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Purdue at Marshall Preview

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Purdue football is at a turning point as it enters the season opener at Marshall.

Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports

Is Sunday's game at Marshall a crossroads game for Purdue? For most Big Ten programs a trip to Marshall would be a potential land mine, but the Big Ten team would likely be favored. For Purdue, however, it is a huge game.

The Boilermakers are a team desperate for success. Everyone outside the program has said the same thing that equates to, "They're getting better, but how much better and will it pay off in the win column?" Most people agree that this is not a bowl team, and there are questions that Darrell Hazell may not be the man for the job. It is probably a little early for that, but this still feel like a huge game where the entire future of the program hinges on the result.

Marshall is a very, very good mid-major team. They are likely every bit as good, if not better, than the Northern Illinois  team that kicked Purdue around Ross-Ade Stadium for three and a half hours two years ago. If something like that happens again (and it easily could), the first serious questions about Hazell will start coming to the fore. Until now it has sucked, but we have generally been patient as he has completely revamped the entire team. If Purdue gets pushed around yet again by a non-Power 5 team it will show that there has been no real improvement.

As we enter year three the pieces are in place. Inexperienced freshmen and sophomores that got beaten up the last two years are now experienced juniors and seniors. The crew at the Big Ten Network and pundits seem to agree that Purdue at least looks like a Big Ten team from a physicality standpoint. You could not say that at any point so far under Hazell and, for the most part, under Danny Hope, who used smoke, mirrors, speed, and some very crappy opponents to get to two bowls.

We have seen enough improvement to expect a competitive game, and maybe even a win if things break right. Should Purdue come out and get drilled as it did in the season opener at Cincinnati two years ago it would be a very, very bad sign of things to come.

Marshall Thundering Herd

2014 Record: 13-1, 7-1 Conference USA (C-USA Champions)

Bowl result: Beat Northern Illinois 52-23 in Boca Raton Bowl

Blog Representation: Herd World

Series with Purdue: Purdue leads 1-0

Last Purdue win: 9/29/2012 at Purdue 51-41

Last Marshall win: None

Who to Watch on Offense:

Devon Johnson - Sr. - RB - The Thundering Herd might be breaking in a new quarterback, but the running game is going to be very strong with the huge running back in Devon Johnson back for his senior season. He is an almost unheard of 6'1" 246 pounds and last season he rushed for 1,767 yards and 17 touchdowns. His yards per carry was a ludicrous 8.6 as well. He wasn't sued to catch the ball out of the backfield much, but he is a big durable back of the kind that Purdue has had trouble stopping before. He was over 100 yards rushing in 10 of 14 games last season with a high of 272 yards and a Bundy (4 touchdowns) against Florida Atlantic.

Michael Birdsong - Jr. - QB - Birdsong won the job to replace Rakeem Cato after playing in 2012 and 2013 at James Madison. He is a big, strong quarterback who threw for 1,728 yards and 22 touchdowns as a sophomore at JMU. He struggled with interceptions though, throwing 15. He is a capable runner with 310 yards and three TDs on the ground. Those are great numbers, but Cato last season had full command of an offense that was often a whirling death machine. There is some dropoff here.

Davonte Allen - Sr.

Deon-Tay McManus - So.

Angelo Jean-Louis - So. - All WR - It is no secret that Marshall is going to pass. They lost all everything Tommy Shuler, but This trio all had over 400 yards receiving last season, and on an average of just 22 catches apiece. Allen and McManus are bigger receivers at 6'2", so the pass defense, especially one-on-one coverage, is critical. Hyleck Foster also came on late last year and could start.

Clint Van Horn - Sr. - RT - Van Horn was a 1st Team all-C-USA selection last season. He anchors a line that is smaller than most Big Ten lines, but is designed for endurance in their high-powered attack.

Who to Watch on Defense :

Taj Letman - Sr. - SS - Letman had 70 tackles last season and four interceptions from the strong safety position and leads a defense whose strength is definitely in the secondary.

Cory Tindal - Jr. - CB - Tindal was able to break up 12 passes as a corner a lot like our own Anthony Brown.

A.J. Leggett - Jr. - FS - The former four-star recruit had 52 tackles and also had four interceptions, giving the middle of the secondary an impressive eight picks.

D.J. Hunter - Sr. - LB - With five sacks and most of the defensive line gone from last year Hunter becomes the top pass rusher.

Who to Watch on Special Teams

Deandre Reaves - Sr. - KR - Don't kick the ball to him. He averaged an impressive 29.1 yards per return and even had a touchdown. Then again, as long as we have to kick off 7 or 8 times that might be a good thing.

Game Outlook:

I don't even know where to begin evaluating this game. Marshall's offense was excellent last season, but the best rated team they played in the regular season, Western Kentucky, beat them in a 67-66 shootout where defense wasn't even optional. That was their lone loss, but most of the time they scored 40 points without even breaking a sweat.

Losing their top receiver in Tommy Shuler as well as a great quarterback in Cato is not a benefit. Even with them Danny Hope managed to beat Marshall quite comfortably in his doomed 2012 season, so there is some hope (no pun intended).

This is not your typical all offense/no defense good mid-major. There is some definite talent on the defense as the secondary attests. They did lose a lot up front, however, from a defense that struggled at times against the run. If Purdue's running backs and offensive line can consistently move the football it will be a huge benefit to Purdue. We cannot afford to get in a shootout with them. Long, sustained drives benefit Purdue because (hopefully) they put points on the board while keeping the ball out of Marshall's hands.

What makes this game so tense if you're a Purdue fan is the chance things could go sour in a big hurry. If Purdue is indeed a bigger, better team this year and capable of contending with Big Ten teams for the first time under Darrell Hazell then it should go in and play well. Marshall is good, but they are a team with plenty of questions of their own. A respectable Big Ten team should be able to hold its own.

Unfortunately, all the warning signs are there. Devon Johnson is a lurking monster of the type that normally lights Purdue up with ease. While the quarterback is new, the system is not. There is enough experience for the offense to continue being very, very good. It may not be able to break 40 with ease, but scoring 30-35 is more than a reasonable goal. Can Purdue's offense answer that?

We have our own questions. Is Austin Appleby more consistent? Can the running game move the chains and keep them off the field? Can the defense generate a pass rush and get a third downs top if needed? Finally, when was the last time any of these questions were answered? Purdue is a touchdown underdog against a C-USA team fora  reason. Until it proves it is better people will not believe it.

For now, the excitement of a new season and hope that maybe, just maybe, everything the coaches are saying is true so something is different is enough to give me some encouragement. I also know that, as a Purdue fan, I have been saying that for many years. I have waited for a breakthrough and something positive for the football team for some time. Sunday has the potential for that breakout, as a victory on the road against a good opponent would be one of the best things to happen to this program in ages. I also know that getting blown out and embarrassed is just as likely, if not more so.

Key to the Game for Purdue:

  • Contain Devon Johnson
  • Consistently move the football
  • Pressure Birdsong and take advantage of turnovers.
  • Get off the field on third down.