I don't think I have ever been quite so pleased from a loss.
That itself should tell the depth to which Purdue football had sunk. The Boilers did not come close to getting a touchdown and missed two field goals, but the 14-0 defeat to a very good team represents tangible improvement over the season's previous results. Before today, Purdue was doing very little right on either side of the ball. Today, the defense turned in its best game of the season against an offense that was figuring things out and the offense, though it was shut out, at least moved the football with regularity and finally gave the defense the breaks it needed with sustained drives.
For more than three quarters the game hinged on a single play. That occurred in the second quarter, when Danny Etling dropped back to pass near midfield. He was blindsided by Max Bullough and the ball was knocked loose a split second before his arm started moving forward. Denicos Allen picked it up cleanly on one hop and scored easily.
Aside from that, Purdue was the better team for most of the afternoon. We haven't been able to say that much this year. Michigan State was having trouble running the ball and Connor Cook was missing open receivers and overthrowing others. Meanwhile, Purdue was moving the ball. Brandon Cottom was effective on some power runs, something we haven't seen all year. Purdue was making first downs and moving the ball, but the unfortunate thing is that it is very hard to go 80+ yards on a great defense like the Spartans have.
That is where Mike Sadler and Cody Webster came in. Michigan State's offense struggled to do anything and Purdue, while it was better, couldn't sustain the 10-11-12 play drives you need to score on a team like MSU. Sadler and Webster consistently pinned the offenses deep and let the defenses take over.
Perhaps Purdue's best chance came on a 40 yard punt return by Frankie Williams. It was probably the best punt return Purdue has had since Aaron Valentin returned a punt for a touchdown against Northern Illinois. It got Purdue the ball at the Michigan State 44 with less than a minute to go in the half. This is where coach Hazell and offensive coordinator John Shoop need to be questioned. The first play was a short draw to Akeem Hunt, while the second as a pass to Hunt for a loss of 6. This led to a timeout, then a sack.
Purdue went for it on 4th down, and got it thanks to a pass interference penalty. With nine seconds left Purdue elected to attempted a 51-yard field goal, after using its last timeout, than try to get closer with one play and try a closer field goal into the wind. Paul Griggs was on line, but short, and Purdue missed a great chance at three points.
Now, I can't get on Hazell and Shoop too much there. With nine seconds you can't do a lot, and the chances of gaining 34 yards for a touchdown were small. There is no guarantee you gain the extra 10-15 yards to make it an easier kick, either, so you may have to try the long field goal anyway. Still, it would have been nice to at least try one play to get a little closer. That is where the Tressel influence comes in. Hazell took the sure field goal attempt when point where going to be a premium as opposed to risking a play where you could lose the ball.
That was one of the two times Purdue came closest to scoring. The second was when Griggs missed a 41-yarder short into the same end zone. The rest of the day the offense followed the script of getting past midfield, but struggling once the Spartan defense tightened on the other side. I give credit to MSU because it was a bit of a bend but don't break approach. Etling had DeAngelo Yancey and Cameron Posey on some deep routes, but just couldn't connect, mostly because of the MSU pressure. Purdue would finish the game with 226 yards, but unlike last week, when Purdue got most of its barely 200 yards well after the game was decided, Purdue was at least threatening to score with 14 first downs.
Those drives allowed us to see what the defense can do when it is not forced back onto the field after multiple three and outs. The answer was quite a bit. Purdue held MSU to fewer yards than the Boilers for most of the games until the fourth quarter. Michigan State had less than 300 yards, but had a 73-yard touchdown drive and a 58-yard drive at the end that clinched the game.
These are all positive signs mostly because Purdue has looked so awful this season. Coming in to today it was almost unthinkable that Purdue could even be competitive with a team like Michigan State. Their defense played very well and got the shutout, but if you watched the game Purdue's offense at least tested them. It was far from an easy shutout. If Etling connects on a few of those long passes to Yancey or Posey, things are suddenly very different.
On defense, Purdue was getting stops on third down and actually getting off the field. This is a massive improvement over last week, where Purdue couldn't stop Nebraska on third down even whent hey weren't trying.
This season digressed to the point of seeking growth a long time ago. The likelihood of Purdue winning its final five games to reach a bowl game is infinitesimally small. After getting blown out badly in four of the first six games we needed something to show that the rebuild was finally going in the right direction. That was today. For an afternoon Purdue was at least competitive and in a position to beat a good team. Instead of looking like the 2013 season would be a death march of ugly defeats until IU took the Bucket back by force in Bloomington on November 30 we now have a team that looks like it is at least going to grow and fight.
Maybe we get a win or two in these last five games. Before today that looked very unlikely. If we get at least the effort from today Purdue will trip up somebody, and the schedule is far easier after playing Ohio State in two weeks.
Pf course, we can always just pull off Purdue Harbor 2: Urban's Reckoning.