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Thursday, July 31, 2008

Boilermakings for 8/1

Things are starting to get interesting as I can now officially say the season begins next month. I’m starting to get more and more antsy as I wait for my tickets to come in the mail. Since there is always the chance I’ll be moving to Florida, I never know if this will be my last season viewing the Boilers from section 128. In a related note to that, I recently found out I will be viewing the first two home games from the Shively Stadium Club, so if anyone is interested in my seats feel free to e-mail me and maybe we can work a deal.

I think I kind of spoiled things earlier this week by letting a few things out early for Boilermakings, but there are still plenty of notes to touch on.

The best Purdue story of the year

This story has nothing to with the resurgence of the basketball program, or the upcoming football season. This past May tight end Kyle Adams, did something very productive with his down time after classes ended. Instead of heading out on vacation, he took a trip to Haiti as part of a mission through the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. While there, he took part in building a house for a very poor single mother of four children.

Everday Should be Saturday has a running feature called the Fulmer Cup, which keeps track of offseason brushes with the law for Division 1-A college football players. Purdue has been part of it this summer thanks to Torri Williams, but it is unfortunate that there isn’t a similar scoreboard for athletes like Kyle. Purdue is very lucky to have representatives like Kyle Adams.

By the way, if you’re interested in more information about the Double Harvest mission, it can be found here.

Men’s basketball gets ready to head Down Under

It’s not quite Beijing as part of Dream Team V, but the Purdue men’s basketball team is on the mend and is getting ready to head to Australia for their international summer tour. Keaton Grant won’t be heading down under with the team, but he is supposed to still be recovering well from his knee surgery. I found Chris Kramer noticeably absent from this article as well. I do like that a big man like Chris Reid will get some minutes. If he can even give us 5 productive minutes per game in the season it will be a bonus.

I also found the discussion of our non-conference schedule to be quite interesting. It is sure to be much more difficult than the past couple of seasons, but that will only help when it comes to NCAA Tournament seeding. We already know that Duke, Davidson, and the troika of Boston College, Arizona, and Oklahoma are likely to await in the preseason NIT final four. Playing Georgia would make for a difficult road in that tournament, but not impossible. Once the schedule is officially released I am sure I’ll have more to say, as I plan to interject more basketball in with football during the season.

Curtispainter12.com goes live

My friends over at Boiled Sports touched on this earlier this week, but Curtis Painter officially has the first Heisman promotion site up for the coming season. It is good to see the university get behind Curtis like they did with Brees and Orton. They even had a good warm up in the mid-90’s during Mike Alstott’s under the radar Heisman campaign. I must say I agree with Boilerdowd’s assessment of the site. It could certainly use some work.

As far as my thought on Curtis wining the Heisman, they are as follows. We will need to win a minimum of 10 games and compete for a Big Ten championship for him to wint he thing. I am confident he will have a good year. I am even confident he can have a great year as the receivers grow with him. My wide receivers preview will go live on Monday, but in it I think we have enough pieces to keep the offense moving. What is in common with nearly every Heisman winner is that he wins games. If Drew Brees can’t win it over a former baseball player that was greatly older than everyone else on the field and a guy that had one good statistical season for that year’s national champion, the Painter will have a difficult road unless he can at least repeat Drew’s feat of taking Purdue to Pasadena.

Still, it is a light year for quarterbacks. If he has a great year and Purdue reaches 9-10 wins with some upsets along the way you never know.

MGoblog piles onto the preview wagon.

Across the Big Ten blogging feed today came Brian Cook of MGoBlog fame’s preview of Purdue. I can’t blame for his slightly negative view of the Boilers. Like most everyone else in the country knows, we haven’t exactly set the world afire lately. Sure we “changed the Big Ten” by bringing the forward pass to in 1997, but since then we have fallen back to the level of, “not bad, but not great either.” Beginning in 2005 the national pundits predicted greatness, but we have far from lived up tot hose expectations. As a result, people are tired of waiting for us.

Brian seems to think eight wins is the ceiling for the year. I am somewhat more optimistic in thinking 10 is possible if everything goes perfectly. I do agree that things could go badly in a hurry. He also seems to think 2009 will be awful, but I don’t want to think about that yet.

In reality, it is a very good, in depth preview. That’s probably why Brian gets to do this for a living and I have to scramble to find time to do this site. I hope we prove him wrong, like so many others.

Off the Tracks goes national, world domination next

This final part of the entry is tooting my own horn a bit, but as a former trombone player I am used to that. This week has been very good to me, as I have been published not once, but twice nationally.

The first was something that has been in the works for awhile. I merely needed to wait for the pages of the calendar to turn. I received in the mail my complimentary copy of Light From the Word, a Christian daily devotional published by Wesley Bible Resources. Featured in it is none other than yours truly.This handy devotional is found in churches all over the country, if not the world. The small section I wrote is the daily reading from Monday, September 15th to Sunday, September 21st. There's also an incredibly brief bio in the back. The other writers have been doing this for awhile, and they're pretty good, so I hope my first effort draws a fair comparison. Feel free to pick up a copy anywhere or read it online at http://www.wesleybible.com/.

The second was more of a surprise, as College Football News picked up my Game Day Guide to West Lafayette article. This is something I became interested in earlier this year, but it the first time I have submitted an article tot heir new blogging feature. The bulk of my content will still be appearing here, but I will likely select and article from time to time to publish over there as well in order to draw more traffic to this site. This is mostly done because building a successful blog isn’t done without becoming a whore to self-promotion.

I do want to take this time, once again, to thank all my readers. When I started this site almost two years ago I had no idea it would become even as large as it is today. Now even more growth appears to be on the horizon, and this has become something I am very proud of. I wouldn’t be here without you guys, so thanks for stopping by. I’ll keep writing if you keep reading.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Know thy Team 2008: Running Backs

Much like having a senior quarterback, Purdue has had most of its success under coach Tiller when it has had multiple options in the backfield. Tiller’s 1997 had a dynamic duo of Edwin Watson and Kendall Matthews (thanks for the correction). 1998 had J. Crabtree and my former high school classmate Dondre Johnson (whose career was unfortunately cut way too short due to injury. He could have been fantastic). The Rose Bowl team had Montrell Lowe nearly rush for 1,000 yards (in the Indiana game alone) and Steve Ennis as the short yardage specialist. Brandon Jones and Jerod Void had lots of success for three years together, giving way to our current duo of Kory Sheets and Jaycen Taylor.

The running game has always been a bit of an afterthought at Purdue because of how much we pass, but it’s not completely non-existent like it is in places like Texas Tech and Hawaii. It still means a lot to our success. Generally, if Purdue can rush for 100 yards as a team it has a good shot at winning. If we get to 200, we usually have to beat ourselves in order to lose. The group of ballcarriers we have this year is good enough to give us at least 150 yards per game, and if they do we will have an excellent shot each time.

The Co-starters:
Kory Sheets, Sr. (5)
Jaycen Taylor, Sr. (5)


Taylor is currently listed as the starter, but I am considering them to be co-starters because they will likely split the carries evenly. Both have been around the program forever and have put up some quality numbers. In terms of career records, Sheets has found the end zone 37 times and is poised to break Mike Alstott’s career touchdown record with just six more scores. Considering he has gotten into the end zone at least 10 times in each of his first three seasons (the first of which he was fighting for playing time with Void and Jones) I think the record is as good as his.

Sheets was considered a big-time recruit when he came to West Lafayette, but one could only consider his career a slight disappointment for two reasons. The first of which is the emergence of Taylor. Jaycen has played so well the past two seasons that he has earned the playing time he has gotten. Those carries had to come from somewhere, and they came from Sheets after it appeared he was going to be “the Man” beginning in 2006. The second reason is Kory’s fault, and that is fumbles. It is somewhat ironic that Sheets’ first score of what will shortly be his record breaking tally came off of a loose ball in his first game (a blocked punt he recovered for a TD), because he has had issues with putting the ball on the turf ever since.

Sheets has made it a point to improve on this in the past, but results have been varied. He wants 1,000 yards this season and has again made it a point to work on fumbles in order to get there. Even if he is successful this time he may struggle to get there because Taylor will play a lot. I do hope Kory can avoid the drops enough to get the touchdowns record, however. I saw what happened to Lowe in 2002 when fumbles prematurely sent him to the bench as a senior and ended his career on a major down note. For his career he has rushed for 2,210 yards and 32 touchdowns on the ground. The school record of 3,635 yards by Alstott is probably out of reach (Sheets would be close to the single season record of 1,436 if he did it), but the 39 rushing touchdown record isn’t.

Sheets is also a bit more of a pass catcher out of the backfield with 71 catches, 561 yards receiving and four scores in his career. He is actually had the second most receptions of returning players with 30 catches for 216 yards and two scores. He has also been a big play threat with a big TD run against Michigan State last year, a long catch and run for a score in that game, and a career-long 88 yard run at Minnesota in 2005.

Taylor has the speed to be a big play threat as well. He’s slightly smaller than Sheets, therefore making Kory the more likely goal line back. He rarely if ever loses yards on a carry though. His first year at Purdue in 2006 saw Taylor not have a carry for negative yardage until the bowl game against Maryland. Last season he lost just 16 yards total and ran for 560 and four TD’s in nine games. His recovery from a broken arm against Central Michigan (the first game) was amazing, as he missed just four games. With both guys healthy Purdue’s offense is truly a dual threat offense. I think a reasonable goal is to have the pair combine for 1,600 yards and 15 scores this year. While many teams we face will have one featured back we can wear down we have two that can keep each other fresh. I like that.

Taylor came in as a lightly regard JuCo transfer from LA Harbor College two years ago expecting to compete for Sheets’ backup spot with Dario Camacho. Since then, he has rushed for 1,237 yards and eight touchdowns. He has also caught 37 passes for 326 yards and a score in his Purdue career. Taylor’s toughness despite his size is one of his most admirable traits. He very rarely loses yards. He plays when banged up, and does the little things. He’s a pretty good blocker, and even blocked a punt at Indiana last year.

What’s this fullback you speak of?
Frank Halliburton, Jr.
Jared Crank, Fr. (RS)


The broken record refrain for the past few offseasons is that Purdue is going to use more two-back sets with a lead blocker. It has yet to happen. We have used a fullback so little that I am starting to have nightmares when we do use it. In the 2006 game at Hawaii the Boilers took over at their own 10 and went on a length of the field march that saw us overcome a pair of 10 yard penalties to reach the two yard line. After 108 yards of offense we lined up in the I-formation, only to pitch the ball off the fullback’s thigh. Hawaii recovered the fumble, and we got nothing for one of the best drives we have ever had.

