With a thrilling, and frustrating, basketball season in the books it's time we slowly pivot our focus from basketball to football. Purdue basketball did what few in the media thought possible this season by bouncing back from a last place conference finish to land in the NCAA Tournament and the top tier of the conference. It wasn't always easy, and it wasn't always pretty, but Purdue and head coach Matt Painter got the job done. We all would've loved it if they were still playing after that first day and had gotten that crack against undefeated Kentucky but sadly it didn't happen.
So, what would it take for the Purdue football team to do something similar? Can they even come close to doing something similar? They do have one thing in common with last season's basketball team, they finished last in the conference. After an embarrassing season ending loss to Indiana, the second Old Oaken Bucket loss in a row, Purdue found themselves in the cellar of the conference. You know things are bad when you can't even beat Indiana in football. There are no two ways about it these last two seasons of Purdue football have been hard to watch. There's plenty of blame to go around on this one. Blame Hope for the problematic recruiting before his departure. Blame Burke for hiring Hope in the first place/being cheap. Blame Hazell for being stubborn with his players and sticking to his guns even when something isn't working. Blame the players for lack of execution. Blame the coordinators for poor plans and play calling. Whoever you blame we can all agree that things need to get better. I go back to the original question the article proposed, can Purdue football make a drastic turnaround this season?
First, let's tamp down expectations a bit. By turnaround I don't mean a division title and the B1G Championship game. What I mean by turnaround is a bowl game. A 6-6 minimum finish and maybe even the Little Caesar's Bowl or whatever lower tier bowl game the B1G has a deal with right now. That's really all I want. Progress. I don't expect a national title, I don't expect a conference title or even a conference title game appearance. I just want progress. You could see the difference in this team in year two under Hazell but it just wasn't enough to make a huge difference in the win column. This year that needs to change. So how does it happen?
Purdue had loads of problems last year. First, and foremost, is the quarterback issue. The old saying is that a team with two quarterbacks has none. This team is apparently going to rotate three quarterbacks in with the ones this spring. Danny Etling returns as the former starter over two different seasons who had his job yanked last season when the offense was as weak as a drink from Brother's. Austin Appleby comes back as the fan favorite, as the backup QB always is, during Etling's faltering start. Appleby started out setting the world on fire and then fell off as teams game planned for him and when his number one target Danny Anthop went out with an injury. Then there's the wildcard David Blough. The redshirt freshman didn't play last year despite calls from a vocal minority that Purdue pull off his redshirt and see what he could do. I'm glad they didn't waste a season on such a train wreck.
So what does Purdue do? Who gives Purdue the best chance of winning? If I had to guess I would say Appleby. I think Etling has all the talent in the world, perhaps more than Appleby, but seems to be stuck inside his head. It reminds me a bit of the Curtis Painter versus Joey Elliot situation. Curtis Painter was tailor made to be a QB in college and even the NFL if he reached his full potential. Joey Elliot was more of a wild card. Elliot would do whatever it took to win, he was gritty, determined, and hard nosed. The Purdue teams of Curtis Painter could've used a little of Elliot's fire. Both players had great years at Purdue but you wish you could mold them together into one guy. Appleby has that fire and passion while Etling seems to have the raw talent. Blough is still young and I have a hard time believing Hazell puts his eggs in that basket given his track record thus far at Purdue.
It might not matter who the QB is at Purdue because they still have to have someone to throw the ball to. Purdue didn't exactly excel there last year. With the injury to Danny Anthrop, the retirement of B.J. Knauf, and the struggles of the other returning players at this position it doesn't exactly look like a banner year for the wide receivers at Purdue. Things have got to change here. Someone has to step up and just be competent catching the ball and holding blocks. I don't think that's too much to ask for a wide receiver.
On defense for Purdue there are even more question marks. Who gets to the QB on that defensive line? Will the linebacking corps continue to improve? Can the defensive backfield show that promise like they did much of the last two seasons? Will it be a trend that the defense improves again this year? For me personally the linebackers were last year's biggest surprise. I hope the defensive line follows suit and surprises me this year.
Well, now that I've thoroughly depressed you how about I actually answer the question that this article poses. Keep in mind I reserve the right to change all these opinions when more data comes in. Silly me, I'm flexible like that. Right now I just don't see it happening. The schedule doesn't look very forgiving at this point. Granted all I know about these teams is from last year so who knows. The schedule could be cupcakey after all. Conference season will still be tough regardless. Purdue has some good pieces on the team but short of some offensive explosion and more ball discipline I just don't see this team taking the quantum leap forward this season. Invariably someone will ask could the chance at the leap be Coach Hazell's last? I have to say the answer is no. The guy deserves four seasons regardless of results. You have to let him get all of his players in place and see what his system can do. I hope I'm wrong and this season shows as much progress as basketball but right now I'm not optimistic.