It's hard to believe that the season is already halfway over, but it has been a whirlwind six weeks. There have been some low points, such as the brutal loss to Central Michigan, but also some high points, such as winning a conference game. Even though Purdue is 3-3 they're still viewed as a bad team, but if you think about things for a moment, they could have made it to 5-1 at this point. I say 5-1 because Purdue probably couldn't have played worse against Central Michigan and the Chips took full advantage of every mistake. Against Iowa, the Boilers were tied 10-10 entering the fourth quarter and even with a modicum of offense they could have won that game.
I know what we have asked for is improvement, and that is definitely what we have seen. The Boilers are nowhere near where we want them to be, but they are greatly better than a team that was historically bad last season. Here are the biggest areas of improvement:
The running game - It was just awful last year. The numbers were bad at 805 total yards rushing and just six touchdowns. Only two of those scores came from running backs, and those did not come until the last two games of the season. What makes the number even worse is that Purdue played some bad run defenses in Indiana and Illinois, but still couldn't generate much on the ground.
Through six games Purdue has already rushed for 1,020 yards and 10 scores. More importantly, it faced Illinois again and ran all over them. The improvement comes from an improved offensive line that is opening holes for the backs. Akeem Hunt and Raheem Mostert have both had highs and lows, but Keyante Green has emerged as a hard, between the tackles runner that can grind out the tough yards on the ground.
Third down conversion - Purdue is converted 43% of the time on third down. This isn't great, and was lowered by the Iowa game, but for the most part the offense has been moving the ball at least a little. Purdue scored just 179 points last season and already has 157. This is with a midseason quarterback change too. That improvement comes from converting on third down. Purdue only converted at a dismal 31% in 2013. That means the offense couldn't stay on the field at all. Time of possession has only increased by about 1:30 per game, but you can't score without the ball, so Purdue at least has the ball a little more.
The Offensive line - The redshirt sophomores have really shined, as Cameron Cermin, J.J. Prince, Jason King, and Jordan Roos have been solid. The addition of David Hedelin is also starting to pay off. Purdue quarterbacks were sacked 38 times in 2013, but only 12 times this year. How many sacks were attributed to Danny Etling's struggles too? The line kept Austin Appleby totally clean in his first start and also kept Etling clean against Western Michigan.
Defensive Production - Purdue has chopped scoring from 38 points per game down to 27.7, with the defense starting to make more big plays. The Boilers intercepted 13 passes in 2013, but six of those belonged to Ricardo Allen. Despite losing a great pass defender Purdue has gotten some big plays from Frankie Williams and Landon Feichter.
Sacks - Purdue typically has a good pass rush, but that wasn't the case last year. Purdue had just 14 sacks in all of 2013, but has 16 through six games in 2014. Ryan Watson has led the way with four, but Ryan Russell has been much more disruptive. Overall the defensive line is still young, but they are also getting help from the linebackers, which almost never happens. A variety of players have disrupted things in the backfield as Frankie Williams, Anthony Brown, Sean Robinson, and Antoine Lewis have all notched sacks. Gelen Robinson has also had some very good moments.
Improved linebacker play - Sean Robinson's career may be over because of his injury, and he will be missed. He has greatly improved his skill set. Last year at this time he would not have been missed nearly as bad as we will miss him going forward. Both his leadership and his production have improved, but he is getting better play around him too. Ja'Whaun Bentley has played like one of the best freshmen in the Big Ten. Jimmy Herman has come on as well. The groundwork is being laid for a pretty good unit, and with both Robinson and Joe Gilliam now out due to injury everyone is now coming back for the next two seasons.
Paul Griggs - Griggs struggled last season and Purdue was unable to make the most of its limited scoring chances. This year he has a career long of 52 yards and has already made more field goals (8) than he made all of last season (6).
Frankie Williams - Where would Purdue be without Williams? Both interceptions have been big and he has given Purdue an actual threat in the punt return game. When was the last time you could say that? He is playing at an all-B1G level in most games.
Does Purdue have three more wins in it to earn a surprise bowl game? It will be tough. The Central Michigan game was an excellent opportunity that was blown, as was the Iowa game. Had Purdue gotten one of those two things would look a lot better. As it stands now, getting the more wins will be difficult. Purdue is a likely underdog in all six remaining games, maybe by double digits in each. A few weeks ago it looked like the Northwestern game was a safe bet, but the Wildcats have completely turned things around.
I think an admirable goal is to beat Indiana and bring the Bucket back home. There is still a lot that Purdue has to fix. It is horrid on third downs defensively and the offense has been far too inconsistent to say we should beat anyone. It would be nice to play a Michigan State, Wisconsin, or Nebraska close too, as those still look like grave mismatches. Let's look at each game:
Michigan State - They're only the Big ten's best team. No pressure. They're trying to get into the playoff and another 14-0 win over Purdue won't help that. They're coming in focused Purdue is going to have to be awfully sharp to have a chance.
Minnesota - This is an interesting game because they struggle offensively and have no consistent passing game, but it is on the road. Minnesota plays some tough defense and I just don't trust the Boilers against a strong ground game yet.
Nebraska - Probably the least likely win left on the schedule, even more so than Michigan State. I have a very healthy fear of Ameer and playing in Lincoln is not going to be good for Purdue.
Wisconsin - I won't believe Purdue can stop Wisconsin from running for 300+ yards until I see it. The Badgers have been physically dominant over Purdue for almost a decade now and I don't see it ending any time soon. Even with them struggling offensively I have my doubts.
Northwestern - It depends on which Northwestern team shows up. Not only have they won the last two weeks, they have dominated. They're completely different now than the team that lost to Northern Illinois.
Indiana - Also a grab bag. The Bucket could come down to two 5-6 teams fighting for a bowl. Indiana is not as good as they were last year, but they have one of the best running backs in the country. After facing Ameer Abdullah and Melvin Gordon will there be anything left for Tevin Coleman?