Over three months ago we started this thing called the 2011 football season. Most everyone I talked to felt that 6-6 and a bowl game was a best-case scenario and that it would mark progress withint he program. Indeed, 7-5 was viewed as wildly optimistic, especially after Rob Henry went down with a torn ACL. It seems so long ago that we were thinking about Henry as a major contributor and what his loss would mean to the year.
Fast forward 13 weeks. We are now 6-6, just as many people felt we could be if things went as well as possible. We overachieved greatly from MSULaxer's insane 1-11 prediction, but we did reach the goal of postseason eligibility that many felt was the ceiling for the year. Still, people are frustrated that things weren't better, and that stems from the exact reason as to why they weren't better.
This team was wildly inconsistent. We saw flashes of what could have been a 9-3 team, but we also saw flashes of why we probably should have gone 3-9. That equals out to exactly what we got: a mediocre 6-6 finish where it never was as good or as bad as it seemed. At times we played way above ourselves, while at times we played well below ourselves. With that in mind, let's take a look at each of my original game previews and how the actual games played out.
Middle Tennessee State
Original Prediction: Purdue 27, MTSU 13
Actual game: Purdue 27, MTSU 24
We were incredibly lucky in this one, as we were outplayed for most of the day before Caleb TerBush found Antavian Edison over the middle on third down with less than two minutes to go for the winning score. We still needed Ricardo Allen to block the Blue Raiders' tying field goal attempt, but it was a win. Ralph Bolden had his best day with 120 yards rushing. We had a preview of coming attractions (false starts, holding, failing to cover the middle), but in the end we won, as I said after the game:
No matter how ugly it may look on the field, each win has its own beauty. It might be beer goggles after you've lost six in a row, but during one of the hottest games in Ross-Ade history, you take it home and be thankful that you scored. Sure, the next day you'll wonder, "How did I come home with this?", but well, everyone needs a slump-buster.
Original Prediction: Purdue 37, Rice 17
Actual game: Rice 24, Purdue 22
At the time I thought this loss would cost us a bowl game. It nearly did, too. For the third straight year we lost a game to a non-conference team that we probably had no business losing to. This was the worst of the three too, as at least Northern Illinois and Toledo went on to good seasons. Rice barely cared about a football season, as evidenced by the fact there were more Purdue fans than Rice fans in their home stadium.
This was all coaching. We put on a clinic of how not to coach the final five minutes of a ballgame. A week after rushing for 120 yards Bolden became a forgotten member of the offense until the final drive. Still, this becomes a win if we just have better blocking on one play. It was simply not as our day, as O.J. Ross was on his way to a go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter before stumbling out of bounds. We had to settle for a field goal on that drive.
Southeast Missouri State
Original Prediction: Purdue 27, SEMO 16
Actual game: Purdue 59, SEMO 0
This was a pleasant surprise, as there were no signs of struggle at all. It seemed like everyone got in on the fun. We saw Akeem Hunt and Brandon Cottom for the first time as they racked up a pair of scores in garbage time. Robert Marve got his first action of the season. Walk-on senior Spencer Dawson even got his first career action at quarterback.
Original Prediction: Notre Dame 35, Purdue 17
Actual game: Notre Dame 38, Purdue 10
With two weeks to prepare we came out and did nothing against Notre Dame, rolling over after an interception on the first play of the game. Micheal Floyd abused us, and once again we weren't even competitive when teams worse than us (Boston College, South Florida) were against the Fighting Irish. We would see a similar performance by the defense later in the season against Marvin McNutt, as I had this to say about Floyd:
For much of the night our defense against Micheal Floyd, possibly the best receiver in college football, was as effective as me shouting, "COVER MICHAEL FLOYD!" as loud as I could from 40 rows up in section 128.
Original Prediction: Purdue 26, Minnesota 20
Actual game: Purdue 45, Minnesota 17
This was another pleasant surprise game, as everything worked in opening up a 45-3 lead in our Big Ten opener. No one expected that, especially after the debacle that was the Notre Dame game, but we took care of business against a Minnesota team that was awful at the time, but got better as the season went on. Ryan Russell recovered two fumbles and Ricardo Allen tied Rod Woodson with his third career pick 6. We got to see Raheem Mostert really for the first time as he had a rushing touchdown and showed his top-level speed.
At Penn State
Original Prediction: Penn State 31, Purdue 10
Actual game: Penn State 23, Purdue 18
This was a fun trip out to State College, as we played the Nittany Lions a lot closer than expected. Much of that came from their offense being rather anemic. Unfortunately, special teams were awful in that they left points on the field. We had at least an eight point shift from a missed field goal, a missed extra point (and the resulting failed two-point conversion that would have been a kick normally) and an interception hat set up an unexpected field goal. This was probably the best we played away from Ross-Ade all season. Knowing how Penn State's season would turn out, I am sure there fans would take this type of survival win over a major scandal any day.
Original Prediction: Illinois 24, Purdue 14
Actual game: Purdue 21, Illinois 14
At the time this looked like a stunning upset as we opened a 21-0 lead and held on through two late touchdowns to beat a ranked Fighting Illini team. The Penn State game looked like a missed opportunity, as a win there would have had us in the driver's seat of the Leaders Division at 3-0. Now that the season is over, we know this was likely just a part of Illinois' collapse. I was really surprised by this game because the Illini had dominated us the year before with much of the same offense back. Instead, we contained Nathan Scheelhasse and did enough to win. I am happy to be wrong on this one.