Because of disasters like that, it often seems like we go away from using a fullback for games a time. Tiller wants to use more of the fullback again, however, and Halliburton looks to figure into those plans. Halliburton had 11 carries for 26 yards and even got a touchdown at Michigan last year. He’s big at 6’3” 251, so if we want to use him we can. Crank was recruited solely as a fullback and redshirted last year. At the very least these two will probably get some carries late in the Northern Colorado game when we’re up by about 5 scores.

Crank was recruited exclusively as a fullback, and spent last season as a redshirt. Crank had 18 touchdowns in his senior season at American Heritage High in Richardson, Texas. He also played linebacker, meaning a move could be in his future eventually if a need is seen on the other side of the ball.

Top Backup:
Dan Dierking, So.

Dierking is the son of Purdue legend Scott Dierking and impressed many, including me, by winning the #3 job as a true freshman last year. The first time he touched the ball in the opener against Toledo he stumbled 30 yards for a touchdown against a demoralized Rocket defense. Most of his yards and both scores came against Toledo and Eastern Illinois in blowouts, but he did finish with 181 yards on the season. He even started at Michigan when Taylor was hurt and played extensively after Sheets was benched following a fumble. I honestly thought it would take a redshirt year before he saw the field, but the former Illinois Gatorade player of the year acquitted himself well when we needed him while Taylor was hurt. Because he got to play so much he provides depth in case of injury again, and that will only help in 2009 when he will take on a much larger role. Dierking was also a standout on special teams with 11 tackles.

The future:
Malcolm Harris, Fr. (RS)
Ralph Bolden, Fr.
Albert Evans, Fr.


Harris obviously didn’t play last year as a redshirt, but I have heard good things about his speed and playmaking ability. I expect to see him play in the season opening blowout of Northern Colorado when everyone who will play at least once this season gets some PT. Until then I can’t really say much about him as I don’t know a whole lot. Harris did rush for a school record 4,856 yards at Patterson Catholic High in New Jersey, and was one of the top 20 running backs in the 2006 recruiting class. What we don’t see of him this year we will see in 2009

Bolden and Evans are incoming freshman who have some promise, but battled some injuries in their final year of high school. Bolden in particular had a rough year, as a torn ACL in the state playoffs back home in Georgia limited him. He may play some as a true freshman, but I doubt it with the depth ahead of him. There has also been talk of moving him to the defense. Bolden also played in high school with cornerback David Pender, linebacker DeVarro Greaves, and new wide receiver D.J. Donley. That posse won state championships in Georgia in 2006 and 2007.

Evans had a much better junior year before stepping back as a senior. He stated that nagging injuries and being the focus of opposing defenses limited his output at Portage high in Northwest Indiana. As a junior he had over 1,600 yard rushing, but was limited to around 800 yards last year. He is also a redshirt candidate unless injuries force him into a larger role. By 2010, however, we could be seeing a lot of him, Harris and Bolden in tandem with then-senior Dierking.

Rose Bowl Tickets

Monday, July 28, 2008

Know thy Team 2008: Quarterbacks

Because I got to the Know thy Opponent series done early and I am not ready to make all my Big Ten picks, it means another new series for the month of August (and obviously late July). As we begin the walk-up to the season I plan on going through current roster area by area as a more in depth preview for visiting fans that stop by. I have had several other blogs contact me about deeper Purdue previews, so it is my hope that this will provide other fans who might stop by a deeper glance at the Boilers. As we go through this I am sure I’ll have several links to other blogs as I answer some questions for them as payback for all the hard work they did for me. I’ll likely be speaking to all 10 blogs that were kind enough to speak to me, so those links will be coming as they are published.

In the mean time, it is back to Purdue we ramp up to the season with the quarterbacks first.

The Starter – Curtis Painter, Sr. (5)

It’s hard to believe it has already been 8 years, but Drew Brees is still the gold standard when it comes to judging quarterbacks at Purdue. Few others, with the exception of Griese and Phipps, left Purdue with such decorated careers. Since Curtis Painter is approaching many of Drew’s career records he is certainly worthy of discussion when it comes to Purdue’s great quarterbacks. Barring injury, Painter will leave West Lafayette with 45 career starts (assuming we qualify for another bowl game), all of them in a row. This has given him a leg up on every other Purdue quarterback in the record book. Brees only started 37 games thanks to playing only sparingly as a freshman and an 11 game schedule. Many people forget that Billy Dicken had Brees as his caddy for a year, and Dicken had a pretty good season in his own right in 1997. He got an extra game against USC as a sophomore, but so did Painter as a sophomore against Hawaii. The extra nine starts will give Painter a boost, but he has played well enough in his career to merit that number of starts.

Lightly regarded out of Vincinnes Lincoln High School, few expected Curtis to be on the verge of breaking Drew’s records. He came in with a number of other quarterback prospects and immediately redshirted as a freshman. We then expected him to sit for two years while Brandon Kirsch took over, but that clearly didn’t work out. He was thrown into the fire early and had some success as an option-oriented quarterback, garnering five starts as a redshirt freshman in 2005. He had modest success in high school, leading the Alices to an 11-2 record and sectional championship as a senior.

The precedent is certainly there for the Boilers to have a successful season because of Painter. Purdue has had its most success under coach Tiller in such circumstances. In 1997 Senior Billy Dicken returned Purdue to the postseason for the first time since 1984 with a record-breaking campaign. He won nine games, including the Alamo Bowl, while breaking some single season Big Ten records and gaining first team all-Big Ten honors. The aforementioned Brees took the Boilers to Pasadena for just its second time, while Kyle Orton had Purdue thinking both Heisman and National title before The Fumble derailed everything. Had that play not happened it is hard telling how far Purdue would have gone. As it was, Orton did take Purdue to a New Year’s Day bowl the previous season as a junior.

While Painter may be the least heralded of those four guys, he could easily leave Purdue as the best statistically. By the end of the season Painter only needs 410 attempts, 267 completions, 3,030 yards, 37 touchdowns, and 3,591 yards of total offense to surpass Brees in all those categories as Purdue’s (and the Big Ten’s) best. Except for touchdowns, Curtis has easily put up at least those numbers in each of his last two seasons, so one can certainly expect he will do so again. Even in terms of total wins he already has 19, putting him close to Brees total of 24.

The only thing he truly lacks is a signature win over a "name" opponent. Notre Dame from last season is about as close as he can get, and it shouldn’t count because of the struggles the Irish faced. After that, Painter has a steady diet of wins over MAC opponents, 1-AA foes, and the bottom of the Big Ten. He has yet to beat a Big Ten team that finished with a winning record, conference or otherwise. For the 2008 season to be measured as a success this must change. Much of this has not been his fault. The 2005 and 2006 defense couldn’t stop the French Army. Even though Painter acquitted himself well in his first career start at Wisconsin in 2005 it didn’t matter because of the defense. He has had only one shot at Ohio State and Michigan so far, and played poorly in both. He played well at Notre Dame two years ago, but again, the defense did nothing to help him and we had a number of promising drives end without points. In other games we have lost it has often mean a team effort.

Painter did show improvement last season by drastically cutting down his interceptions, but two ugly ones tarnished an otherwise solid performance against Michigan State. Against Penn State we couldn’t finish drives that ended in field goals. Losses to Ohio State, Michigan, and Indiana were more a result of team-wide suck than anything.

Purdue will only go as far as Painter can take us this season, and the question there lies in an inexperienced group of receivers. Painter has demonstrated he can get them the ball, but will they be able to catch it? Purdue has also had success when its quarterbacks have been more mobile. Dicken, Brees, and even Orton as a senior knew when to tuck the ball and run. Painter ran well as a freshman, but hasn’t had much call to do since. Still, he has shown he is capable if necessary. Most people have simply forgotten. I am confident that as long as Painter stays healthy, the Boilers have at least a shot at a good year. Some are even talking about a Heisman season, but it would take a Big Ten championship for that to happen.

The backup – Joey Elliot, Jr.

I will give this to Elliott, he has been patient. Elliott came to Purdue as a guy who hoped to compete for the starting job in 2007 after Kirsch led us to successful campaigns in 2005 and 2006. Since this obviously wasn’t the case and Painter emerged as the Man, Elliott has patiently waited while others around him such as Jeff Panfil and Keith Smith have moved to receiver. The past two seasons have seen Elliott patiently bide his time on the sideline while Painter assaulted the record books. As a result, Purdue is in a situation much like 2004 when Orton was the clear starter, but an experienced backup who knows the system was waiting in the wings.

Elliott doesn’t have nearly the experience that Kirsch did then, but he has seen the field a handful of times with modest success. By far his best effort came last season in Ann Arbor where he led a pair of scoring drives against a disinterested Michigan defense that was already up 48-7. That may not sound like much, but considering how no Purdue quarterback has had nearly any success in Ann Arbor since Bob Griese it has to count for something. He was 12 of 19 in that game for 140 yards and a touchdown.

Elliott is not going to see the field this season in a starter’s role unless Painter gets injured, but if he does go down Elliott has enough experience and has been in the system long enough not to cause total and widespread panic. Elliott was in direct competition with heir apparent Justin Siller throughout the spring and emerged as the clear winner. He has a much more polished throwing motion than Siller, and I feel comfortable if Elliott were forced to start for a season in 2009 like Dicken did in Tiller’s first year of 1997 we can have success. Considering what Dicken did that year, I would almost prefer it. At the very least it will be nice for coach Hope to have a quarterback with some experience.

The future – Justin Siller, Fr. (RS)

Siller spent last season learning the basics, getting used to college football, and gaining strength. Many were ready to dub him the backup for 2008 after coach Tiller mentioned he could see some spot duty due to his athleticism. He didn’t have a great spring, however, and from what I saw in the spring game his throwing motion could certainly use some work. I am perfectly fine with him learning more the next two years before exploding on the scene in 2010 for what Tiller thinks will be a pretty good team. He may play a little this year, but likely only in blowouts like the Northern Colorado game.

Siller is clearly the best runner of the three, and that is why many fans are excited to see him develop. He’s the most athletic quarterback Purdue has had since Eric Hunter, but that isn’t exactly saying much. When he plays, Siller is expected to provide an element much like Kellen Lewis has done at Indiana. We’re a long way from that date, however.

The emergency guys – Chris Bennett, Jr.
Caleb TerBush, Fr.

Bennett has been in the system a few years as a scout team quarterback, so that is likely the most action he will see. My senior year at Purdue I was privileged to get a sideline pass and film the Michigan State game on senior Day for the TV show I was working on. In that game, a senior scout team quarterback by the name of Carl Buergler, who much like Bennett had run the scout team for years, saw the only game action of his career when he was called in to take the final few kneel downs. Seeing his face you could tell it was a thrill for him to finally make the field in even that diminished capacity. Because of who is in front of him, this is likely the only way Bennett will see the field barring an absolute disaster. Still, I hope he gets to see the field at least once in a role similar to Buergler as a reward for his hard work.

