The summer has just begun, but before you know it football season will be here. This coming weekend we will begin the official Countdown to Purdue football with the highest number on the roster, No. 98 Will Schott. That day marks 14 weeks until the start of the 2015 season, one in which we hope Purdue can at least return to some form of respectability.
So, that means we had better get busy on our extensive and exhaustive season previews. This year the Boilermakers begin the year by visiting Marshall on SUNDAY, September 6th. Yes, that's correct. For only the second time ever (and first since 2001) Purdue will play football on a Sunday, as the opener is at 3pm at Marshall. TV has not been announced, but since ours is the only college game of the weekend on Sunday it is, in essence, a nationally televised game, likely on one of the many ESPNs. It is a difficult opponent for a Purdue team still seeking its way back to even mediocrity, so let's take a closer look:
2014 Record: 13-1, 7-1 Conference USA (C-USA Champions)
Bowl result: Beat Northern Illinois 52-23 in Boca Raton Bowl
Blog Representation: Underdog Dynasty
Series with Purdue: Purdue leads 1-0
Last Purdue win: 9/29/2012 at Purdue 51-41
Last Marshall win: None
Last Season for the Thundering Herd:
Do you like offense? If so, you loved Marshall last year. The numbers for their offense were absolutely absurd. They were over 40 points in 11 of 14 games. UAB and Louisiana Tech were the only teams that held them under 30, but they still won. Rakeem Cato had almost 4,000 yards passing and 40 TDs, while Devon Johnson and Steward Butler combined to run for 2,500 yards and 24 TDs on the ground. The offense as a whole had 80 (!) touchhowns and 7,800+ yards. Those numbers are absolutely ludicrous even in a 14 game schedule because of the C-USA championship game. Marshall was 8th nationally in scoring (45.6 ppg), 18th in passing, and 8th in rushing.
The defense wasn't bad at only 21 points per game, but the biggest knock was that Marshall played absolutely no one of note. Western Kentucky was perhaps their toughest challenger. The Hilltoppers were equally pass-happy and the pair of teams combined for a ridiculous 67-66 affair where defense was an afterthought. It was Marshall's lone loss of the season. It was pretty much like an Arena League game as the quarterbacks combined for 15 touchdown passes and over 900 yards passing. The box score looks like something I made on my Playstation with no defensive awareness.
First, the good news: Rakeem Cato, who played decently against Purdue in 2012 despite throwing pick-sixes to Josh Johnson and Ricardo Allen, is gone after throwing up huge numbers last season. Yes, the Marshall offense will still likely be very good, but the only quarterback that returns with experience is junior Gunnar Holcombe. He was only 12 of 21 for 119 yards in mop-up duty. Michael Birdsong could also step in and play after sitting out due to transferring from James Madison, where he threw for 2,700 yards and 22 TDs. Update: Per Underdog Dynasty, Birdsong is the starter.
The loss of Cato was also a loss in the running game, as he ran for 609 yards and eight TDs. Holcombe had 66 yards rushing in mop-up duty on only seven carries, so the yards per carry is good. Regardless of who wins the QB job, Purdue needs to be ready for just about anything on offense.
Purdue caught a small break when Steward Butler, who ran for 798 yards and 7 TDs, was dumb enough to assault a same-sex couple. That got him kicked off the team, but Devon Johnson is back. Johnson is a big, bad man at 6'1", 246 pounds of running back that ran for 1,767 yards and 17 touchdowns. He was a big-play back too at 8.6 yards per carry. Since Marshall is breaking in a new QB we can expect a lot of Johnson and Remi Watson, who rushed for 546 yards and 6 TDs.
Slot receiver Tommy Shuler is gone after his third straight 1,000-yard receiving season. That is a very good thing for Purdue. When Marshall played at Purdue in 2012 Shuler had himself a day with 19 receptions for 200 yards. That was the start of a great career that saw him leave Marshall with bigger career numbers than Randy Moss. We should not weep for the Herd, either. Angelo Jean-Louis (21-490-6) and Deon-Tay McManus (26-433-6) both had solid freshman seasons as 4-star receiver recruits. Davonte Allen (22-544-4) was also a big play threat that had a ridiculous amount of yards per catch. Oh, and those good running backs? They can catch the ball out of the backfield well too.
