After waiting through the long summer it is hard to believe that 25% of the regular season is already over. Big Ten play hasn't even started yet, but you can feel that there is cautious optimism around the program for two reasons. First, Purdue hasn't looked bad at all. Second, the rest of the Big Ten has some serious flaws.
We can all agree that this is not a strong year to win the conference. I am not asking for a degree of difficulty, however. I'd enjoy sliding into the Big Ten title game at 8-4 in a crappy Big Ten just as much as I would rolling 12-0 over a slate of Notre Dame, Michigan, Ohio State, Nebraska, and Penn State all in a row while they were ranked in the top 10.
Purdue fans can't be picky about when the Boilers contend for the conference title in football. If we have a shot we have to take it. This year we have a shot. My only caveat is that I want to win the division outright. None of this tie or finish behind OSU and go on a technicality crap.
So far Purdue has blown out two severely overmatched opponents and played a team close that may be one of the best in the country when all is said and done. Eastern Kentucky, even though they are FCS, is looking like the better win of the two at this point because they continue to do well at the FCS level. There has also been only one major injury, to Robert Marve, and it appears as if his return may happen.
With that in mind, let's give out some grades here at the quarter pole:
Run Defense: A
Purdue has only given up 108.7 yards per game so far, which is a vast improvement over last season when we gave up 175 per game. We haven't exactly faced a plethora of air raid offenses, either. Matt Denham is one of the best running backs in all of FCS and Notre Dame is normally good for 250 yards against us on the ground. More than half of the yardage game from Eastern Michigan this last Saturday well after the game was decided.
The Big Ten is still primarily a running league. It may not be a conventional running league for some teams with bruising fullbacks and running backs, but stopping the run is still a priority against more than half of our league schedule. We're already looking at Braxton Miller, Denard Robinson, MarQueis Gray, and Nathan Scheelhaase as mobile quarterbacks down the road if they are healthy. Miller and Robinson are first and fourth, respectively, in rushing right now. There is also still Montee Ball and Damon Bullock for Wisconsin and Iowa. We're not going to get a break against good running teams at all, so I am extremely encouraged that we have done an excellent job of stopping the run.
Pass Defense: B
This has also been better, partially because the defense as a whole has greatly improved. The pass rush was disruptive and a major difference-maker against Notre Dame with five sacks. Kawann Short is nothing short of unstoppable. Purdue has also intercepted five passes with four different players, not one of them being Ricardo Allen.
Josh Johnson has honestly been very impressive in covering his man and even acquitted himself well in a near impossible matchup with Tyler Eifert. The only concern I have is what will happen when we face one of the extremely mobile quarterbacks mentioned above. How quickly can we break out of pass coverage and contain a guy like Miller who at times is the only offense Ohio State can generate?
Overall Defense: A
Purdue has given up 42 points on the season. 12 of those points either came on a defense score or by turning the ball over to the other team in makeable field goal range. That means the defense is only totally responsible for 30 of the 42 points surrendered. That's 10 points per game, which is way down from 26.8 a year ago.
Last year's statistics were skewed as well with one shutout against an FCS team. Ultimately, I want a defense that can consistently hold teams under 20. It should never be a stretch for a Purdue offense to score more than 20 points. So far, the defense has done exactly that.
The real test will come against Marshall, who leads the nation in passing. Rakeem Cato is the real deal, kids.
Run Offense: B+
Purdue is averaging 219 yards on the ground per game, but again, this is skewed from a huge day against Eastern Michigan. That was balanced somewhat by the Notre Dame front seven, who held Purdue under 200 yards rushing. Even then, we never totally abandoned the running game and threw 55 times as some Purdue teams in the past have done.
Akeem Hunt has shown that he needs to be used more. On only 11 carries he has 139 yards rushing and he has another 106 yards on just three receptions. That's an average of 17.5 yards every time he touches the ball. I don't expect him to keep up that pace once Big Ten play starts, but through three games it is damned impressive.