TerBush is most likely going to redshirt unless said disaster mentioned above manages to claim Bennett as well. Even then, Desmond Tardy is a former high school quarterback and has a couple of pass attempts with a touchdown, so he would likely be an emergency replacement ahead of both. TerBush is the tallest quarterback at 6’5”, but was a late 2-star recruit out of central Illinois. He will likely stay in the system and learn as much as he can before seeing the field in 2010 at the earliest.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Know thy Opponent takeover 2008: The Hoosier Report

Tonight we close the Know thy Opponent takeover series as John from the Hoosier Report stops by to answer some questions on our rivals to the south. First, a couple of quick hits that probably can’t wait until Boilermakings next week:

  • Purdue’s Mike Duursma is the latest former Boilermaker to book a trip to Beijing in a little more than two weeks. The former Boilermaker baseball player has been named to the Dutch national baseball team that will compete in the Olympics.
  • Big Ten Media Day was a big success for Purdue. The normally mundane event went off without a hitch and it appears the conference is going to give a ton of a respect to Curtis Painter this year. Also, Anthony Heygood thinks the defense will be terrible.

That brings us to John. The Hoosiers are in a unique position to get back to the postseason and begin to establish a better program. John agrees that this is an important year for the program as a whole, so let’s take a look at what he has to say.

Off the Tracks: 2007 was finally the breakthrough that Indiana needed. now with the stadium expansion and everything else, IU football is on the rise. Can the Hoosiers maintain the momentum and become a regular postseason visitor?

The Hoosier Report: Well, that's always the hope. In the era of 85 scholarships, 12 game schedules, and dozens of bowl games, there's no reason that IU or any other BCS conference school shouldn't be able to win at least some of the time. Of course, there are a number of variables. Is Bill Lynch the guy from his middle years at Ball State, or the guy from the rest of his career? Can he recruit with strong programs on all sides--Illinois, Purdue, and Kentucky are all in good shape, not to mention the traditional powers in or adjacent to Indiana? As you note, the stadium expansion should help in several respects. So, I think we're in good shape. But I'm a Cub fan, so I'm used to optimism in the face of a daunting historical record. (Ed. note: I agree with you here, but this is the year for the Cubs!)

OTT: The Hep factor was obviosuly pretty big last year, but James Hardy had a big say in things as well. Who is going to step up and catch passes now that he has gone?

THP: One bit of good news that hopefully I will have mentioned on the blog by the time you post this is that Andrew Means, who currently is playing rookie ball in the Cincinnati Reds' system, will return for his junior season. Means was second on the team in yards last season (559), although he didn't catch a touchdown despite a decent 11.6 yards per reception. Ray Fisher was third in receiving yards and caught four touchdowns. Brandon Walker-Roby hasn't yet lived up to the standard set by his older brother Courtney, but he has one more opportunity to make an impact. In addition to Hardy, IU lost James Bailey for what appear to have been disciplinary or academic reasons. Marcus Thigpen has never established himself as an excellent running back, but he is a threat as a receiver: 181 yards and 3 touchdowns receiving last year. It's unclear which freshmen will contribute, of course.

OTT: Coach Hep made it a point to recruit for both the offensive and defensive lines. With players like Greg MIddleton it is obviously beginning to pay off. How central will both areas be to Indiana's success in 2008?

THP: I think both will be important, mainly because line play is important for every football team, but also because of IU's specific areas of vulnerability. On offense, as you note, James Hardy is IU's biggest loss, so IU establishing a traditional running game and pass protection will be particularly important. On defense, nearly all of the front seven return, but IU lost starting corners Tracy Porter and Leslie Majors. If the defensive line can stop the run and put pressure on opposing quarterbacks, that will take some heat off of an inevitable young secondary.

OTT: Is Kellen Lewis more of a threat than Antwaan Randle El was? How will his recent suspension affect things for this year?

THP: I consider them different players. I would describe Lewis as a pass-first quarterback who also can run. Randle El was a great runner who also could throw the ball. I have so much regard for Randle El that I'm not willing to put Lewis in his class until I see what happens this season, without Hardy and following the suspension. As for how the suspension will affect things, I'm not sure we will know right away. According to Bill Lynch, Lewis will have to compete with Ben Chappell for the starting job. While I expect Lewis to recover, IU has tweaked the offense and will be going with a no-huddle attack, so Lewis will have some catching up to do. Fortunately, IU's schedule is fairly easy at the beginning, with I-AA Murray State and I-A newcomer Western Kentucky in the first two weeks, followed by a bye. So he has time to catch up.

OTT: Historically, when Purdue has been up Indiana has been down and vice versa. Did last year's bucket game signal a swing of the pendulum or is it possible for both to be successful at the same time?

THP: Your historical assessment may be generous to IU. There have been plenty of times that both schools have been bad. Still, what you say has been the case for the last 25-30 years. The Mallory era corresponds with Purdue's worst run of the last several decades, and Joe Tiller arrived just as IU's program was descending into the crapper. It's impossible for either IU or Purdue to win with only Indiana recruits. While both schools should focus on the home state as much as possible, both schools also have to recruit out-of-state to win. Because of that, I don't see any reason why both schools can't be as good as Purdue has been during the Tiller era, for example, at the same time. It would be nice if the Bucket game represented a swing of the pendulum, but there are enough questions about the state of both programs that it's impossible to tell. (Ed. note: I agree, but I would also like to see the Bucket Game mean more nationally.)

OTT: How excited are you for the expansion at Memorial Stadium? Do you expect Indiana to have a more level playing field now in the Big Ten?

THP: I am excited about it. The expansion will help in a number of respects. It will result in a substantial upgrade in the off-the-field facilities, such as the weight room and player lounge, items that are very important for recruiting. The new luxury seating will help revenue. Perhaps most importantly, the expanded stadium will project a much better image. The closed in end zone should put an end to the "high school stadium" cracks from a certain fanbase, and it should improve the atmosphere and volume. The idea of closing in the north end zone has been on the drawing board for years, and it's nice to finally see the steel and concrete in place.

OTT: Finally, how much of a lasting legacy do you expect coach Hoeppner will have in Bloomington? Personally, I have nothing but respect for the man and love that he took on what seemed like a hopeless challenge.

THP: For better or worse, Hoeppner's legacy is mostly in the hands of Bill Lynch. If Lynch has a successful career at IU, Hoeppner will justifiably be considered the foundation of the program. If someone else has to start over three or four years down the road, then it will be different. Unquestionably, Hoeppner's enthusiasm as a promoter and competence as a football coach started the revival of IU's football program, and he probably is the but-for cause fo the current construction in the north end zone. So, I suppose regardless of Lynch's career, Hoeppner's lasting legacy will have been an injection of enthusiasm and the stadium expansion. But Lynch's record will have much to do with Hep's legacy.

Thank for stopping by, John. I certainly respect the Hoosiers, but I speak for every Purdue fan when I say we look forward to the November 22nd return of the Bucket to West Lafayette.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Know thy Opponent 2008: Indiana Hoosiers

It’s a rivalry again.

With one long kick last season, Indiana’s Austin Starr not only cemented a Hoosier return to the postseason after 13 long years, but he made sure that the Indiana-Purdue football rivalry would stay alive. In recent years Purdue has made the rivalry even more one-sided than it once was. Before Starr’s kick, Purdue had won 9 of 10 against the Hoosiers, often in dominating fashion. The Hoosiers were galvanized to play 13 in honor of Hep, however, and rode a capacity crowd to victory over their fiercest rival.

In a way, I was a little envious when I left Memorial Stadium last fall. Seeing Indiana celebrate the return of the Bucket and a postseason bid is something Purdue has not done since going to the Rose Bowl. Sure, they were crappy bowl games both the Hoosiers and Boilers played in, but where we have come to take certain bowls for granted, Indiana was desperate for even a small measure of success. They deserved their celebration, and a part of me was happy for them.

That being said, they still have our Bucket. One thing Tiller has done is make sure that Purdue fans feel the Bucket is a right. Under his watch it has been in West Lafayette far longer than it has been in Bloomington, therefore it feels wrong when it is gone. Throughout the offseason I have wondered how often, if ever we have had the Shillelagh and the Cannon, but not the Bucket. Because of Indiana’s schedule they could go bowling again, but with November 22nd being coach Tiller’s final game in West Lafayette I have a hard time seeing the Bucket taking up a more permanent residence to the south.

Last Season for the Hoosiers

Purdue finished at 7-5, 3-5 in the Big Ten and it was a colossal disappointment. We beat Notre Dame, went to a bowl and won it, but the season was viewed as a failure. Indiana finished an identical 7-5, 3-5 in the conference and it was the best season in more than a decade. They rushed the field, tried to tear down the goal posts, and celebrated like they were heading to Pasadena.

The long-awaited trip to the Insight Bowl nearly didn’t happen. After the Hoosiers rode a weak early schedule to a 5-1 start, losses to Michigan State, Penn State, and Wisconsin brought them back to earth. The Hoosiers then beat Ball State to clinch preliminary bowl eligibility before Starr’s kick gave them their needed 7th win. Even with the loss, the Bucket game was one of the best I have ever attended. Like Purdue, however, the Hoosiers struggled against good teams. Indiana had a few wins over bowl-bound teams in Purdue and Ball State (making them the de facto Indiana state champion since Purdue beat Notre Dame?), but generally struggled against the really good with losses to Wisconsin, Penn State, and Illinois. The Penn State game was close at 36-31, and would have been Indiana’s biggest win in decades.

Many are saying an easy schedule all but assures the Hoosiers will go bowling again in 2008. I tend to disagree. Yes the Hoosiers have 8 home games and don’t leave Bloomington until a not that difficult trip to Minnesota the first week in October, but a couple of non-conference opponents could be sneaky good. Ball State and Central Michigan will battle to be the best in the MAC this year and are more than capable of beating Indiana. Western Kentucky (new to D-1A) and Murray State are easy wins. The Hoosiers are capable of defending the rock for home conference games against Iowa and Northwestern, but Wisconsin and Michigan State will be more difficult. The only road trips are a mixed bag with Minnesota, Illinois, Penn State, and Purdue each at a different level of difficulty. If Indiana does what it is expected to do another bowl bid is possible, but a 4-0 non-conference record is essential.

Indiana offense

The best news Indiana fans could have gotten was that Kellen Lewis was fully reinstated. Rumors have been running rampant as to what exactly he was suspended for, with cocaine being the one I have seen multiple times. What happened is between Lewis and the IU athletic department, so nothing further needs to be said on that. His return is huge. It means Indiana can seriously think of 8 wins as opposed to 4. The last player of his caliber in Bloomington was Antwaan Randle-El. Lewis, though, has more weapons around him, thereby making Indiana better. Lewis was one of the most dangerous players in the nation last season with a team high 736 yards rushing and 9 touchdowns. He was also pretty good with his arm, throwing for 3,043 yards and an additional 28 scores. It remains to be seen how missing spring practice will affect him as Indiana wants to go with more no-huddle, but Lewis is plainly a handful on his own.

