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2014 Purdue Football Post-mortem

It was small, but Purdue football did get better in 2014. That means nothing unless it continues to get better in 2015.

Pat Lovell-USA TODAY Sports

We have all had a few days to cool off from the debacle in Bloomington as another disappointing football season came to a close. Morgan Burke spoke with GBI this morning and even he is saying the right things:

Much of the rest of what he spoke about was concerning the new South End Zone plans for Ross-Ade, which are pretty much a make-or-break proposition for the program now. Any design is going to be done with recruiting in mind since "oh, shiny!" is a top recruiting tactic.

But that discussion is for a later date, and I don't want to let tangents distract from the purpose of this post, which is to come up with some sort of verdict on a 3-9 season. Yes, it sucked. It was extremely painful to watch at times, but yesterday I saw a post from Coug Center, the Washington State SB Nation site, who is going through something similar in terms of rebuilding:

It's natural to equate stages with years, but that's not always how it shakes out. Some teams may spend only fractions of a season in a stage, others might take multiple years to push through.

Stage One: You will still lose, but not as badly

Congratulations on hiring a new coach! You're still gonna lose. It won't be as bad, probably, but it won't be good either. Players are either transitioning to the new system or a new school entirely, and in general, you're behind the learning curve. You are no longer getting completely waxed by everyone on your conference slate, only most of the really good teams, so some positives exist.

Stage Two: You will probably still lose, but it will be competitive

Now you're not getting blown out by everyone (only a few someones) AND you have chances to win games.  People actually think about playing you. Maybe they aren't worried, but they know you can be decent sometimes. You might have a shot at a bowl. You are beginning to feel respectable, kinda, until other fans harrumph at you for enjoying a "moral victory" or two. More than one season here and you begin to hate Stage Two, willfully amnesiatic (not a word, but go with me) to the places far below Stage One you just crawled out of.

When you think about it, it makes sense, and Washington State is in a very similar place to us. They just finished their third year under Mike Leach and are not long separated from seasons of 2-10 (2010) and 1-11 (2009). While they did claw to 6-6 last season to make a bowl game, They are still in that rebuilding process because they were just so bad before Leach showed up.

When you look at their stages you could argue that Purdue was below stage one (which is also where Coug Center says WSU was before Leach). We got blown out a lot in 2013 and were basically a play away from being winless with a terrible ISU loss on our record. It can't get a lot worse. As much as we want an immediate Tiller-esque turnaround (hewent to 9-3 from 3-8 after 12 straight losing seasons), that simply does not happen very much.

So what are we to make of this year? Well, we're probably somewhere around stage 1.5. Unlike last season, when there wasn't really a single enjoyable moment (especially when we only led in a Big Ten game for less than 8 minutes total all year), the 2014 season had a few enjoyable moments:

The Western Michigan game - At the time it was celebrated simply as a victory over an FBS level team, which did not occur in 2013. Yes, the Broncos were also coming off of a 1-11 season and were just a MAC team, but we beat someone that probably would have beaten us a year before. As it turns out, WMU wasn't that bad. They ended up 8-4 with one of the nation's best running backs and their two very close losses in MAC play prevented them from being in this weekend's MAC title game. The offense scored 40+ points and we won rather comfortably. For a week, at least, we looked like a Big Ten team.

The Illinois game - This is another victory that looks pretty good in hindsight, because the Illini recovered to reach bowl eligibility and were surprisingly strong at home with a 5-2 record. Everything on the offense was working and Purdue had multiple big plays against a defense that later figured a few things out, especially against a very good Minnesota team.

The Southern Illinois game - We crushed an FCS team, which is something we couldn't even do in 2013. It is all about steps.

Even with positives in losses like a solid defensive performance against Iowa, the near upset in Minneapolis, and resiliency shown against Michigan State and Wisconsin, it was the lack of consistency that killed this Purdue team. Let's be honest: the reason Purdue is still deeply in a rebuild is because we don't have consistency. We're learning it. If we did have consistency we wouldn't be falling apart against the likes of Central Michigan (who is worse than Western Michigan), Northwestern, and Indiana. If you look at the way we played in the three victories you have reason to believe that we should have beaten the likes of Central Michigan, Northwestern, and Indiana. Hell, if you look at the Minnesota game alone you have reason to believe those three could be wins.

But the depth and consistency that everyone else has in the Big Ten was not there, and those became losses. As frustrated as we all are, this is still an extremely young team with time to learn lessons from these first 24 games. That's why after cooling off and thinking about it for a few days I think there was still at least some progress made this year, and why I still back coach Hazell.