Akeem Shavers is getting the hard yards on the ground at a more modest five yards per carry. Brandon Cottom is over 100 yards on the season with 107 on just five carries. Raheem Mostert, Danny Anthrop, and Kurt Freytag are all over five yards per carry too. Seven different players have scored a rushing touchdown as well.
In truth, the only thing docking this grade slightly is the Notre Dame game.
Pass Offense: B-
Each main quarterback has only played in two games and here is what we have:
Robert Marve: 41-56-1, 414 yards, 4 touchdowns, 8 yards rushing
Caleb TerBush: 24-43-3, 237 yards, 3 touchdowns, 18 yards rushing, 1 TD
Rob Henry: 9-15-1, 103 yards, 1 touchdown, 28 yards rushing
The rushing stats between the three are about even. Much of Henry's passing has been done at the end of blowouts, but between Marve and TerBush there is no contest. They each had most of a game against a similar bad defense and half of a game against Notre Dame. There is little question that Marve is the better option.
Will his knee hold out, however? We're now in a position that a Marve-TerBush rotation may have to happen simply because Marve cannot play a full game. I don't think he is going to be at 100% the rest of the year. Is a 90% or even 80% Marve enough? Will Hope even give him that chance? There is little question in my mind that pull Marve in favor of TerBush for the third quarter against ND was a mistake. Marve needed to be in there and it may be the different right now between 2-1 and 3-0.
All of it comes down to the question of Marve's left knee and Danny Hope's decision-making, neither of which fill me with confidence in this department.
As far as the receivers go, Antavian Edison and O.J. Ross have been solid with 18 catches each for 353 yards. Edison has found the end zone four times too. Gabe Holmes is becoming an effective big target over the middle of the field and Gary Bush has been dangerous. Dolapo Macarthy has been a pleasant surprise and can be the big outside receiver that makes a huge difference later.
Overall Offense: B
Points have not been a problem. Even against Notre Dame, Marve moved the offense well when he was in there. Five interceptions and four lost fumbles, however, are a huge problem. So far they have only resulted in 12 points, but that is still four points per game being handed back over to the other side.
It is clear that when Purdue gets in the red zone it is going to score. Purdue is 13 for 13 in the red zone with 12 touchdowns and a field goal.
Special Teams: C
It seems this has been a feast or famine area. Mostert is once again a threat to take any kick to the house. He damn near pulled a miracle TD out of his ass on the squib kick at the end of the Notre Dame game. Cody Webster is averaging 45 yards per punt and, more importantly, has dropped 10 of 12 inside the 20. With a good defense that means we're making teams drive 80 yards or more on us when we do have to punt.
On the down side, we've already had a punt blocked and given up a fumbled punt return. An extra point was blocked and Sam McCartney missed two more. Field Goals are still a mystery because we've only attempted (and made) one, but hey, I am fine with scoring touchdowns instead.
Danny Hope seems to be drawing much of the criticism so far, but only some of it is warranted. I have to praise his willingness to go for it on 4th down in key situations at Notre Dame. That was ballsy. As a team Purdue is still a perfect 4 for 4 when it goes for it on fourth down too. They have also opened up the offense at least a little and have adjusted (at times) to what is working as opposed to forcing things. TerBush was struggling through the air against EMU, so we used an overpowering ground game. These are coaching decisions that definitely work.
The biggest factor against the coaching staff is the ridiculous quarterback rotation. When faced with Henry and only Henry as a backup the offense has had very little trouble moving. Things were a little slow on Saturday against EMU, but eventually things got moving. We've also seen the occasional throw downfield from all three quarterbacks. The pass simply has yet to be caught when we do throw it deep.
Unfortunately, it all goes back to the quarterback decision. No one likes it. In the one game we used the planned rotation it backfired. Now the better guy is hurt and we may be forced to go with it out of necessity.