Helping him in the backfield will be the speedy Marcus Thigpen. Thigpen is a dangerous kickoff returner with speed to burn, holding the school record in the 100 meter dash. As a running back, Thigpen struggled – except against Purdue. Thigpen rushed for just 568 yards and didn’t find the endzone, but thanks to Purdue’s defense nearly a quarter of those yards came in the Bucket game. In that game, our defense often acted like it had never seen a simple halfback draw, let alone thought it was a legal play as Thigpen torched the Boiler offense for a career day yardage-wise.

Much of Indiana’s offensive success left in the person of James Hardy thanks to the first round of the NFL draft. Hardy simply put up irreplaceable numbers last year with 79 catches for 1,125 yards and 16 scores before shuffling off to Buffalo. James Bailey (26-268-2) opted to transfer and Andrew Means (48-559-0) has been playing baseball all summer, raising questions on if he will return. Should he not come back the Hoosiers will just about as thin as we currently are in terms of returning receivers. Thigpen was an effective pass-catcher out of the backfield, and Ray Fisher (52-482-4) should help ease things a bit, but Indiana will be hard pressed to find someone who can duplicate Hardy’s numbers. Terrence Turner and Brandon Walker-Roby should also contribute.

The offensive line was a point of emphasis during Terry Hoeppner’s time in Bloomington. Those recruits should start to pay dividends this season, but as a whole the unit still surrendered 31 sacks last season. If you take away the yardage lost on sacks Lewis was a 1,000-yard rusher as well as a 3,000 yard passer. The 2008 version of the offensive line will feature a number of those young recruits, but in terms of sheer size the Hoosiers are finally on par with most of the Big Ten. All five current starters according to the Peegs depth chart are over 300 pounds and should they have a good year all will be back in 2009. Since the offensive line is so critical to success in football this could mean a big 2009. All five starters are at least 6’5” as well for plenty of vertical size. Roger Saffold and Mike Stark are in line to man the tackles positions, while Pete Saxon and Cody Faulkner are slated to be the guards. Sophomore center Alex Perry may be the best of the group. Much of the depth is also young, with backup guard Kenny Love being the only senior.

Indiana defense

One of the things that scares me about Indiana is the fact that they may be a better defensive team in 2008 after such a dangerous year offensively in 2007. Indiana gave up an average of 28 points per game in 2007, but that number should improve thanks to a number of playmakers that return on the defensive side of the ball. In the long awaited bowl game the defense was virtually non-existent in the first half against Oklahoma State, but that likely won’t be the case for long as the Hoosiers have the makings of a living, breathing Big Ten caliber defense.

A big reason for that hope is the return of defensive end Greg Middleton. Middleton had a monster sophomore season as one of the best defensive ends in the country with 50 tackles and an eye-popping 16 sacks. We must be especially concerned about him in this year’s Bucket game, as he will be out to make his final game against coach Tiller a special one after the comments Joe made following his recruiting process. We certainly had enough trouble against him last year, so I can’t imagine facing him with any extra motivation. Over half of Indiana’s 31 sacks came from Middleton. He’ll be helped on the other end by Jammie Kirlew, who had a pretty good 2007 himself with 57 tackles and 4.5 sacks. Tackles Deonte Mack and Greg Brown also saw action, with Brown notching 50 tackles as a starter. This may be the best and most experienced defensive line the Hoosiers have ever had.

Will Patterson returns to anchor what is a pretty experienced linebacking corps. Patterson was second on the team with 104 tackles and also had a pair of sacks to go with an interception. It seems like he has been in Bloomington forever, but he’s only a junior with plenty of starting experience. He has plenty of size and is a speedy guy in the mold that coach Hep tried to create. Joining him at linebacker will be senior Geno Johnson and junior Matt Mayberry. Both played in all 13 games a season ago, so as a whole the defensive front seven has more experience than a number of teams. The two combined for 100 tackles a year ago.

Where Indiana faces a number of questions on the defensive side of the ball is the secondary, where both starting corners must be replaced. Considering that Indiana had some pretty good talent there, it is not an easy fix. Tracy Porter took his team high six interceptions to the NFL as a second round pick, while Leslie Majors is also gone. That leaves senior Chris Phillips and junior Bruce Hampton as the likely starters. Phillips only had 12 tackles a year ago, but notched three interceptions in more of a nickel back role. Hampton did not notch any defensive statistics, so you can bet he will be picked on early and often. Safeties Austin Thomas and Nick Polk were two of Indiana’s top five tacklers last season, giving the Hoosiers eight returning starters on the defensive side of the ball. Thomas led the Hoosiers with 112 stops, while Polk hade 74. Both will need to maintain this high level of play as the corners adjust to their starting roles.

Indiana Special Teams

Austin Starr was one of the best kickers in the nation a year ago. He only missed a pair of field goals all season, with one of them coming in the Bucket game against us. Unfortunately, his longest kick of the season was the 49-yarder that gave the Hoosiers the Bucket for the first time since 2001. He was 21 of 23 on the season, and is one of the favorites to take home the Groza award in 2008. He is also a solid kickoff specialist with 15 touchbacks and holding opponents to a 22 yard return average. Considering the Hoosiers gave up a touchdown return a season ago, those are good numbers.

Redshirt freshman Chris Hagerup will move into the punter’s role after Michael Hines graduated. He only had a 39 yard average per kick, so this is an even bigger question mark now. Fortunately coverage was not an issue on punts for the Hoosiers as they gave up less than 6 yards per return. Speaking of the return game, the Hoosiers have a dangerous one with Thigpen slated to return kicks. He didn’t take one to the house last year, but he had several in 2006. He will be dangerous any time he touches the ball in space. Ray Fisher will likely return punts.

Intangibles

There is no doubt the overall talent level has improved in Bloomington. Now that Indiana has finally broken through and made it to the postseason they will have loads of confidence that was missing before. You could see that in 2006 when a bowl game was in sight before a three game losing streak to finish the season delayed it by a year. Indiana knows it can make the postseason now, and with the experience they have plus an easy schedule the potential is there for a great year. I do not see why so many are underestimating this team especially with the experience back on the defensive side of the ball.

Ironically, one of the biggest questions marks the Hoosiers face is coaching. Bill Lynch earned the right to be the head man, but wasn’t overwhelmingly successful in his last stint at Ball State. Still, the similarities between Indiana right now and Purdue after the 1997 are eerie. Both teams had just broken 13 year bowl droughts (against Oklahoma State no less). Indiana has the beginnings of a great offensive line like we had in 2000. They also have a singular talent at quarterback that can do everything. An improving defense is also a good step. I wouldn’t exactly make reservations for Pasadena in 2010 yet, but Indiana is better. They are on their way out of the Big Ten basement. At the very least, they are far from the same old Indiana everyone beats up on. They are now a dangerous team that is a threat every week.

Game Outlook

I originally thought this would be an easy game for us. There will be emotion as it is Tiller’s final game in West Lafayette. He has never lost to the Hoosiers in Ross-Ade, as the immortal Jim Colletto was the last to lose to Indiana at home in 1996 (while the Hoosiers were on a 15 game Big Ten losing streak, no less). Ironically, it was Colletto’s final game with the Boilers. Tiller has had just a little more success and will be let go with slightly more positive feelings. All the signs are pointing to this being like the 2000 game, when there was no freaking way we were losing.

After looking at this preview, however, I am beginning to think differently. I still think emotion will be in our favor, but the talent gap is a lot closer than it has ever been at any time during Joe’s tenure. Indiana is a dangerous team that is capable of spoiling the party. Marcus Thigpen ran for 140 yards against us last year after only having 428 in the other 12 games combined. We also didn’t exactly have an answer for Kellen Lewis or Greg Middleton. Indiana probably would have won two years ago if not for one of the ugliest displays of football ever seen when they matched us turnover for turnover. A Thigpen fumble near the goal line was a huge difference maker then.

Indiana hasn’t won consecutive buckets since 1993-94, but they would love nothing more than to spoil this party. Remember, it’s officially a rivalry again.

Prediction

I still think we win this game, and it clinches a final bowl bid for us. To this point I have us winning games over Northern Colorado, Central Michigan, Minnesota, Iowa, Northwestern, and Michigan State. I also have close losses that could go either way against Oregon, Notre Dame, Penn State, and Michigan. We may need this one to secure a bowl game, and with it being Joe’s final game I think we get it. It will not be as easily as people think. Last year was he best Bucket game in years. This year will be similar, with a different result. Purdue 31, Indiana 28

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Boilermakings 7/23

There has been a lot of news that has broken recently in terms of Purdue, thus prompting the move for Boilermakings up from Friday to today. This means the final “Know thy Opponent” won’t be published until later Thursday or early Friday. After that, you can expect and interview with The Hoosier Report about the bucket game, followed with a new series that should take us pretty close to the season.

The main reason for moving Boilermakings into this spot, however, has nothing to do with Purdue. In this spot I had scheduled an interview with the good folks over at Black Heart, Gold Pants about the 2008 Hawkeyes. Recent developments with the Iowa program, however, have prompted them to back away from their university, and rightfully so.

I didn’t comment on this yesterday in the Iowa preview because I had finished a week ago and was in a rush to put it up before heading off to work, but a big fat distraction, to say the least, reared its ugly head this week. Apparently the Iowa administration has covered up a rape case involving a couple of former football players, and it is getting even uglier. Black Heart Gold Pants has done a much better job of going over the situation than I can, so I’ll direct you over there. After the news broke on this case their response to my interview request was as follows:

Hey, I've been looking at your questions and I can't, in good conscience, answer any of them.
I'm ashamed of my program right now and can't pretend to look forward to the season.
Sorry.


I don’t blame them one iota. I’ll welcome the guys to stop by at any time once matters clear up, but in this case I don’t blame them one bit for being disgusted with the University of Iowa administration.

Purdue to Face Davidson in Wooden Classic, Ed Kowalczyk sues OTT for copyright infringement.

Because of Purdue’s affiliation with the legendary John Wooden, the Boilers have become a fixture in at least one of the annual events that bears his name. I like this. It normally gives us a very solid non-conference game at a neutral site. In the case of last year’s win over Louisville, it was the first of many big wins for a program that has come a long way in a very short time. The Boilers will be playing in the Wooden Classic (not the Tradition, like last year) again at Conseco Fieldhouse against another team that has come a long way in a very short time.

