When Darrell Hazell was hired as Purdue's head coach we were enamored with what we hoped would be a solid running game. We saw Trayion Durham and Dri Archer each rushed for Kent State under him last year, leading to 11 victories. We also saw that Brandon Cottom and Akeem Hunt were almost perfect analogs for those two backs. It looks like the Cradle of Quarterbacks would take a back seat as a thunder and lightning attack led by Cottom and Hunt would run all over people.
Through two games, that is not the case. Cottom has yet to take a single carry and seems strangely buried, only making appearances on the kickoff team despite being a junior with experience that was talked about widely throughout fall practice (along with Dolapo Macarthy, who has also been missing, but that is another story). Hunt has 103 yards on the ground in two games, which is only four more yards than yesterday's opening kickoff he returned for a touchdown. As a team Purdue has only 199 yards rushing, with quarterback Rob Henry and receiver B.J. Knauf accounting for both touchdowns.
It is not as if Purdue has played stout run defenses, either. Against Indiana, Indiana State gave up 313 yards on the ground. Yesterday, the previously stout Cincinnati defense gave up 41 points and 210 yards on the ground to Illinois after giving up just 65 rushing yards to Purdue. Against both opponents so far Purdue has rushed for roughly a third of the yards the opposing defense has given up in their other games. This is significant too, since both Indiana and Illinois appear at the end of the schedule.
You cannot argue that it is the personnel, at least in terms of the ballcarriers. Henry averged better than five yards per carry in 2010. Hunt averaged better than eight yards per carry in each of his first two season, but it below four this year. So far, neither has been able to make any sort of headway unless Patrick Bade and Sterling Carter come in as double blocking tight ends, and that is with Kurt Freytag also in as a blocking fullback.
A large portion of the problem lies at the feet of the offensive line. As mentioned yesterday, Purdue had seven plays in the first half in which it needed a single yard against likely the worst defensive line we will see all season. It is a defensive line that was gashed for over 300 yards on the ground last week, and four of Purdue's five starters on the offensive line are seniors. On the first play Purdue was stuffed on a 4th and goal close to midfield. Later in the half, Indiana State held six times after Purdue got inside the two yard line, forcing us to settle for only three points.
Much has been made of Rob Henry's struggles at quarterback and whether it is time to go with Austin Appleby or Danny Etling. Henry hasn't been great as a passer, for sure, but he is completing a career high percentage of his passes at 55.9%. The offensive line, however, is not allowing the running game to get going. In both games there have been multiple fumbled exchanges between Henry and Robert Kugler at center, one of which backed Purdue up into a tougher field goal that was missed yesterday.
So what is the solution? Is the line struggling because they are under a new coaching staff? Have the new coaches been unable to prepare experienced players that should be far better because of that experience? Is it time for J.J. Prince, Jordan Roos, and Jason King as redshirt freshmen on the two-deeps to move into the starting lineup? Finally, where on earth is Cottom and why has he been invisible, especially yesterday when he was the perfect player in the one-yard situations?
Having been at both games, I think the root of Purdue's struggles have been on the line combined with Henry missing on some potential big plays. Dalyn Dawkins has been a pleasant surprise and Hunt I still shifty in space, but yesterday the offensive line struggled to create the most basic of holes for any running back. As a unit, the line has to get light years better, and in a hurry. We're about to face a defensive line that has Louis Nix as one of the best defensive linesmen in the country. There has to be drastic improvement up front or it will be a long night in West Lafayette next Saturday.