The Darrell Hazell regime at Purdue had already had a number of "turning point" games. After 26 games Hazell is 5-21 (but with a spotless 3-0 record against the FCS!) and his team has failed to garner that elusive signature victory despite plenty of chances:
- Right from the beginning Purdue had a chance by taking on a good Cincinnati team at home. The boilers played a competitive first half, but a missed field goal and late TD by the Bearcats had them up 14-7. Purdue went on to lose 42-7, mostly because he had the ball for about five offensive snaps in between three straight scoring drives.
- In a nationally televised night game Purdue went all-in against Notre Dame in 2013. After barely getting by FCS Indiana State a week earlier the Boilers led Notre Dame, who had played for a national title months earlier, 17-10 entering the fourth quarter. It did not last in a 31-24 loss.
- Purdue somehow only lost to Michigan State 14-0 in 2013. Yes, Michigan State finished 13-1 and should have played Florida State for the national title. No, I have no idea how it happened, either.
- Once again playing Notre Dame, this time on a neutral field in Indianapolis, the Boilers were competitive and lead early, but fell 30-14.
- Purdue trailed Michigan State 38-31 in the closing minutes in 2014 and had the football, but an Austin Appleby interception was returned for a TD to end the threat.
- Purdue led Minnesota in Minneapolis 38-36 but a dumb penalty by Taylor Richards set up a game-winning 52-yard field goal by Ryan Santoso. A failed fourth down conversion prevented Purdue from getting in field goal range itself.
- Finally, two interceptions returned for touchdowns and four interceptions overall played a large role in this year's season opener at Marshall, who went 13-1 last season.
When your lone FBS-level victories are over a MAC team and a bad Illinois team with no run defense you do not have a signature win. That is why Saturday's visit from Virginia Tech is critical from a confidence standpoint. The loss to Mashall damaged faint bowl hopes, but a win over a power conference team in the Hokies can finally show some tangible progress for this coaching staff. With an extremely dangerous Bowling Green team coming the following week Purdue needs, at minimum, a split with the Hokies and Falcons. A loss to Va Tech opens the door for another 1-3 non-conference, and Bowling Green is more than good enough to not just beat the Boilers, but be the third MAC team in three years to blow us out in Ross-Ade Stadium.
Fortunately, this is a very winnable game for Purdue. Virginia Tech had a stagnant offense before quarterback Michael Brewer was injured. Now the he is out we face a dual-threat quarterback that feasted on an FCS defense, but was crushed by one of the best defenses in all of college football. I'd like to think that Purdue is somewhere in the middle of that spectrum.
Who to Watch on Offense
Brenden Motley - Quarterback - With Brewer in against Ohio State the Hokies had a chance at repeating last year's stunning upset. In fact, they were even leading when he got hurt. Motley came in and struggled greatly, throwing for only 36 yards and a late, inconsequential TD against a pick. He was also only 4 of 9. Last week against Furman he was much better, going 16 of 24 for 233 yards and 2 TDs with 38 yards and a TD on the ground. That was Furman, however, a team that was 3-9 in the FCS last year.
Motley was recruited as a dual-threat QB and was a 3-star recruit in 2012. Virginia Tech's offense had only 77 yards gained after Brewer went down, and 41 came on the last drive when Ohio State was well ahead. I have no delusions that Purdue's defense is anywhere near as good as Ohio State's, but I would like to think it is better than Furman's. Since this is Motley's first major test against an FBS level defense we just don't know what to expect. The good news is that Purdue held Marshall to 27 points on offense (remember, 14came from their defense) and 14 from Indiana State. Is a Motley-led offense as good as Marshall? We'll see.
An interesting wrinkle is Dwayne Lawson, A freshman who played a little against Furman and was 3 of 7 for 51 yards through the air. He also rushed for 51 yards and a TD. He was a 4-star recruit and No. 7 rated dual-threat QB in last year's recruiting cycle, so don't be surprised if we see him instead.