Stephen Curry and the mighty Davidson Wildcats were the darlings of the 2008 NCAA Tournament, coming within a missed last second 3-pointer of advancing to the Final Four at the expense of the eventual National Champion. They rely more one player in Curry than the upstart George Mason from a few years ago, but they are still a solid team. They ran unbeaten through the Southern Conference last season, but missed on a couple of in season opportunities against North Carolina and others to grab a huge win. As a result, they may have not even made the tournament if not for the Southern auto-bid. Running through the conference unscathed again is a tall order, so you can bet they will be looking toward the Purdue game as some insurance.

I liken this game to when we played Butler in the 2006 event. I expect a hard fought-close game as Curry does his best to attack our team defense. I’m already looking forward to the chess match of Chris Kramer against him when he has the ball, with others to step in if beaten. Curry is a talent to watch because he has a sweet jumper that he only needs the smallest of windows to drain. This is also a rare opportunity to boost our own resume against a “mid-major”, as a win over them would certainly be a good. Since we’re thinking seeding instead of bid for next season we’ll take all the help we can get. It’s time to queue the music



Kyle Williams is successful in beating Double Jeopardy, Trebek pales

I sincerely hope this kid gets his act together, because he is still going to have quite awhile to think about his actions. After what he did to multiple women in multiple states it still sickens me some to know we had a Jumbotron gimmick and graphic for the very brief time he was on the field for us. Originally recruited by Iowa, we ended up with him where he truly went off the deep end. As a gesture of good faith toward the Hawkeyes I’ll put this one on our ledger since their plate is full at the moment.

Cases like this sadden me. This kid was given everything in the world. If he had his head on straight there is a good chance he would be making lots of money right now playing on Sundays. He apparently had the raw talent to do so. Unfortunately, the mental aspects prevented him from making an impact in this way. Clearly something was wrong with this young man, and he is paying for those mistakes. I sincerely hope he can make something of his second chance when it eventually comes, but he has a long time to find out about that.

CFN predicts potential 9 win season, says defense is much improved

The fellows over at College Football News published their Purdue preview this week, and I was surprised to see that they predict a big year for the Boilers. They are saying a 9 win season is what it will take for 2008 to be considered a success. They have the same questions we already know about, but they seem to think Curtis Painter can overcome them and win 9 games. They have done this before, as 2005 was supposed to be a dark horse national title year for us. I haven’t been as optimistic in my own previews, but I certainly think it is possible.

I think that everything fires on all cylinders this year we can win 10 games. I think Ohio State is the only opponent we have a very small chance against, and we always botch at least one game we should win. Other than that, I think we have a good shot of beating everyone else if everything else comes together. I also think the possibility is there to win just four games as we struggle mightily. It’s that wide open. It is good to see the positive press from these guys, but we’ve got to go out and back it up. These are the same people that predicted earlier that we wouldn’t even qualify for a bowl, for what it’s worth.

A new recruit in the fold

Danny Hope has his third unranked Florida commitment, and it is quarterback Rob Henry. There’s not a lot I can say about him, especially since the earliest he will likely be playing is 2011 unless there is a disaster with Justin Siller, but I like the schools that were interested in him. We’ll see where his final ranking ends up, like with the other guys we have. I for one welcome him, and I am glad he feels that Purdue is a perfect fit.

Two final notes I discovered tonight.

First, ESPN is doing this bizarre prestige ranking thing for all Division college basketball teams. Purdue surprisingly came in 29th, meaning the five year period from 2001-06 didn’t hurt us too badly. Still, a 1994 national title would have been really nice with the Big Dog.

Second, ESPN has gotten into college football blogging, and only about 2-3 years late. We officially have a Big Ten blogger there, and he writes to mixed reviews. I don’t know if he is a true blogger since he came from mainstream media, but he does have a very large area to cover now. He recently had a pretty good interview with Jason Werner found here. Judge for yourself if he meets blogger standards, if we have any.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Know thy Opponent 2008: Iowa Hawkeyes

Since starting this blog I have been majorly wrong about a one team each season. As mentioned in the Michigan State preview, I was drastically wrong about last season’s edition of the Spartans. Today, we go back to the first season I did this blog: the 2006 season. That year, I was all about Drew Tate and the Iowa Hawkeyes. I thought they had a dynamite team that was certainly bound for Pasadena. Even after what now seems its annual shocking loss to Iowa State I was still sold on the Hawkeyes, specifically Tate. They annihilated Purdue, dominating every aspect of the game along the way. Since then, Iowa has done exactly diddle squat, starting with a shocking loss to Indiana the following week.

So what can Purdue fans expect this year? Sadly, the Boilers have not won in Iowa City since 1992. The only two conference opponents that have longer home streaks against us are Michigan and Ohio State. On paper, this looks like it could be the year. Still, for whatever reason, Purdue finds new ways to lose in Iowa City, especially under Tiller.

Last season for the Hawkeyes

Iowa has finished at 6-6 for both of the last two regular seasons, following a trend that Purdue started immediately after its Rose Bowl appearance. Considering that Iowa was a regular in new Year’s Day bowl games before that, it is clear they have dropped off somewhat. A large number of off the field incidents leading to the dismissal of several players has made matters worse. Things appeared to come to a head last season when Iowa started 3-5 before a three game winning streak had them in bowl contention on Senior Day. A shocking loss to Western Michigan at home kept Iowa home for the holidays for the first time since 2000, and likely was the reason we went bowling at all.

The Hawkeyes were one of the worst offensive teams in the conference. This was especially evident on the road, where the Hawkeyes went 1-4. In the four losses Iowa scored just 13, 13, 7, and 6 points. The Hawkeyes showed some bite by upsetting Illinois 10-6, but was pretty toothless against Iowa State, Western Michigan, and Purdue.

Iowa has to be better in 2008 to avoid the fourth straight year of what I have dubbed the BGCONOSOM (Black and Gold Curse Of No Ohio State Or Michigan). Should Iowa falter, it will be the fourth straight year that a team in the Big Ten wearing Black and Gold has been gifted with no Michigan or Ohio State on its schedule, only to struggle instead of thrive. Iowa’s non-conference schedule is fairly easy with Maine, Florida International, and Iowa State coming to Iowa City while the Hawkeyes go to Pittsburgh. Iowa hosts Northwestern, Penn State, Wisconsin, and Purdue while going to Illinois, Indiana, Michigan State, and Minnesota. Outside of Indiana, it may be the easiest schedule in the conference.

Iowa offense

The Hawkeye offense a year ago was probably the worst in the Big Ten. As mentioned above, they struggled to score points on the road, but weren’t much better at home. Facing one of the worst defenses in the country in Minnesota, the Hawkeyes managed just 21 points in a too-close-for-comfort 21-16 win. Their best offensive day was a 35-0 win over Syracuse. The line was not as dominant as it once was, and suspensions and injuries absolutely decimated the receivers.

Quarterback Jake Christensen was thrown into the fire last season with almost nothing to work with receiver-wise. As a result, he finished the year as the conference’s lowest rated passer. He wasn’t awful when it came to yards and touchdowns. He finished the year with 2,269 yards and 17 scores, but many Iowa fans, especially my colleagues over at Black Heart Gold Pants, are fed up with his inaccuracy and looking for change. Personally, I don’t see where he was terribly inaccurate. He threw only 6 interceptions. His completion percentage was also above 50%, so he wasn’t horrible.

One small bit of inside information comes from the recruiting wire, as I used to work with the sister of incoming freshman John Wienke. Wienke originally verballed to Michigan, but switched after Lloyd Carr retired. He seemed to think some immediate playing time might be in his future, so Christensen has far from secured the position.

The running back position appears to be even more of a mess, as just one scholarship back returns. Two years ago Albert Young and Damian Sims ran for what seemed to be 4,000 yards against Purdue, while a season ago the defense did a much better job of stopping them in Ross-Ade. Both are gone, leaving Shonn Greene as the likely starter. Paki O’Meara is currently at the top of the depth chart before Greene officially returns, but he has yet to net a carry. The same is true for current backup Nate Guillroy, who is a JuCo transfer. Even senior fullback Jordan McLaughlin has yet to touch the ball. Greene spent a season in JuCo exile to improve his grades, but is a big back at 227 lbs.

The story is roughly the same for the receivers, as Dominique Douglas, James Cleveland, and Anthony Bowman are gone due to legal issues. Cleveland was the one target that had a good day against us last year, and like many receivers we faced, it was his best of the season for the tight end. Tony Moeaki may be the best pass-catcher of the bunch as the tight end returns from a season-ending arm injury suffered in last year’s Wisconsin game. Somewhat in the mold of Dallas Clark, Moeacki will need a big year and hope others develop around him. He had 14 catches for 170 yards and three scores before his injury. The top returning receiver, Darrell Johnson-Koulianos, is currently listed as a backup with 38 catches for 482 yards and two scores. Trey Stross (16-272-4) and Andy Brodell (13-96-0) are the current starters, but those numbers must obviously improve.

Two years ago Iowa’s offensive line dominated us in a show of physical power that Purdue has rarely seen. That allowed the Iowa offense to do what it wanted, when it wanted in a huge road loss. Last year’s meeting in West Lafayette was different, but the Hawkeyes return all five starters. Iowa gave up a league-high 46 sacks, which was one of the worst totals in the nation. This was a large reason that the Hawkeyes managed only a meager pair of field goals against us, as Purdue had one of its best defensive days in ages. Center Rob Bruggeman and guard Seth Olsen are both seniors in the interior available to provide leadership. Kyle Calloway and Bryan Bulaga are manning the tackle positions, but these could easily change by the 11th game of the season. Overall, the line does not have the overwhelming size of past Iowa units.\

Iowa defense

Iowa’s defense wasn’t bad last year, but lost a pair of solid linebackers in Mike Klinkenborg and Mike Humpal as well as pass-rusher Bryan Mattison. As a whole, the unit surrendered less than 19 points per game. Unfortunately, the offense was often not up to the task as it scored three fewer points than the defense gave up. Both starting corners from last season are also gone, meaning Iowa will likely struggle against both the run and the pass. Linebacker A.J. Edds could be one that got away for Purdue fans. Edds, from Center Grove High in Greenwood, had 80 tackles last season and will likely be the centerpiece on a rebuilt back seven.

Iowa has had a series of good linebackers recently, but this could be the year where that unit takes a step back. In addition to Edds, A pair of sophomores appear to be in line for the other two starting assignments. Jeff Tarpinian and Jacody Coleman both have seen reserve duty in their freshman seasons, but starting in the Big Ten is a whole different ballgame. Former four star recruit Jeremiha Hunter should also play a role after playing in 9 games a year ago.

On the defensive line tackle Mitch King is a solid piece to build around. King was a 1st team All-Big Ten pick last season with 14.5 tackles for loss. This will be his fourth season starting in Iowa City, and he will continue to be asked to get into the backfield as well as play against the run. He is paired in the middle with fellow senior Matt Kroul, fourth on the team with 74 stops last season. Mattison’s nine sacks will need to be replaced on the end, where sophomores Adrian Clayborn (2 sacks) and Christian Ballard (2.5) showed some promise in reserve duty. The defensive line will likely be the strength of the defense, but was fairly strong in giving up little more than 1,400 yards on the ground.

