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Filling the void

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I admit that this is a difficult time of year to write, yet I still have the desire to. Not being in West Lafayette nor being directly connected to the program means that there isn’t a whole lot to fill the void between the regular season and the bowl game. After writing three entries a week for 13 weeks in a row I would like to say I have been driven mad by the change of pace, but with the holidays, getting back from the Hawaii trip, and the inevitable shift of my psyche from football to basketball mode I have been so caught up in everything I simply haven’t had the time I have wanted to devote to my writing. We still do have a season going on and I do recognize that there is plenty to comment on.

The first thing I wanted to comment on is rumors, specifically the rumor that was floated about Miami defensive coordinator randy Shannon heading up to West Lafayette. I admit when I first read this rumored I was surprised because it meant on of three things. It meant that either coach Tiller was retiring and Shannon was becoming the new head coach, Tiller was retiring and Brock Spack was taking over as head coach, therefore necessitating that Shannon would become the new defensive coordinator, or that Spack was gone at the end of the season to be replaced by Shannon.

It was a very intriguing rumor while it lasted, especially involving the unique circumstance of my marriage between Miami and Purdue. Normally both teams aren’t mentioned in the same circles, except in terms of being back-to-back national disappointments. Shannon was a big name too, too big of a name than Purdue is normally linked with. Still, it would have been huge news because I have long been envious of the defense that Miami has built in recent years. I made the comment earlier this year that if you combine Purdue’s offense with Miami’s defense you would have a national title contender against either teams’ schedule.

Miami gave up more than 21 points just twice in 12 games. One game was against Louisville at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium. The Cards have been known to score a point or two at home. The other was in a bit of a collapse against Georgia Tech. Even in that game it was a few mistakes from an otherwise disciplined unit that cost them the game. By comparison the Miami offense only got over 25 points three times: once against 1-AA Florida A&M, against winless Florida International, and against a 3-9 North Carolina team. Even a good defense will struggle when the offense can’t score.

When looking at us, we were the opposite. Take away the Penn State and even Wisconsin game in which a tired D gave up two late scores, our defense was horrid. We knew this and needed to simply outscore some pretty bad teams. We got a few big stops against Indiana, Minnesota, and Miami (OH) to preserve wins, but for the most part it was the offense bailing us out by rolling up more than 30 points. Only in the Michigan State game did we really win what could be called a defensive struggle, and that was owed as much to the ineptitude of the Spartans as our defense.

Can you imagine how our season would have gone differently with a Randy Shannon led defense against Iowa, Notre Dame, and Hawaii? How would Miami’s had gone differently if they had our offense clicking against the likes of Maryland, Florida State, Virginia Tech, and Virginia. We’ll get a glimpse of it in a few weeks when we play Maryland, but it is an intriguing thought that came to mind when the Shannon rumor was strong.

Of course, now that Shannon has signed on to be Miami’s next head coach we won’t get to find out how a Randy Shannon built defense would look at Purdue. We would still need the personnel to pull it off too, something we have been lacking the last few years because of injuries and youth. With a coach like Shannon you can bring in some good players. And please don’t make any cracks about Miami having thugs for players. With the arrests that Purdue has had in recent years we’ve been much worse than Miami. We just happen to have a lower profile, plus we can’t rap.

Which gets me looking forward to next season. I know we still have bowl games to play, but it is never too early to plan ahead to next year. So with that, I offer the briefest, most superficial look at every team in the Big Ten next year, starting with our own Boilermakers.

Purdue: The bad news is that we graduate two critical offensive linemen and an all-world talent in Anthony Spencer. The good news is that pretty much everyone else comes back. The offense should be unstoppable unless it stops itself, which happened several times this year. Assuming no one bolts to the NFL early and we can replace Nwaneri and Otto, we should be able to roll on anyone offensively.

