Is it possible to give up 45 points, lose by 24, and still feel like there were a ton of positives for your football team? When your team is as bad as Purdue has been, the answer is yes.
The Boilermakers ranked at or near the bottom in nearly every discernible offensive metric coming into today's game. Of the 13 touchdowns they had scored, two came on a short field due to a fumbles punt and one came on a kickoff return. Two more came in the dying seconds on long passes against second and third-stringers long after the result had been decided.
That left eight touchdowns that were earned the hard way: By consistent, field-spanning drives. The last one in Big Ten play for Purdue came on September 21 at Wisconsin. Today Purdue not only did it once, but twice! Justin Sinz caught a two-yard touchdown pass from Danny Etling early in the second quarter to cap a nine play, 75-yard drive. It also made the score 14-7, answering a rough first quarter defensively.
To prove it was not a fluke, the Boilers moved 84 yards in seven plays to open the second half and cut it to 28-21 after Etling got Purdue's first rushing touchdown since the Wisconsin game. Yes, Purdue was not doing itself any favors defensively, but instead of getting down and staying down it was actually responding. This was after Raheem Mostert had a 100-yard kickoff return for a score, something that was sorely needed.
After Etling's TD run the defense even answered, forcing a field goal by the Nittany Lions. Sure, it was 31-21, but after the way Bill Belton and Zach Zwinak moved the ball at will on the ground it felt like a victory. Purdue had some momentum, and if it could manage another score things would get really interesting.
Purdue almost got that score, but the game's pivotal tackle was made by a kicker to prevent it. Akeem Hunt almost broke free for a second kickoff return for a score, only he was tackled by Sam Ficken, the Penn State kicker who was much maligned last year. Just three plays later Etling was sacked by Deion Barnes, Austin Johnson recovered it, and Zwinak scored six plays after that. In less than three minutes Purdue went from possibly being down three with a ton of momentum to down 17.
The game was mostly over from there. Purdue moved the ball into Penn State territory early in the fourth quarter, but Etling was sacked and fumbled again, this time with Mike Hull falling on it. Zwinak burned the clock with seven carries before Christian Hackenberg denied him a Bundy on the game's final touchdown.
It was more of the same for what we've seen from Purdue. Mistakes came at the worst time. The defense could not stop the run and could not get off the field on third down. For the first time in ages, however, the offense actually showed some life. Etling was sacked eight times, fumbling twice and throwing an interception, but he still had a career high 223 yards and was an impressive 21 of 33. If we can ever get the man an offensive line he showed he can be dangerous.
I listened to most of the game on the radio and both Pete Quinn and Rob Blackmon raised a salient point. For the first time in a long time Purdue had confidence on offense and looked like it was having fun. I agreed with them. Down 28-21 early in the third quarter you actually felt like a stop or two might yield a ballgame. Those stops did not come, but when scoring more than 10 points has been a huge challenge for most of the season this was a sign of marked improvement.
- Landon Feichter had his first interception of the year despite playing as Monty Python's Black Knight.
- DeAngelo Yancey got involved again with four catches for 83 yards.
- Cameron Posey had a big day with six catches for 64 yards.
- Mostert finally broke out on a kick return.
Purdue may be entering its final two games at 1-9, but after a long stretch of abysmal play the offense actually showed some competence today. Now they get to face two defenses that might be worse than their own. If the offense cannot show strides against Illinois and especially Indiana (where people in wheelchairs can run for 150 yards and three scores) then there are huge problems. If you can't run on Indiana you cannot run on anyone. Most of the guys who shined offensively are freshmen too. Again, get them an offensive line that can open some holes in the running game and protect the quarterback and it will fix a lot of things.
Regardless of what happens in the final two games, we saw at least a little promise today. Yes, they are very small signs, but when you have played as bad as Purdue has for most of the season you have to find something to hold on to. If it means hope that we can beat an Illinois team that has lost 20 consecutive Big Ten games or an Indiana run defense that would have to improve to be bad, so be it.