Charles Godfrey and Adam Shada are gone from both corner positions, meaning the Hawkeyes must replace half their secondary. Safeties Harold Dalton and Brett Greenwood both return with 49 and 45 stops between them. Greenwood also had a pair of interceptions. Another former four-star recruit in Jordan Bernstine looks to be in line for one of the cornerback positions, while the other belongs to Bradley Fletcher at the moment. Fletcher played in 11 games last season and actually had 53 tackles, so he is not without experience. Godfrey had five interceptions as a shutdown corner, so he will be difficult to replace.

Iowa special teams

A couple years ago Nate Kaeding was one of the best kickers in the country. He was the rare kicker that got drafted and took one of the 32 starting jobs in the NFL with the Chargers. Kaeding is just a distant memory now as the Hawkeyes have struggled in the kicking game. The Hawkeye hit just 10 of 16 field goals as a team and missed 4 extra points a year ago. Duties were split between Austin Signor (3 of 6, long of 41) and Daniel Murray (7 of 10, long of 47) without a ton of success. Each missed a pair of extra points, while Murray hit both field goals against us. Freshman Trent Mossbrucker from Mooresville, Indiana will likely compete with both for the starting job.

Ryan Donohue returns as the punter after having a 41 yard average on 81 kicks last season. That’s quite impressive considering the large number of attempts due to the poor quality of Iowa’s offense. Neither coverage unit gave up a touchdown last season. Johnson-Koulianos will be back to return kicks with a 23 yard average carried over. Brodell handled punted return duties with an impressive 14.4 average.

Intangibles

If you take away our recent history in Iowa City, this should be our easiest road game of the season. It is certainly the best chance we have had in a long time to get a win at Kinnick Stadium. By this time in the season Iowa will know if it still has a shot at the postseason or not. Sadly, even though they don’t have Michigan or Ohio State on the schedule it is looking more and more like they will miss the postseason instead of make it. Depending on how we do, it could be a bowl elimination game a lot like our Michigan State game in 2002.

Iowa has had 14 players either arrested or charged with crimes in the last two years. Even by Bengals standards, that’s a lot. Many of those troublemakers are gone, but they have left a void that has yet to be filled by recruiting. Ferentz’ recruiting classes have also dropped off. While Kirk Ferentz was on a high as recently as three years ago, he is now in deep trouble if he has another bad season. Things could be getting really ugly in Iowa City by the time we come to town.

Iowa has the look at the moment of being the worst team in the Big Ten this year. Almost everyone else got better, while Iowa probably got worse. They don’t have a proven playmaker on offense, and the defense needs to be rebuilt at key positions. The Big Ten is not that great this year, but these factors already severely hamper Iowa in what may amount to a fight amongst cripples for the seventh bowl slot.

Game Outlook

Much like the Minnesota and Indiana games, this game takes on the must-win moniker. We simply cannot afford to pass up out best chance at a road win even if it has been 16 years since we won in said venue. If we can’t win in Iowa City this year who knows when we will win again. Iowa is going to struggle to move the ball again, and we already proved we can stop their offense. I think it will be highly disappointing if we cannot do so again.

Against their defense, we also didn’t have much trouble. Painter threw for more than 300 yards and had three touchdown passes. He has a pair of new corners to throw against as well, making matters much more difficult for the Hawkeyes. 167 yards and two TD”s went to Dorien Bryant, but I am confident we can replace him. Sheets and Taylor also had nearly identical games, and both were productive. I really like our chances in this one if we play to our abilities, but it is Iowa City. We have a habit of playing poorly there.

Prediction

In my opinion, we won’t have a very good season if we don’t win this game. I feel like we will already have bowl eligibility clinched or we will get it here. This is our best chance at getting a road win, and I feel we’ll go get it. Purdue 31, Iowa 17

Orange Bowl Tickets

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Know thy Opponent Takeover 2008: SpartyMSU

The takeover series continues this week as yet another member of the Big Ten Blogging network stops by to take over Off the Tracks. Today’s guest is the renowned Michigan State blogger SpartyMSU. Aside from being a fellow hater of all things Irish, He is about as passionate as they come when concerning all things Spartan. Sparty seems pretty excited that Michigan State could be the surprise team of the Big ten in 2008. Let’s hear what he has to say.

Off the Tracks: Expectations are high in East Lansing, but there are several key positions that must be replaced. How will this affect the season, especially after lowing the top two receivers and Caulcrick?

SpartyMSU: Yes, expectations are High, but realistic… True, we lost some fantastic athletes, but there are some great players in place and ones recently committed to the Spartans for the future. The Cupboard is looking good!

Caulcrick had a Huge Career, This year the focus is on Jovan Ringer (Arguably one of or the best Back in the Big Ten except maybe for Wells at OSU), in Tandem (Possibly) there’s A.J. Jimmerson. He was used sparingly last year (only 12 attempts) but he is a solid Back and will most likely share time with Ringer… There is also Ashton Leggett.. 5”11” – 205 Lbs, Andre Anderson 5”9” 190. Many ways to keep Ringer fresh, and the Opposition “D” guessing.

As for Losing Devin Thomas, What a receiver he is and will be in the NFL. Spartans will field WR Sensation Mark Dell (6’2” – 185), Deon Curry (6’1” – 208), B.J. Cunningham (6”2 – 205), And last but not least the Man Child Fred Smith (6’2” 210).

Hoyer is one of the Best QBs in the Big Ten, has a target rich environment whether rushing or putting it in the air. Hoyer is the Field General. He has developed into the Leader we need.

OTT: Purdue and Michigan State have played some very entertaining games since Tiller came to West Lafayette. Why have the Spartans struggled so much to put away the Boilers?

SMSU: Series is pretty much tied, but Spartans holds a 1 game margin at 30 – 29 - 3…. Last years game I didn’t attend. I missed going to Ross-Ade and Bistro 501 / Nine Irish Brothers/ etc., always have a good time in Lafayette. You do have some fun Night Spots. (Ed Note: thank you! I know from my senior year I have hazy memories of them)

As For the 2007 Game I Believe Tiller got out coached, clear and simple.Successful Fake Field Goal, Successful Fake Punt, Purdue Offsides on a missed Field Goal (Subsequent Mulligan Swenson made), Painters Pass Fumble that was taken in for a TD by Key. (Ed Note: It's probably the worst game we've played in awhile.) Bottom line is the teams were well matched last year. I think Dantonio made the difference. Of course, with all due respect to Boilermaker Ledged Joe Tiller.

But Frankly, and it hurts to say, the Spartans have had some BAD coaching and leadership for many years. It fostered a culture of not finishing games due to the leadership and lack of discipline. Except for Saint Duffy, George Perles (soon to be Canonized), Sabin (Dick and Traitor), and now Mark Dantonio (Gospel According to Mark), we had some poor Coaches.

The culture of not finishing is GONE. Successful Step One of the Dantonio Era. The Rise of the Spartan Nation is Upon us !!!!

OTT: On defense, Michigan State got a ton of guys to the quarterback. Can we expect more of the same despite losing Saint-Dic and Baldwin.

SMSU: Look out baby, Pain Train is coming. Rockem–Sockem football is back in East Lansing. The “D” is my favorite side of the ball, and it will only get better in the coming years (Based upon Dantonio’s leadership, Dantonio’s Plans and the Recruits pledging to be Spartans).

DE Jonal Saint-Dic had a Fantastic Year in 2007. Wow, he was fun to watch. But now it’s 2008. with MLB Greg Jones leading the crew. LB Eric Gordon with CB Kendal Clark-Davis, SS Otis (My Man… ) Wiley, Johnny Adams, DT Justin Kershaw, Freshman Steve Gardiner, Freshman DE Tyler Hoover 6 ‘7” – 265Lbs (and FAST !) , and DE Trevor Anderson 6’2” – 250 (All Big East Player) who followed Dantonio from Cinci. This is the Strongest “D” and “DL” in Years… Yeah, Spartans will be in the backfield. The QBs will be hearing footsteps all day long. Can’t wait to see how soon the opposition QBs get gun shy.

Spartans have the tools to plug the any hole created by guys departing. This group will be much improved from last year.

OTT: This one is for my own curiosity. What's the deal with the Notre Dame game? Why can't either team win at home lately in the MSU-ND series?

SMSU: Damn. If there is one team I dislike almost as scUM, it’s the Domers. (Ed Note: Who doesn't?) And I remember the Promise that Tubby Chucky Weis made to a Boosters Group in 2006: “Never to lose to Michigan State again under my watch” … I want to see that Ginormous Tub of Goo eat those words again and again and again.

Spartans have made 6 trips to South Bend, 6 Straight Victories. Haven’t lost there since 1993. I think we should rename it Spartan Stadium South? Or how about Sparty Complex Annex? Or how about MSU South Bend?

But, your correct Sir, losing at home is a problem. The issue for the Spartans was in finishing games. Like in 2006. We all sat through that frick’en hurricane type weather. We were leading 37 – 21 going into the fourth. What the hell happened? None of us can pick out where the wheels came off. But, the issue probably was John L’s coaching and the culture of not taking personal responsibility for yourself and your team mates. The lack of self discipline. The lack of playing four Full Quarters..

Those days are done!!!

All of the prayers, Masses, “Hail Mary Full of Grace” Rosaries won’t help Charlie Weis and his minorly improved Golden Domers.

OTT: How much has Dantonio changed the culture in East Lansing? How important was it that Michigan State avoided the tailspin last year?

SMSU: The Culture is 180 degrees different. A unified team, supportive fanbase, alumni, and students. It's wonderful to see EVERYONE behind the coaches and their leadership and the steps forward. No tail spin. Dantonio was the reason for this… PERIOD!

The lack of Tail Spin was one of the evidences of the strategy and changes being implemented in East Lansing. from focused team discipline, focus on family and faith, team respect, restoration of the pre-game walk, to the coin tossing at Sparty, to the dress code, to the focus on position fundamentals daily, the unified run onto the field , lots of little things are adding up.

After years of self-implosion it is nice to see the Spartans changing under the positive value driven tutelage of the new leadership and coaching. Sure ,steps forward periodically have steps back, but the trend is upward and the plan is long term…

I’ll Drink to that!

OTT: Finally, I am planning on coming up for the game. What can fellow Purdue fans expect when they visit East Lansing?

SMSU: Besides a Boilermaker loss on the football field and besides getting some fun verbal harassment from each of the Bars you visit, East Lansing is a diverse and fun town to visit. Many bars and restaurants (My Favorites: El Azteco, Peanut Barrel, Crunchy’s, Lou – and Harry’s, The Land Shark, P.T. O'Malley's, etc. ). Great tail gates, too. There is a Marriott Hotel downtown staggering distance from all the night spots. The more the Merrier. Cheers!

