt in this forum before. He has put up very good numbers, but it seems as if he hasn’t improved one bit. When I did the Best Wins of the Tiller Era series this summer I mentioned how Drew Brees had a certain air about him on the field. When he stepped out there you felt we had a chance in every single game even if he struggled. Kyle Orton, and even Brandon Kirsch had that to some extent, but not as much as Brees. With Painter, I have never felt that.

Curtis is a good kid. I can tell he is struggling this year to make throws that he has made in the past. I don’t know if the pressure of preseason expectations has gotten to him or what, but at this point we have little reason to hope he can give us that extra edge when it is specifically needed form his position. By that I mean when all things are equal and all other positions are playing equal, we get a boost because of who he is. For us to win right now we need Painter to simply be painter and get something exceptional elsewhere. He has never been that exceptional except in last year’s Motor City Bowl.

Fortunately for him we don’t have another overwhelming opponent left on the schedule. Northwestern is good, but it is hardly intimidating as a road venue. Minnesota officially scares me now, but it is a game we can win at home. With the way Michigan’s offense is playing right now, we need about a C- game from Curtis to beat the Wolverines at home. Michigan State will be tough, but I know we are capable of beating Iowa and Indiana is back to being Indiana. It is my hope that Curtis can pull it together against the subpar and get us to the postseason. I would still give Joey Elliott a long look if he struggles at all next week.

Punt protection – I probably put way too much on Curtis above, especially when such a mundane type of play made such a huge difference. Ohio State’s Malcolm Jenkins even admitted they don’t rush the punter very often, yet we handed them 7 points. I’m not sure if Summers hesitated slightly when he rotated the ball to kick, but it shouldn’t have mattered. This is another case of one minor mistake making a huge difference. Without that mistake we’re down 9-3 with a chance to win it with a touchdown at the end.

Final thoughts:

I ended the above section early because there really weren’t a lot of glaring negatives. Whenever the offense struggles the bulk of the blame will be placed on the quarterback. Despite the lack of negatives, there weren’t a huge amount of positives outside of the defense. Ohio State admittedly did not play its best game. Good teams know how to win when that happens though.

When I did the Big Ten preview yesterday I mentioned how I felt we would need an effort not seen yet in order to win. We got that, but it still wasn’t enough. Maybe I am overly optimistic in thinking we can still salvage something out of this season when the other four loss teams in the conference are declaring it over, but isn’t it my job as fan to think that way until something salvageable isn’t mathematically possible? I was that way in 2005 until late in the fourth quarter of loss #6 (at Penn State), so I will be there year until loss #7 is unavoidable.

The Northwestern game is huge now. A win in Evanston, a place that I know we can win at, would seriously turn things around. Say what you will about Tiller, but the only time we have ever had a four game or longer losing streak under him is the disastrous 2005 season. Winning in Evanston Saturday would avoid that and set the stage for a bowl game if we can just win our remaining home games.

Of course, in that scenario of a minimum six wins we need some help from the rest of the conference. Without a second BCS bid, we would need four teams with at least seven losses to assure a postseason bid. Michigan and Indiana appear to be well on their way to fulfilling two of those slots, and we control our in being able to help them get there. Iowa is another likely candidate, but not a guarantee after today. That leaves Illinois and surprisingly Wisconsin there after the finish getting rocked at home tonight. Both should still get bowl eligible, possibly still leaving us out in the cold. With that in mind, here are the things that need to happen in order for us to make a bowl game.

First, the Big Ten needs two BCS-worthy teams to move the open bowl bids from 7 to 8. Our best bet is Penn State continuing to crack skulls open and for Ohio State to sneak into one at 10-2 (with a loss to Penn State). Both finishing 11-1 would probably work too.

Second, we have to win four more games to get to at least 6-6. Based on the way things look now, we absolutely nave to beat Indiana and Michigan at home. We need to hold serve at home against Minnesota for homecoming. Our best bet for a road win is Iowa, then Northwestern. I believe we can get both, and to be safer we had better get both. Michigan State is a pipe dream, but a last shot at a ranked team for now. That will be my Big Ten road trip this year unless I decide to go to Northwestern at the last moment.

Third, we need three other Big Ten teams to reach the 7 loss plateau. Indiana and Michigan are well on their way. Iowa appears to be the most likely to be a third with an angry Wisconsin, at Illinois, and Penn State the next three games. That would mean the Purdue-Iowa game could be a lot like the 2002 Purdue-Michigan State game in terms of it being a bowl elimination game. Illinois has to feel like it is in some danger now too, but we don’t have say in that like we do with Iowa.

I feel like Jimmy V. when I say this, especially after I declared the season over after losing to another piss-poor Notre Dame team two weeks ago, but we can’t give up. Don’t ever give up.

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