Aside from losing Shuler, Cato, and Butler the main weapons return from an offense that made big play after big play. Clint Van Horn and Sebastian Johansson provide stability on the offensive line and Van Horn was a 1st Team all-C-USA selection. The line is smaller at under 300 pounds, but that can be beneficial for conditioning in an offense that moves the ball extremely well.
So, is everyone terrified yet? Think the defense is not that good and Purdue can exploit it? Well, I have some bad news. Purdue's biggest question mark is its passing game and it happens that Marshall has a fantastic secondary. Three starters are gone from the defensive line, but Taj Letman, Corey Lindal, A.J. Leggett, and Tiquan Lang form a secondary that can stop almost any passing attack. Letman and Leggett each had four interceptions last season. Tindal broke up 12 passes. These guys are all experienced upperclassmen, and we could potentially be starting a redshirt freshman QB in their house.
One benefit is that the front seven was a little susceptible to the run last season and could be even more so this year. From Bill C's excellent SB Nation preview:
Just as the Marshall offense might be as good or better at big plays while growing more inefficient, Marshall's pass defense could get even better (or at least remain as good) while its run defense forms a few more cracks.
Ends Arnold Blackmon and Ra'Shawde Myers are gone, as are big-play tackle James Rouse and, perhaps most important, run-stuffing linebackers Neville Hewitt and Jermaine Holmes, who combined for 16.5 non-sack tackles for loss.
Translation: We had better hope Keyante Green, Markell Jones, D.J. Knox, and the rest of a good but young crew of running backs is ready.
Marshall Special Teams
The Herd was quite adept at kicking extra points (83 of 83 on the year), but has to break in a new kicker in Nick Smith after Justin Haig graduated. Haig was a solid 14 of 18 on field goals and 82 of 82 on extra points.
In the return game Purdue was awful last year and Deandre Reaves was one of the best kickoff returners in the nation so... yeah.
In the rare event that Marshall is actually forced to punt (it doesn't happen often) Tyler Williams averaged 44.1 yards per punt, which is fantastic. I should also mention that his total punts (42) was barely more than half the total number of touchdowns Marshall had (83).
This is pretty much a nightmare of an opener. You have a team that has a ton of playmakers and an explosive offense looking to start off a big season (one that might end in a big money bowl) with a win over a power five conference team. According to the Bill C. preview we're the second-toughest opponent on their schedule, meaning they once again don't play anyone. They want to be there at the end of the season playing for the automatic qualifier spot in one of the big money bowls as a non-power five conference team. I don't see them getting there if they lose to Purdue.
We have got to hope that the transition from Rakeem Cato takes a few games to get the offense up to speed. If Holcombe or Birdsong steps in and immediately meshes as well as Cato we're in serious trouble. Even then, they have 2,300 yards and 23 touchdowns worth of running backs to hand off to and an experienced line to block for them.
Still, this was very much a big play or nothing offense. They thrived on the big play either running or passing. If Purdue can find a way to take that away it has a shot. Also, if our own ground game can move the football and allow us to play keep away it will help. The safest place for the Marshall offense is on the sidelines. Why not keep the ball for 5-7 minutes at a time with some 10-15 play running drives?
Way Too Early Prediction:
To be honest, if Purdue is going to take a major step forward in 2015 this is a game that the Boilers win and turn a few heads. Year three is supposed to be the Leap year for a program in a massive rebuild. We're facing the challenge of a tough opening schedule that could derail that, but a Purdue victory in the opener against a team that is probably better than the Cincinnati team that crushed us two years ago would be a very positive sign.
That said, I am conditioned to expect the worst. Marshall 45, Purdue 21