SPARTY ON Boilermakers !!!
Can’t wait for the season to begin !!!

Sparty on indeed. I’m looking forward to adding East Lansing to my road trips list, and good luck the rest of the season.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Know thy Opponent takeover 2008: MGoBlog

There will be no Boilermakings that week as there is a surprising dearth of Purdue-related news. One of the few highlights I can mention here is the new defensive lineman in Kris Cooke. Cooke has taken quite a circuitous route to Purdue, but it is good to see him in the fold. Unfortunately, he comes into one of the deepest positions on the team. He probably not play much this year, but with his size and three years of eligibility remaining I look for him to start making an impact next fall.

The bad news is that we did indeed lose Jordan Brewer as an academic casualty. He’s off to junior college where hopefully we can pick him back up in a year or two after he develops some more. Before he can qualify for Purdue he has to finish with at least is Associates degree from junior college, but if he sits out this year and plays only one year in two at the junior college we can get him with three years of eligibility. I don’t think we have seen the last of him, but for now there’s not much we can do about it. It’s up to him to get his academics in order.

With those small bits of news out of the way it is time to turn the blog over to someone else once again. This time Brian from MGoBlog stops by to answers some questions about Michigan. Of all the blogs in the Big Ten bloggers’ networks Brian’s is one of the best. He has devoted an enormous amount of time to the Wolverines, so take it away, Brian.

Off the Tracks:
Rich Rodriguez hasn't exactly endeared himself to the rest of the Big Ten so far. How much do you think this will play a role in the coming season in terms of extra motivation? What is your honest opinion of him?

MGoBlog: I don't think anyone is going to roll out the ball against Michigan and decide to play hard because Rodriguez is on the other sideline. Michigan's either the biggest or second-biggest game on everyone's schedule; motivation never seems to be an issue for opponents. (For Michigan... well...)

As far as my opinion: I think he's a highly accomplished football coach with no interest in reading Rudyard Kipling. I won't root for him personally like I often did for Lloyd, but I think the team will be more successful. All the stuff about the lawsuit and the snake oil and everything else is just noise. Incredibly annoying noise, but noise.

OTT: The offense is obviously the biggest question for Michigan this year. How long will it take before everything begins to run smoothly in the scheme?

MGB: Depends heavily on Steven Threet. Threet was a four-star recruit a couple years ago who enrolled early at Georgia Tech and immediately won the backup job, so he's not necessarily a schlub. But his performance in the spring was wobbly and if he doesn't perform Michigan is looking at either a walk-on or a true freshman, and likely another half-year to year of clattering around aimlessly until 2009 recruits Kevin Newsome
and Shavodrick Beaver get acclimated. Anywhere from six games to two years, then.

OTT: Will having four juniors and a redshirt sophomore on the offensive line help the transition, or will it hurt because they have so little game experience?

MGB: It'll hurt. There's hardly any experience, as you note, and there are about seven half-viable linemen outside of the true freshmen. Michigan is really banking on a lot of guys coming through.

OTT: How scared are you for the coming season? Is it possible that Michigan's bowl streak could end?

MGB: I guess you have to define scared. I anticipate 8-4 or 7-5, which in any other year would be terrifying. This year I'm just hoping to have some fun and extend the bowl streak. Said streak could definitely end, especially as the lower-tier opponents in the Big Ten load up on delicious cupcakes, which will likely mean 6-6 is SOL.

OTT: When starting offensive linemen defect to Ohio State it has to feel omewhat unnerving. Is Michigan losing it edge just a little bit? How much did Boren's comments affect the fans?

MGB: Michigan *was* losing its edge. Now it is regaining it via a steady diet of punishing Barwis workouts and profane, demeaning swearing. (Woo hoo!) I think Michigan fans were more shaken up by the departure of one of the very few returning starters on the offense than the words that followed. If anything, the 'family values' complaining and the private reaction to that softened the blow.

OTT: Switching to the positive, the defense certainly has the look of having a great year. Can they perform well enough to hold things together while the offense comes together?

MGB: I think so. Michigan returns the entire defensive line and three good corners. Both defensive ends are poised for massive breakout years, and Donovan Warren is on his way to stardom like Law, Woodson, Jackson, and Hall before him. The big question is right up the gut, as Michigan got hurt by poor conditioning and linebacker play all year and gave up tons of yards to power rushing attacks. Middle linebacker Obi Ezeh has to get better, and the defensive tackles have to help cut the holes down. We'll know early, as Utah brings 10 starters and a pounding ground game to Ann Arbor in the opener.

OTT: Along that same line, why has Michigan been the one team in the Big Ten that has been constant Kryptonite against Joe Tiller's teams? (We've had one good half of offensive football in 7 games while being ranked in the top 10 for three of them)

MGB: Some of it is plain bad luck: Shazor decapitating Dorien Bryant (Ed Note: I was there, it made me hurt) or that game (against Brees, I believe) in the rain when Purdue wideouts thought the ball was covered in Ebola. If you were to play all the Purdue-Michigan games in the Tiller era over again, Purdue would probably not be 0-fer (Ed. Note: we’re note, thankfully, we did get that one win in 2000). Some of it is questionable coaching by Tiller.

There was one year when Kirsch was tearing Michigan apart with his legs; Tiller inserted Orton, who proceeded to suck, and Purdue couldn't catch up after throwing away a few possessions. And the other part is not having a proper running threat most of the time. Michigan under Carr was always been vulnerable to spread attacks with a heavy ground component and running quarterbacks of all sorts, but very strong against one-dimensional passing attacks. (Ed note: agreed, our running game takes the day off against Michigan except Montrell Lowe in the 2000 game).

Thanks Brian, I appreciate you stopping by!

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Know thy Opponent takeover 2008: Gopher Nation

I know it is a little late in getting this up, but it actually works out perfectly since this is an incredibly busy week for me. Tom from Gopher Nation has been nice enough to stop by and help me out with some answers about the Golden Gophers for the coming season. Later on this week Brian from MGoBlog will be by with some answers about Michigan, and later on Jeopie from SpartyMSU will share some thoughts on Michigan State. It’s time for Tom to step into the spotlight, however, so take it away, Tom.

Off the Tracks: 2008 was obviously rough if you're a Gopher fan. What can Tim Brewster and company take as a positive after what was obviously a step back?

Gopher Nation: I can give you a long list of successful coaches who were highly unsuccessful in their first year. Make no mistake that 2007 was a total failure on the field, but given Brewster's incoming recruiting class and a year of experience in the new systems for returners there is reason for optimism in the future. There are some talented weapons on the offense and a lot of new athletes on defense. Nobody is counting on a Rose Bowl this year but there should be improvement.

OTT: Glen Mason was a lot like Joe Tiller in that he didn't put Minnesota at the top, but he had them in bowl games every year. How much do people miss him after last year?

GN: I'm not sure the Mason/Tiller comparison is apt. Mason was able to take us to mediocre bowls and only mediocre bowls. Only twice finishing above .500 in Big Ten play, with a best of 5-3. Tiller on the other hand does have a Rose Bowl appearance and a Jan. 01 bowl on his resume (Ed. Note: two actually, in 2003 and 1999). He also has gone 6-2 in conference on four different occasions.

I think Mason's mediocrity is missed only by a few outspoken people. Most are willing to wait and see considering the recruiting success that Brewster had in year 1.

OTT: Adam Weber had a pretty good year last year all things considered, but MarQueis Gray is a tempting target. Is there a quarterback controversy in the Twin Cities?

GN: No, Weber was very good as a redshirt freshman and has an experienced senior to back him up. There is little doubt that Gray will take a redshirt year to fill out, learn the offense and adjust to college life. Maybe next year there will be a controversy but we'll cross that bridge when we get to it. I will admit that there are a lot of Gopher fans who are eagerly anticipating watching Gray run the Spread, but nobody is clamoring for him to play as a true freshman.

OTT: How tempting is it to have a complete and utter overhaul of the defense after last season? How much did the injury to a talent like VanDeSteeg affect things?

GN: Not tempting, but a necessary reality. There are a ton of incoming JUCO and true freshmen who will have the opportunity to earn playing time right away. I think two new starters on the line, one in the linebackers and up to three or four in the secondary are a real possibility. Who knows how things will shake out but just about every position on the defense is up for grabs in August.

As far as VanDeSteeg goes, I'm sure the injury affect his individual play but I don't know if a healthy Willie would have done much for the unit as a whole. He had a very nice, surprising, 2006 season but I do not expect he will match that kind of production again in his career. A healthy WVDS will be helpful but we need a lot more than that to be a Big Ten caliber defense.

OTT: Do you think the pieces are in place offensively for Minnesota to have a decent season if the defense even shows marginal improvement?

GN: Yes, I think we have every reason to believe that our offense will be able to keep us in many games. The key in this man's humble opinion is just a reduction in mistakes. Critical turnovers by a rFR QB were directly responsible for two losses. Two interceptions in the 4th quarter at Northwestern let them back into a game we were controlling and then six ugly turnovers down at Florida Atlantic cost us that game as well. You have to expect freshman mistakes and they are in the past, but cutting down on mistakes will lead to a highly productive offense in 2008.

OTT: What else has Minnesota fans hopeful for 2008? Is this generally accepted to be a stepping stone to a big year in 2009 when the new stadium opens?

GN: I think that is a fair assessment. After an absolutely disastrous season in 2007 just showing improvement in 2008 will be accepted by many. The bulk of the roster will return for 2009 and that could be a fun year. The schedule plays out favorably for us in 2007 with home games against Ind and NW so there is a legit chance for 6 wins or so. Getting a couple Big Ten wins would be a nice stepping stone towards 2009.

OTT: Finally, how much are you looking forward to TCF Bank Stadium and how will it help the Gophers as football returns to campus?

GN: If you have ever watched a game in the Metrodome you know it is the worst place to watch college football in the country (Ed note: I went in 2005, aside from losing in Double OT it was alright, but not great). Gopher games have no sense of atmosphere, energy or any traditional excitement you get from games on campuses around the country. I get more excitement when I go see a home game for my DIII alma mater. I think the new stadium's value for recruiting is a bit overdone, but it will be amazing for the fan experience and getting the campus/students behind this team again.

Thanks for the insight on the Gophers for 2008. I’m looking forward to visiting the new stadium once it opens up.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Know thy Opponent 2008: Michigan State Spartans

I was grossly wrong about our next opponent last season. Because of the way Michigan State finished the year in 2006 and with everything that they had lost I expected the Spartans to be the worst team in the Big Ten. I believe when I did my Big ten preview last year I even predicted a winless conference finish, putting them dead last at 2-10 overall. I was wrong. The opposite of those expectations seems to be ringing true this year, as many experts are picking Michigan State as a Big Ten sleeper.

