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Cincinnati at Purdue Preview

The Darrell Hazell era began with a thud in Cincinnati. Does its turnaround begin with the same team?

NCAA Football: Tennessee-Martin at Cincinnati Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

Under Darrell Hazell Purdue has never won consecutive games. The last time Purdue won two games in a row was nearly four years ago, when my son was in utero, Danny Hope was coach, and we last finished a Presidential election. That’s a very long time in major college football. The only major conference team to have a longer streak without consecutive victories is Kansas. The Jayhawks last won two in a row over McNeese State and Northern Illinois to start the 2011 season. Since that 2-0 start they are a morbid 8-51 with losing streaks of 15, 11, and 10. Four of their wins have come over FCS teams in that time.

In its six previous victories under Darrell Hazell here is how Purdue has fared the next time out:

2013: Notre Dame L 24-31

2014: Central Michigan L 17-38

2014: Iowa L 10-24

2014: Michigan State L 31-45

2015: Virginia Tech 24-51

2015: Illinois L 14-48

The common factor is that all six games after a win were at home. Only once has Purdue managed to stay within a touchdown of its opponent (though Purdue had the ball, down 7, vs. Michigan State in the final 2 minutes before a pick-six gave that game its final margin). Purdue hopes to change its run of misfortune on Saturday with a game against Cincinnati that many view as absolutely critical for Darrell Hazell’s future in West Lafayette. Most people agree that Purdue can’t have a successful season without beating Cincinnati. In our preseason look at the year the staff here had a consensus that this was the turning point game. A win meant Purdue was in line to get off to a hot start, while a loss would bring about a “Here we go again” attitude.

Purdue desperately needs this game. I thought Cincinnati was a turning point game because, on paper, they looked like the toughest game among the first five. After struggling to beat FCS Tennessee-Martin last week (and Nevada’s struggles against Cal Poly) it is tempting to dream of a 3-0 start against a weak non-conference slate. We’ve been here before though. In all six Hazell victories it looked like a corner was being turned. In four of the six following games Purdue crashed back down to earth with pretty awful efforts.

2015 Record: 7-6, 4-4 American

2015 Bowl result: Lost Hawaii bowl 42-7 to San Diego State

Blog Representation: Down the Drive

Series with Purdue: Series tied 1-1

Last Purdue win: 9/2/2001 at Cincinnati 19-14

Last Cincinnati win: 8/31/2013 at Cincinnati 42-7

Cincinnati So Far

The Bearcats opened the 2016 season with a 28-7 win over Tennessee-Martin, an FCS team that was 7-4 last season (and beat eastern Kentucky 42-35). The final score was not indicative of Cincy’s struggle, however. The Skyhawks led 7-0 after one quarter and 7-6 at halftime. Cincinnati didn’t take the lead until a touchdown at the 2:42 mark of the third quarter, and they were very lucky to not be trailing by more. Tennessee-Martin, after a 14-play 75 yard opening drive for a TD, fumbled the ball away on 3rd and goal from the Cincinnati 9 and later missed two short first half field goals. The game was still in question well into the fourth quarter, and was only truly sealed on a pick six with 2:16 left.

Cincinnati’s defense benefited from a pair of interceptions, the missed field goals, and the critical fumble in the second quarter. Both teams had three turnovers and struggled to move the football with any regularity.

This gives me reason for hope on Saturday. Cincinnati did not look good against a similar caliber of opponent to who Purdue played. While both teams won by 21 points, Purdue at least got up big early and never let EKU within 10 points after the first five minutes. Cincinnati struggled just to get in the lead by the end of the third quarter and pretty much had to wear down their FCS foe.

Who to Watch on Offense

Hayden Moore – QB – Cincinnati has NFL prospect Gunner Kiel on the roster, but he has been all over the place both literally and figuratively. The former five-star can’t miss QB from Columbus East (and one-time teammate of Markell Jones) once committed to Indiana and LSU before eventually going to Notre Dame. He sat a year, then transferred to Cincinnati. He played well for a year and a half, but a vicious concussion last season limited his time, and now he is all the way down at third string behind Moore, who won the job in camp.

Moore was decent in the opener, going 21 of 34 for 260 yards and two scores against an interception. He also ran 5 times for 13 yards. Moore, like our own David Blough, is only a sophomore. Last season he threw for 1,885 yards and 9 TDs against 11 INTs. He was also sacked 17 times.

Tion Greene – RB – In a split backfield last week between Greene and Mike Boone Greene had 16 carries for 97 yards while Boone had 12 carries for 35 yards and a TD. Both will play quite a bit. Both players were over 700 yards rushing and 8 touchdowns last season.

Devin Gray – WR – Cincinnati lost virtually all of its experienced receivers from last season, allowing Gray to shine in his first career action. He finished Thursday night with 7 catches for 111 yards.

Nate Cole – WR – Cole had 6 catches for 64 yards and a touchdown last week, which was pretty much a third of his production from last year. Neither Cole nor Gray is a big, tall receiver that has that as an edge over our corners, but both will challenge Purdue on the outside.

Who to Watch on Defense

Eric Wilson – LB – Wilson had a huge game against Tennessee-Martin. He finished the night with 15 tackles, 2 sacks, a pass breakup, and a pass defensed. The senior was a Second Team all-conference selection last season and had 103 tackles overall.

Tyrell Gilbert – S – Gilbert clinched the game with a 58-yard pick-six in the final minutes. He was also active elsewhere with 9 tackles and two passes defensed.

Zach Edwards – S – Edwards also had double-digit tackles last week with 12. He is also a senior in the defensive backfield and was an all-Conference honorable mention last year.

Who to Watch on Special Teams

Andrew Gantz – K – Gantz missed last week with a hamstring injury and it showed for Cincy. The Bearcats missed a field goal and an extra point without him. Gantz has made 13 field goals each of the last two years and was Second team all-Conference in 2015.

Overall Outlook

The biggest thing that will decide this is turnovers. Purdue got four of them against Eastern Kentucky while only giving up one. Cincinnati had three last week and was one of the worst teams in America last year at holding on to the ball with 22 interceptions and 11 lost fumbles. They were a -19 on the season in the turnover department, which is remarkable for a team that still finished with a winning record. Both Moore and Kiel played extensively at quarterback and each threw 11 interceptions.

Does that continue on Saturday? Purdue definitely benefited from two horrible passes and a dropped handoff for three of the turnovers, but Josh Hayes showed great initiative by winning a battle in the air for his interception. Purdue is going to have to win those battles on the corner. Cincinnati has a balanced offense, but this game will be decided with green receivers against Purdue’s inexperienced secondary. If Purdue can win the turnover battle and the secondary can hole up, we might have one of those “winning streaks” that are all the rage.