Defensively, we need to fix the front seven or we can expect to have more no-name running backs and quarterbacks to have career days running the football against us. The secondary is really starting to come together, but when the front seven can’t get any push or stop the run, the secondary is naturally going to get torched. Will the possible return of Jason Werner and Torri Williams make much of a difference? Will our defensive tackles get some size and be able to stop the run better? Will we have another pas rushing option since Spencer is leaving? I haven’t seen us recruit an impact guy on defense that can play right away since Stu Schweigert and his posse. It is honestly looking like the defense will be a liability for the third straight year, only we’re now slanting more against being unable to stop the run as opposed to the pass.

On special teams it will be interesting to see how much Chris Summers improves with a year of experience. Yes, he has been bad, but he hasn’t cost us a game yet. It may be a competition between him and Tim Daugherty in the spring, but Chris does have a year of experience behind him. One of these two will emerge because we don’t really have many other options. Look for Summers to continue kicking off regardless, as the majority of his short kicks have been planned short kicks high in the air to the 20 to allow the coverage team to get there. We haven’t given up a big return all year, and he’s done a fine job there, an area where he hasn’t received a lot of credit. Remember fans, people rode Travis Dorsch for the better part of three years, and as a senior he damn near won the Groza award when he was our only real offensive weapon.

The schedule is brutal and makes me queasy just thinking about it. I do not like opening on the road at Toledo one bit, and the four game stretch of Notre dame, Ohio State, at Michigan, Iowa is ruthless. Still, if we’re going to take a step forward as a program I am saying right now we need to win three of those four games. We won’t get any respect unless we do. Central Michigan is no walk in the park as they just won the MAC. There will be no complaints of playing a weak schedule next year, as only Eastern Illinois appears to be a true pushover. Thank God there’s now Wisconsin on the schedule. If we want to gain any respect we must finish at least 9-3 against a difficult schedule, as I see the Michigan and Penn State road trips as being the only really hard games to win. We have matched up well against Ohio State at home in recent years and they lose quite a bit on offense, but it still won’t be easy.

Indiana: Next year is the make or break year for the Hoosiers. There are no excuses anymore since they get the break we had by losing Michigan and Ohio State, so it’s perfectly alright for them to play a weak schedule while we’re committing a capital offense if we do. They still have a slot to fill schedule-wise, but they have Indiana State, a trip to Akron, and Central Michigan listed as out of conference games. The Chips won’t be a pushover, but the other two need to be wins. Outside of Iowa and Wisconsin there are no scary road trips, and if they can ever really get a home field advantage Indiana could be decent.

The offense will improve as Kellen Lewis improves, as he is a gamer. Unlike Juice Williams he can actually hold on to the football when running with it and has a solid target to throw to in James Hardy if Hardy doesn’t go to the NFL or jail. I find it funny that their program is a shooting rocket, when it is Purdue that has had all the astronauts and rocket scientists. It must be the same shooting rocket associated with the North Korean nuclear program.

The key for Indiana will be much like ours: if they can improve their defense to actually stop someone when it matters. They have plenty of speed, but it needs to pay off with actually playmaking ability. An eight win season is possible for the Hoosiers, but they have to play nearly perfect football in order to get there. They haven’t exactly set a standard for that in losing four very winnable games in 2006. Their season will be a success if they make a bowl, which for the first time in years is a reachable goal.

Illinois: If the Illini can solve their turnover problems they could be the surprise team of 2007. They played Ohio State closer than anyone not named Michigan this year, and they have a ton of youth that will develop. The out of conference schedule is tough, but not overwhelmingly so with trips to Syracuse and St. Louis to play Missouri, and home games against Kent State and Western Illinois.

Juice Williams is very athletic and will battle Kellen lewis for the title of Michael Vick of the Big Ten. By Michael Vick of the Big Ten I mean a dynamic running quarterback who has the potential to break a big play, but the team overall still sucks. The first one to contract herpes wins the title (kidding!). Seriously though, if he can hold on to the football Illinois will be able to move against almost anyone. Losing a mercurial Purdue team and Michigan State from the schedule is not good, and gaining a Michigan team that may be the best in the country certainly doesn’t help matters.