As one of the four Big Ten stadiums I have not personally visited, I am leaning towards making the drive to East Lansing in early November. The GBI yearbook doesn’t seem to think it will be a worthwhile trip, but there are enough questions that Michigan State must face before I can render a true judgment.

Last Season for the Spartans

I could not have been more wrong about Michigan State last year. In 2007 Michigan State didn’t make matters easy on its fans by being involved in 8 games decided by a touchdown or less, including a pair that went to overtime. The Spartans lost both overtime contests, as well as three more games by a combined 14 points. They played the very good close (24-17 at #1 Ohio State despite not scoring an offensive touchdown), but they also lost the mediocre in a 48-41 overtime loss at home to Northwestern. The state of Indiana was the only place Michigan State could win a road game, as convincing wins at Notre Dame and Purdue were the only wins away from Spartan Stadium. Still, Michigan State played a series of close games away, losing by 3 at Wisconsin and by 7 in double overtime at Iowa. A 24-21 loss to Boston College in the Champs Sports Bowl proved one thing: Michigan State was often its own undoing when it lost.

Purdue’s game against the Spartans was especially frustrating, as the Boilers seemed to take great pleasure in beating themselves. Purdue outgained Michigan State by more than 100 yards, but lost 48-31 because of a number of critical mistakes. Curtis Painter had a pair of interceptions thrown to SirDarien Adams that led to Michigan State scores. A critical Dorien Bryant fumble was returned for a touchdown by Travis Key in the fourth quarter. Finally, Michigan State converted 10 of 19 opportunities on third down, most of them in absolutely critical spots. In my wrap of the game I lamented about how we simply refused to adjust to Devin Thomas in these situations. He had 10 catches for 116 yards, and I swear at least of them were in single coverage over the middle on third down.

Many are picking Michigan State to be this season’s Illinois in Big Ten play because of its schedule. We’ll know how good the Spartans are from the start as they open the season with a road trip to California as their part of the unofficial Big Ten-Pac-10 challenge (Penn State, Purdue, and Ohio State also play Pac-10 teams). Eastern Michigan opens the home schedule before a feisty Florida Atlantic comes to town. Notre Dame is the final non-conference home game before trips to Indiana and Iowa are sandwiched around a home game against Northwestern. Michigan State gets Ohio State and Wisconsin at home while going to Michigan and Penn State for what is a fairly balanced schedule.

Michigan State offense

Michigan State returns 16 starters overall, but will have to replace a few players that were at key positions last fall. Three of those lost were huge contributors to the offense in running back Jehuu Caulcrick, tight end Kellen Davis, and the aforementioned Thomas. Based on last year’s results, Purdue won’t miss all three. In addition to Thomas’ day, Davis had 3 catches for 47 yards and a touchdown while Caulcrick had 77 yards on 24 carries for two more scores. Taking away those 21 points means we win this year, right?

Well, it’s not quite that easy. Brian Hoyer returns as one of the conference’s better quarterbacks, but he is a lot like Curtis Painter in that he has been up and down in his career. In his first full season as the starter Hoyer threw for 2,725 and 20 TD’s against just 11 picks. 16 of those touchdowns don’t return, however, with the loss of Thomas and Davis as his top two targets, as well as Eric Andino. Davis and Thomas accounted for nearly 1,800 of Hoyer’s passing yards and 14 touchdowns between them. Hoyer also didn’t exactly play well in the Champps Sports Bowl either, but is the starter barring disaster or injury.

At running back Purdue will face yet another very talented back in Javon Ringer. By this point in the season our run defense will have already been tested by Oregon’s ground attack, Chris Wells, Tyrell Sutton, and Dan LeFevour, so what is one more 1,000 yard back? Ringer went for 1,484 yards last season, but only had 6 touchdowns. Most of the scoring was done by Caulcrick, who found the end zone 21 times on the ground to go with 891 yards. Michigan State has long thrived on a thunder and lightening type of two back set. Ringer was the lightening, and will be again, but Andrew Hawken will look to replace Caulcrick as the thundering fullback. Hawken did most of his damage last year as a pass catcher with 10 catches for 81 yards and a score. Ringer has battled injuries in his career, but his numbers suggest he was just fine.

As mentioned above, Michigan State must replace its top two receivers, but the running game is more than capable of picking up the slack until someone steps forward. Deon Curry (24 catches, 200 yards, 1 TD) and Mark Dell (20-220-1) will try to fill Thomas’ shoes after he was drafted in the first round. The Spartan’s top-rated recruit in Fred Smith from Detroit could also play a role in the passing game. Davis will be replaced by the Greatest Basketball player ever, Michael Jordan. Jordan switched over from the defense last year, and does not have a reception. He is slotted to be more of an offensive tackle, however, so expect Charlie Gantt and Garrett Celek to be more like pass-catching tight ends. Senior Ryan Allison and redshirt freshman B.J. Cunningham should provide depth at wide receiver.

The offensive line is very experienced with a trio of seniors to go with a pair of juniors at the starting positions. Many of these are back from a unit that plowed the road for almost 2,600 yards rushing, or about 200 per game. Still, they did allow 30 sacks, so they weren’t exactly a brick wall when it came to protecting Hoyer. They will need to be better this year as Hoyer gets used to new targets. Rocco Cironi replaces All-Big Ten tackle Pete Clifford at left tackle. Jess Miller is the other tackle while Mike Bacon and Roland Martin are holding down the guard spots. Junior Joel Nitchman is the smallest starter on the line at 6’3” 295, and joins Cironi as the only other underclassman.

Michigan State defense

Coach Mark Dantonio’s specialty is his defense. In his second season in East Lansing he should begin to make his mark there. Dantonio likes to attack on defense, and it showed last year as the Spartans managed 40 sacks. We should expect blitzes from all over the place, much like we should against Notre Dame. Fortunately, a large reason that Michigan State’s defense was so successful last year is gone as Jonal Saint-Dic and Ervin Baldwin graduated. Those two had 16 sacks last season from the defensive end spots and 33 tackles for loss. Looking to step in is Trevor Anderson. Anderson followed Dantonio over from Cincinnati and was an All-Big East selection there. After sitting out last season Anderson, is ready to be unleashed on the Big Ten. Joining him upfront are seniors Justin Kershaw and Brandon Long, as well as sophomore Oren Wilson. Kershaw is the only returning starter with 34 tackles last year, but Wilson takes up some space in the middle at 290 pounds.

Arguably the best player on Michigan State’s defense is middle linebacker Greg Jones. Last year he played on the outside and led the team with 78 tackles to go with 4.5 sacks. He was also a true freshman, meaning he has two years minimum left in East Lansing. If he continues to develop he will be very well paid to play on Sundays soon. Joining him in the defensive middle is Adam Decker and Eric Gordon. Gordon had 62 tackles and an interception a year ago, while Decker is new to the field.

Opponents had more success last season moving the ball through the air than on the ground against the Spartans, but the secondary did not give up huge numbers. All told, the passing numbers that Michigan State gave up were very comparable to what Hoyer netted, making the category a wash. Painter finished the day 29 of 45 for 344 yards, but two ugly interceptions were the difference. Considering we only had the ball for about 20 minutes, we had success against them. If Painter can move the ball without the picks again, Purdue has a chance. The secondary is experienced with a pair of starters back as well as two reserves that played extensively before moving into starting roles this year. Kendell Davis-Clark and Ross Weaver will man the corner positions. Davis-Clark was second on the team in tackles with 72 stops and added 4 sacks in the blitz-crazy scheme. At safety Otis Wiley is a returning starter while Roderick Jenrette moves into the other starting spot. Wiley had a team high 4 interceptions last year, taking one to the house. Jenrette had an interception in reserve duty.

Michigan State Special Teams

This was not a position of overwhelming strength last year as Brett Swenson returns after hitting 15 of 22 field goals with a long of only 46. He did hit 7 of his final 8 attempts, however. Aaron Bates returns as the punter, but he averaged only a little more than 39 yards per kick last season. Both coverage units were pretty good, not giving up a touchdown while holding opponents from breaking big returns. A pair of new returners must emerge as Devin Thomas handled most kickoff returns and the departed Terry Love handled punts.

Intangibles

I know I have been rather pessimistic in these previews, but when I opened my GBI yearbook I was shocked to see that the staff predicted not just a loss in East Lansing, but a 35-17 blowout. Last year’s game was a 17 point loss, but it really came down to three plays: The two Painter interceptions (which led to 10 points) and the Bryant fumble. If you take those away, you take 17 points off the board and Purdue likely gets a few of their own with the way they were moving ball. This Michigan State team has some key playmakers returning and some good talent, but they also lost quite a bit with players like Adams, Saint-Dic, Thomas, Davis, and Caulcrick departing. Those five did a ton of damage last year to opposing teams. Michigan State has talented players replacing them, but they also must produce those numbers while no one else steps back.

What will help is that Dantonio is now in the second year of implementing his schemes. He seems to have turned around the culture in East Lansing of having a swoon after a big start. Such a start is possible again this year if the Spartans can upset Cal in Berkeley. That will do loads for this team’s confidence. Also, Michigan State has perhaps the best shot of anyone of taking down Ohio State. The Spartans played them tough last year in Columbus, and the fans will be jacked to see the Buckeyes come to East Lansing for what could be one of the best games of the Big Ten season. Michigan State could easily be 3-0 in the Big Ten at that point, and a win would put them in the driver’s seat for Pasadena.

Game Outlook

I would normally say this is an automatic loss for one reason: I am considering it as my Big Ten road trip. Purdue is a sad 1-5 in the first time I see them in a Big Ten venue other than Ross-Ade. I have seen us lose in my first visit to Minnesota (in 2005), Indiana (2001), Illinois (2002), Ohio State (2003), and Michigan (2007). Four of those games were of the absolutely heartbreaking variety. Only my 2006 trip to Northwestern resulted in a first visit Big Ten win. Still, I think we have a better chance in this game than people realize.

If we limit our turnovers we proved we could move against the Spartans last year when they had a much more experienced defense. Why can’t the same be true this year? By this point, game 10, our receivers will have plenty of experience. All we need to do is slow down Ringer and force Hoyer to beat us. He is so up and down that it is not a guarantee he will. Remember, they may have less talent returning at receiver than we do. I feel we match up well with them, and Tiller has a knack for stealing games he shouldn’t against Michigan State.

Prediction

At this point in the season we will be desperate for a good win. Either we will need this one to get to a bowl game in Tiller’s final year, or we will need it to get to a good bowl. I think this is the game that we finally begin to turn things around and build for the future under Hope. Tiller seems to think that the 2010 team could be very, very good. I think the steps toward that begin with this game. Purdue 32, Michigan State 31