Travon McMillian - Running Back - Again, the numbers are skewed because of the difference between Furman and Ohio State. McMillian had 98 yards with a long of 63 against Furman, but only 26 yards against Ohio State.
Trey Edmunds - Running Back - The Hokies don't really have a featured back to lean on. McMillian, Edmunds, and J.C. Coleman. None of the three has done a lot. They have a combined 246 yards and one TD on 47 carries for a 5.23 yards per carry average. When you take away McMillian's 63 yard run last week it looks even worse with a 3.97 ypc average. This is not a strong ground game, and the 299 yards gained on the ground against Furman skew things.
Isaiah Ford - Wide Receiver - The Hokies have five passing touchdowns on the season and three of them have gone to Ford. He leads the team with 8 catches for 138 yards and two of his TDs came against Furman. At 6'2" the sophomore is a bigger receiver too. Cam Phillips has been the No. 2 target with 7 receptions for 90 yards.
Who to Watch on Defense
Dadi Nicolas - Defensive End - Pray to whatever your diety of choice is (God, Allah, Buddha, Cthulu, etc.) that David Hedelin is healthy, because Nicolas is a big, bad man coming after Austin Appleby. He has yet to notch a sack or tackle for loss, but last season he had 8.5 sacks and 18 tackles for loss.
Luther Maddy - Defensive Tackle - Maddy was limited due to injury last year, but he is a big 6'1" 293 tackle that plugs the middle well.
Ken Ekanem - Defensive End - You want to scheme and double team Nicolas? That is fine. Ekanem had 10.5 sacks on the other edge last year and 15.5 tackles for loss. that means BOTH tackles need a good game.
Chuck Clark - Safety - So far Clark leads the Hokies with 22 tackles from his safety spot. He also broke up 11 passes in 2014.
Brandon Facyson - Cornerback - Another player limited in 2014, the 6'2" corner had five interceptions in 2013 and presents a large cover guy to handle Purdue's size on the outside with D'angelo Yancey.
Who to Watch on Special Teams
A.J. Hughes - Punter - He is doing a good job of averaging almost 42 yards per punt.
As terrifying as the front four is, Virginia Tech is down to a walk-on and a true freshman at middle linebacker according to their beat reporter:
This is at least a small break for a Purdue offense that struggles against great defenses. In fact, this is possibly the best defense we will see all year short of Michigan State. In fact, this is what the big SB Nation off season preview had to say about the defense:
I don't even know what to say. Find a weakness. I dare you. If you want to worry about the linebackers, I guess you can. If you somehow found a downfield opportunity running the ball, you were occasionally able to get somewhere with it, but the opportunities were few and far between. This was even more of a "break-don't-bend" defense than Michigan State's last year.
What gives me hope as a Purdue fan is their offense. Last night when I was on the Gobbler Country podcast they spoke of the struggles that Motley had even in the first half against Furman. In that game he led just one first half scoring drive and the Hokies led 14-0 thanks to a pick-six by the defense. The offense could struggle, but if bad Austin Appleby shows up the defense could score enough for it not to matter.
Purdue might have a rare advantage in special teams, which is unheard of on a team that has emphasized special teams as much as Frank Beamer does. The Hokies will come after kicks, but their return game has been negligible and both Joey Slye and Michael Santamaria have struggled to go a combined 1 of 4 on field goals. Purdue blocked a field goal against Indiana State, but Paul Griggs so far has been an uninspiring 2 of 5 on field goals.
This has the feeling of a defensive struggle. Purdue's defense has not been bad so far. It has held a couple of decent offensive teams to about 20 points per game (I am discounting 14 of the 55 points given up because of Appleby's two pick sixes). As long as they get after Motley and cover Ford as their top receiver I think it will be enough to keep Purdue in it.
It probably comes down to how well Purdue's offense does. Will D.J. Knox and Markell Jones be able to move the ball? Can Appleby play well and avoid interceptions? Finally, the biggest wild card is will John Shoop not screw things up?
I am going to call this a 21-17 game. Check back on Friday to see which way I go in the Predictions column.