I am sitting here at a Panera Bread in the Indianapolis area continuing to wait anxiously. The few college football fans that have a game tonight on the opening Thursday night are the lucky ones. As a Purdue fan though were a little less than 48 hours from the kickoff of what I feel will either be a season in which we surprise a bunch of people, or fall further into obscurity. There will be no middle ground this year. There has been enough middle ground over the past three seasons.
I have talked quite a bit about other teams recently. I have gone in depth into the rest of our schedule, the Big Ten Conference as a whole, and even my wife’s Miami Hurricanes. I have neglected going into detail about Purdue because I feel like so much has been said by the good folks at GBI and on the message boards that my readers would like to hear a little about who we are going to be facing.
Since some teams are kicking off tonight and we still have almost 48 hours to go the anxiousness is growing. Because of that I feel compelled to write about what I view are the keys to the season, and how I view things playing out.
I know, I know, great analysis there Travis. Obviously it needs to play better. What I would like to see more of though is aggressiveness from all 11 players on the field. Not only has youth, injuries, and inexperience limited production the past few seasons, it has taken away the aggressive, blitzing style of defense that has made our good defensive units even better throughout Tiller’s tenure as coach. Think of the 2003 defense: not only were there several very talented guys playing, they were also very experienced. This experience allowed us to have a more aggressive style, blitzing from the linebackers and secondary, and producing turnovers. We have been unable to do that the last few seasons.
Last year we almost never blitzed from the linebacker position, and as a result teams were able to run all over us because their offensive lines could simply dominate our undersized defensive front. I never thought the secondary did that bad last year because so many teams had such success running the ball against us. When teams like Penn State and Wisconsin can run on you it’s expected, when a team like Indiana State runs all over you it’s a serious problem. At times last year it seemed like we all expected Anthony Spencer was going to do everything. I think this year’s defense will benefit from having him out of the lineup because it will force them to play more as a team. The experience factor will also play a huge role as we’ll be able to do more advance stuff rather than playing a basic package.
I am pleased that there is more size in the middle, and I like the motor and toughness of Ryan baker and Jermaine Guynn. If the front seven plays better the whole defense will play better. Let’s face it, they can’t play much worse. They don’t even need to play significantly better. The way our offense is capable of playing they only need to play well enough to keep teams at about 20-25 points. Anything more than that and there really is no reason we shouldn’t be able to win.
Last year we were fantastic at moving the ball. Painter broke Drew’s Big Ten record for passing yards in a season (it should be noted he had one more game to do it in), we had a good but not great running game to compliment things. This year we should be even better as the Sheets-Taylor combo in the backfield is as good as the Void-Jones combo we had a few years ago, probably even better. Painter has plenty of options to throw to, including one of the best tight ends in the conference. I am not too worried about the offensive line replacements because that never seems to be an issue with us.
Where we need to show improvement is in finishing drives. The most deflating feeling last year was the first quarter of the Hawaii game, when we took over at the ten yard line, drove all the way down to the one and overcoming to ten yard penalties along the way only to fumble the ball away on the final play. We gained more than 100 yards on that drive and came away with absolutely nothing. What’s worse is it took the Warriors all of four plays to go the length of the field and score on us. I believe this is the sole reason we lost the game.
If the offense can finish drives with points and Painter can cut his interceptions in half we should have a fantastic unit. Last year I wish we had tried to runt he ball more in order to keep our own defense off the field, but I recognize we’ll never be a ball control team. This year we might be able to do more of that, and that can only help the defense.
The Kicking game
It needs to be better, plain and simple. I am not going to jump all over Chris Summers though because I recognize he was a true freshman walk-on thrust into the role. I also know he has worked incredibly hard since the end of last season to get better. If he is no better on the field this year it is certainly not for lack of effort. It’s unfortunate that we don’t really have any other options if he doesn’t work out this year, but he still has a chance so we should support him. It’s not like he is going out there and missing kicks on purpose.
He certainly has the leg, so hopefully accuracy can be learned. People are making a huge deal about the kick he missed in the bowl game, but the truth is that we had much bigger problems in that game. None of his misses directly cost us a game either, unlike Dorsch who directly caused us to lose at least five games with misses during his time here. Summers has also hit a couple from 45 yards or more, so that is a nice bonus. If he gets the accuracy down he should develop into a fine kicker.
Remember, at one time everyone hated Travis Dorsch too. By the time he was a senior he was one of the best kickers in the nation. I am not saying that is going to happen with Chris Summers, but he can certainly be better. It may even be a good thing he will begin on the road and potentially get a few kicks under his belt before coming home.
Much is made about the "swagger" of players from the University of Miami. While it can go overboard in some instances (such stomping on an opponents’ logo at midfield), there is something to be said for having confidence on the field. I have sent hat sorely lacking from our team of late, and I think we could benefit from having a bit more of an attitude when playing. I’m not saying we should go over the top, but we should at least be more aggressive. Winning the first game on the road at Toledo may not seem like much, but I think it will be a huge confidence booster simply because it will be a tough road game to start the year.
The surprise factor
Some of Tiller’s best teams at Purdue have come completely out of left field. No one expects us to do much of anything this year simply because Michigan and Ohio State are back on the schedule. My answer to that is simply, "so what?" Look, we play in the Big Ten, we’ve been there for over a century as a charter member. It’s not exactly a surprise that we have to play Michigan or Ohio State once in awhile. We’ve been doing it for years because it comes with the territory. Sure, they have stood in our way, but our best teams have still been able to beat them. We backed into the Rose Bowl in 2000 not because we lost to those two teams, but we because we lost a close road game to a bad Penn State team and got smoked by a bad Michigan State team. We’ve beaten them before and we will beat them again. As far as Notre Dame goes we play them every year, so it’s not exactly a surprise there. We know what needs to be done; we simply need to do it.
So I am finishing this on Friday morning now, knowing there is nothing else to do but play the games. We’ll know a lot more about our team in 36 hours than we know right now. The only thing we can do until then is wait and Boiler Up!