Illinois’ defense wasn’t that bad this year, and they will be better. I think Illinois could be the surprise of the conference next year, or they just as easily could remain at the bottom of the standings. Again, the turnover story will be the key. Illinois will either be in a mid-level bowl or finish dead last.

Iowa: It may be time for the Hawkeyes to take a major step back in the Big Ten, as they didn’t finish the season strong at all and losing even a banged up Drew Tate will hurt. If the Hawkeyes make some noise against Texas in the Alamo bowl they could have a big year next year. If they get destroyed they may be at the bottom of the conference.

They have a non-conference schedule with some chest hair by playing Northern Illinois in Chicago and Western Michigan in Iowa City. Those are two of the better MAC teams and both are in bowl games this year. They also get Syracuse in Iowa City after needing double-OT to win this year and a tricky rivalry game at Iowa State. That leaves little margin for error in a Big ten where the vast majority of teams that aren’t already powers will get better. Iowa is one of the few teams that may get worse next year.

It could be a very long year in Iowa City as they have to go to Penn State, Purdue, and Wisconsin in the conference. At least there is no Ohio State or Michigan, as that is always a plus.
If Iowa is going to continue being Iowa they will scrap and claw to a 9-3 finish against a fairly tough slate. If they start next year like they finished this year, it could be Kirk Ferentz’ first losing season in Iowa City in a long time. Still, it is Iowa and they should at least finish 6-6 for a bowl game no matter what.

Michigan: If it doesn’t get hit by early departures to the NFL Michigan could very well be the pre-season #1 team next year. They started playing like the Michigan of old this year and I doubt they are going to use the one open date on the schedule to bring in someone like Florida or USC. Once again a game at the end of the season could decide half of the national title game, only this time it would be at Wisconsin instead of Ohio State.

The non-conference slate is unspectacular. The hardest game currently is a visit from a Notre Dame team that should take several steps back from an already over-inflated year. Eastern Michigan is consistently one of the worst teams in Division 1-A, but a visit from Oregon is interesting and could provide a challenge. The talent is certainly returning, assuming Mike Hart doesn't bolt to the NFL early. This team can dominate the Big Ten next year and the only teams that may challenge them are Wisconsin and Ohio State, who they finish the season with. Remember what Mike Hart did to Purdue as a freshman in 2004? He could be in for an even bigger day than the infamous Game after the Fumble.

Michigan will start the season in the top five and anyone who is going to knock them off next year needs to have a near perfect game. For their sakes they are lucky that they miss the 'shooting rocket' of a program in Indiana, and they miss Iowa as well. Anything less than the Big Ten championship is a failure.

Michigan State: It certainly looks like the Spartans will be the worst team in the Big Ten next year. They finished 2006 on about as down of a note as you can after the third quarter of the Notre Dame game, and they lose their highly overrated, more so than Brady Quinn, quarterback of the last four years. They will also be breaking in a new coach and several new players. The players that do come back aren't exactly that great. Along with Iowa, this is one of the teams that should actually be worse next year, and after a 4-8 season that isn't good.

Michigan State simply needs to blow everything up and start all over, and that is what the 2007 season will be for the Spartans. You can count on a win with a visit to Notre Dame, since they seem to have the uncanny ability to win in South Bend with regularity when no one else outside of USC can. The rest of the non-conference schedule is average with visits from Western Michigan, Pittsburgh, and UAB.

Traveling to Ohio State and Iowa aren't gifts, and the Spartans only miss Illinois and Minnesota out of conference. That doesn't help either. Simply put, the Spartans should be the worst team in the conference next year and should define the term rebuilding year.

NEXT UP: The second half of a look at next year, with predicted Big Ten Standings.

TO BE CONTINUED…