Think about this for a moment: Aside from the enmity towards John Shoop, there have not been the egregious coaching decisions like Danny Hope and company made (example: the timeout vs. ND in 2009). Many of Purdue's troubles have stemmed from execution and being overmatched by better, more experienced players. When we're playing freshmen and sophomores against juniors and seniors at most positions there will be struggles. When leaders like Sean Robinson and Danny Anthrop are injured and missed the rest of the season that experience gap becomes even more pronounced.

This progress means nothing unless it continues next season, which absolutely has to be a bowl season. Some say the schedule is tougher, but really it is not. We go to Marshall, who must replace a great quarterback, has no defense, and we still would likely have been their toughest opponent this year. Virginia Tech, Indiana State, and Bowling Green come to Ross-Ade. Of those four, it is essential to go 3-1, because if you're building a better, consistent football team that is actually improving it is time to stop losing games to non-power five conference schools. As for Virginia Tech, they were atrocious as the season went on and finished 6-6, but if Ohio State hadn't absolutely choked at home they wouldn't be a bowl team. They are hardly the juggernaut they used to be.

The conference schedule gives us Illinois and Indiana at home. We go to Northwestern and Iowa. Those are teams we should at least be able to compete against even if there is marginal improvement. That's already seven games are far from guaranteed losses.

There are some solid building blocks too:

Linebacker play - Danny Ezechukwu and Ja'Whaun Bentley finally give us a pair of real, live Big Ten linebackers and they are only going to get better with experience. As freshmen they were able to hold their own in games and they will get better.

Frankie Williams - The lone player that made an all-B1G team needs to be a better leader in the secondary. He wasn't even playing as himself the final few games after getting shaken up at Nebraska. He'll be the defensive leader next year.

Danny Anthrop - He will return and be healthy. It was painfully obvious how much better the offense was with him in there.

Paul Griggs - Coming off of his best season ever he could return as the best kicker in the Big Ten. At least now we're a threat to score when we cross the 40.

That's only five truly proven players though, and it is not enough. There has to be more progress at several positions:

Quarterback - Does Danny Etling stay? Does Austin Appleby improve? Both showed some flashes, but struggled greatly in their final few starts. David Blough now officially enters the derby and even he may get a serious look.

Wide Receiver - A major reason Appleby looked so bad in the last two games is that we lacked a receiver that could get any sort of separation from a defender. Cameron Posey and DeAngelo Yancey both took huge steps back this year. Trae Hart and Gregory Phillips were not ready, but were forced to play. Anthrop and B.J. Knauf were hurt. This whole position has got to get better because there is not an instant-impact receiver in the entire recruiting class. Yancey and Posey have performed in the past, so they have a lot of work to do.

Offensive line - The good news is that it is entirely back. The bad news is it got worse later in the year. On the final play of the season they were unable to protect Appleby against a measly three-man rush. That's embarrassing. The line and receivers go hand in hand. If both positions improve they can make any quarterback look significantly better.

Running back - Who gets the carries now? Do we see more Keyante Green? Does D.J. Knox get carries after playing as a true freshman on special teams? What about Markell Jones? There are multiple freshmen backs coming in and guys like Keith Byars II and David Yancey haven't been given a shot yet. It will be someone new for sure, but can they produce? This year we actually had a running game. It was nice.

Tight End - Is this where the long-lost Carlos Carvajal emerges after three years in hiding? Someone has to.

Defensive Line - I'll say it: Ryan Russell was a disappointment and there absolutely has to be a pass rush. This whole area was colossally disappointing and the number 1 reason our third down defense was terrible. On virtually every third down opposing quarterbacks had all day to calmly scan the field and find someone. There was never any pressure on third down. Ever. Jake Replogle and Ra'Zahn Howard are decent tackles, but the ends were awful. Gelen Robinson, it is your time.

As much as some people want, coach Hazell is not getting canned. He is coming back, and most likely many of the assistants will be too. Despite everything this year we did see progress, but how much of that was genuine progress that will be sustained and how much was progress for the sake of "We pretty much had to get better by default because 2013 was so bad"? That is the ultimate question on where 2015 will be decided. It is on the coaching staff and players to go out and put in the work needed, starting today, to make sure that progress is achieved. I am confident they all know what needs to be done. It is a matter of doing it.

If next season we're looking at 6-6 with the Bucket back home and a post-season destination then progress was made because we don't get there without improvement in the areas mentioned above. If Purdue struggles to 3-9 or worse again, then it is time to seriously question the coaching staff.