Original Prediction: Michigan 31, Purdue 17
Actual game: Michigan 36, Purdue 14
This game really hinged on a few crucial plays that went the way of the Wolverines. After that, things simply got out of control. We got an early big touchdown by Gary Bush to move ahead 7-0, but the defense couldn't get key stops. We gave up a safety, then as Marve had us driving for a critical score before halftime he was intercepted on a tipped pass from Justin Siller. It all fell apart after that. If we score on that drive to get some momentum going into halftime, who knows what happens.
Original Prediction: Wisconsin 34, Purdue 10
Actual game: Wisconsin 62, Purdue 17
I never expected to win at Wisconsin, but thanks to two great returns by Mostert we were only down 14-10 at one point late in the first quarter. Unfortunately, we made the conscious decision not to stop Montee Ball, resulting in the most points ever given up by a Purdue team. We got our ass thoroughly kicked, and that will continue to happen every year against Wisconsin until we can match their physicality.
Original Prediction: Purdue 13, Ohio State 10
Actual game: Purdue 26, Ohio State 23 OT
It is fun to say it, but we simply own Ohio State at home this century. I even predicted victory back on August 1 with the simple formula of slow down the running game and force them to throw. Except for a few Braxton Miller scrambles that is exactly what we did. I have no idea why we play them so well in Ross-Ade. It makes no sense, but we just do. This one certainly looked like one of those games where we're the better team for 58 minutes only to lose it on a cheap play in the last two. That was until Bruce Gaston blocked the go-ahead extra point. For the second time this year a block kick saved our season. Marve then redeemed himself for an awful interception with a brilliant overtime. In retrospect, it was an incredibly fun game. While it was happening I think I suffered about four heart attacks.
Original Prediction: Purdue 27, Iowa 21
Actual game: Iowa 31, Purdue 21
This is another missed opportunity game because we couldn't have been more lost on both sides of the ball, but we were a questionable call at the goal line and an onside kick away from having a chance in the last few minutes. The defensive strategy seemed to be, "Let McNutt and Marcus Coker run loose until they get tired". Talking about our offensive strategy would imply we had one. This was just a brutal game against Our Most Hated Rival, and it stings to lose the Trophy of Badassery to those Nile Kinnick zombie-creating scumbags.
Original Prediction: Purdue 34, Indiana 27
Actual game: Purdue 33, Indiana 25
For a prediction that was made months in advance I was pretty damn close on this one. It wasn't pretty and I was pretty angry at this team about midway through the second quarter, but we got the job done. The Bucket returned home safely and we even have The Cannon now to keep it company. Indiana ended up being much worse than initially thought, as its defense couldn't stop anyone and the offense seemed to flame out after some big early plays. Still, it took a controversial interception to seal the deal. It doesn't matter though, as another P is going on the Bucket tonight and we have another game.
What does it all mean?
Most of you readers see me as one of the most positive of Purdue fans. I usually try to look for the good and try to see where we can find victory. When even I predict a 7-5 season and think it is a stretch, I don't think we can consider 6-6 an abject failure. We accomplished what we needed to: We made it to the postseason. As a result, Danny Hope will get at least one more season.
I know there is a large contingent that wants Hope gone, but I never felt he would be fired after three years because that is not what Purdue does. We almost always give a coach at least five seasons. This is the first time we have had a new coach in the modern "everybody goes to a bowl game" era, so that could have been a deciding factor, When Joe Tiller took over the program in 1997 there were only 20 bowl games. That meant only 40 of 113 teams played a postseason game. There are now 35 bowl games, so that means 70 spots for 120 teams. Proportionately, more teams play in a bowl game now than in the NCAA Tournament. That raises the stakes for coaches to produce immediately, as a three year bowl drought or longer is seen as a major failure. Does that mean Hope would have been gone had we lost to the Hoosiers? It's hard to say.
He will be back. I am 100% certain of that. The season's goals were accomplished, so there is no call to fire him. That said, I think there needs to be improvement next season. Winning the bowl game against a probably non-BCS conference opponent is an important first step. Going 3-0 against Eastern Kentucky, Marshall, and Eastern Michigan is another step. Hope cannot afford another loss to a MAC-level program, especially when he has a better record against Ohio State (2-1) than against the MAC (2-2).
From there, I think he needs to finish at least .500 in the conference again, and that won't be easy. Minnesota and Illinois should be games we can win, but we're not a good road team. He has to beat Indiana at home, and both Penn State at home and Iowa on the road are toss-ups. Asking us to win at Notre Dame or Ohio State will likely be a very tall order, as will beating Michigan and Wisconsin at home be.
In my opinion, Hope's coordinators are the problem. J.B. Gibboney is completely useless when it comes to kickoff coverage. Having co-defensive coordinators is like having two quarterbacks. Gary Nord had an excellent offense in 2009 sans all the turnover problems, but it has greatly regressed. It wouldn't surprise me if we see a coordinator change before next season.