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Bye Week Musings: The Path to a Bowl

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I still believe.

Illinois v Purdue Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

It is Purdue’s by week. I had hoped the Boilers would roll in at 4-1 with a postseason bid all but assured. Getting four wins in the first five seemed very realistic with the Minnesota game being the hinge game for that goal. Now that the first five are complete, we see a very frustrating team.

The defense has showed up. It has given up less than 30 points in all five games and 21 or less in four of them. It was dominant for three quarters against what has turned out to be a very good Oregon State team. It held Illinois without a touchdown and delivered the first road shutout in 40 years at UConn (who suddenly has somewhat of a pulse). It kept Purdue in the Notre Dame game and slowed a powerful rushing attack for Minnesota. Purdue is giving up just 15.4 points per game, and 19.25 when you throw out UConn. It is doing its job and has played well enough for Purdue to be undefeated right now. The lone caveat is that it got beat on three big plays each against Notre Dame and Minnesota, resulting in 38 total points, which was the difference in both.

The offense… oh boy. What we are seeing is the truism that when you have a bad offensive line you have a bad offense. Purdue was unable to run the ball at all against Notre Dame and Illinois after both teams had been run on at will. Things were better against Minnesota, as King Doerue had nearly 100 yards and it was at least somewhat of a threat, but 44 yards worth of sacks lowered the team totals.

Purdue has given up 14 sacks and had four against Minnesota. They were crippling ones too. One resulted in a fumble that led to a Minnesota “touchdown” (yes, I am aware of the non-review). One was a poor decision by Aidan O’Connell that took Purdue out of field goal range. In addition to 14 sacks there have been 13 QB hurries. That’s 5.5 times per game that the quarterback is running for his life.

This needs to be priority 1 for the bye week. Whatever it takes, the line needs to improve. I know it is not going to suddenly become a wall like it was on Brees-to-Morales, but there needs to be improvement. Even a little would go a long way.

Finally, there are special teams, where poor decisions on returns have been costly. Mitchell Fineran has been fine, going 9 of 10 on field goals with his only miss coming in a downpour. Jack Ansell has shown improvement punting the last two weeks. Chris Van Eekeren has boomed 16 touchbacks in 27 kickoffs.

Returns have been a mess. Punts have not been fielded well, leading to long bounces as teams are now averaging 45 yards per punt on us. Kickoff returns are non-existent, but opponents have 15 touchbacks in 20 kickoffs. On Saturday Purdue began three drives inside its own 10 because of issues on returns. One did result in a 91-yard TD drive, but still.

The largest issue is not finishing drives. Purdue is having no trouble getting to about the 25 or 30. It has outgained every opponent so far, but when you throw out the UConn game it is averaging a meager 17.25 points per game. This is while missing just one field goal, too. Purdue has scored on 17 of 21 red zone visits, but only gotten touchdowns on 10 of them. In the four non-UConn games Purdue has only one touchdown on a big play of more than 15 yards: the clinching 50 yarder against Oregon State to Payne Durham in which he basically ran 45 of those yards untouched because of the design of the play.

It is terribly frustrating to put up almost 450 yards against an admittedly good Minnesota defense and come up with just 13 points, none of which came after halftime. Simply put, Purdue has got to fix things here, but I think it can be fixed with the extra time here. If it can, the season can still be a success. We’re that close.

The goal of winning six games and reaching a bowl game is still very much alive. It will take some work and with three top 15 opponents left the margin for error is thin, but it can be done. Here is a look at each game.

At Iowa – Call me crazy, but I think we have a real chance. Yes, I know they are ranked third, but 1. They will be coming off of a huge game this week against Penn State while we have a bye to work on things, 2. David Bell has absolutely scorched them in both career games, and in all four Brohm games a receiver has had a monster day, and 3. Their offense has fallen into a coma a number of times this year. In terms of total yards, they are last in the conference per game, and the 51 point outburst vs. Maryland came because of five turnovers. They win games because of a very good defense, but Brohm has proven he can solve it. Purdue has the defense to keep it close. If this is the TRAP GAME for Iowa I can see it playing out a little like last year’s win in West Lafayette. Probably a loss, but we have a shot

Wisconsin – This is now surprisingly a hinge game and could be a chance very similar to Minnesota. They are dead last in the conference in scoring, surprisingly 8th in rushing, and they throw for less than 200 yards per game. Statistically they give up the fewest yards per game in the league, both total and rushing, but the offense is a mess and they have thrown for 3 TDs and 8 interceptions. They have 14 consecutive wins over Purdue, but the last was by 3 in triple overtime thanks to the brilliance of Jonathan Taylor. He is gone and they surprisingly don’t have the dominant offensive line. We are NEVER going to get a better shot at ending this streak. Toss-up, but Purdue has to find a way to win it.

At Nebraska – It really depends on which Nebraska team shows up. Is it the one that bungled its way to a loss at Illinois or the one that blew out Northwestern? They average 500 yards per game offensively and they are running really well (second in the league). They have a tendency to make dumb mistakes too. If they drop the next two against Michigan and at Minnesota they’ll be 3-5 starring into the abyss of another lost season with Iowa and Ohio State on the back end. Outside of Northwestern and Fordham they have really struggled to score. I have absolutely no idea what to think of them. They could beat us by 20 or lose by 20. Leaning loss, but who really knows with them.

Michigan StateBefore the season I thought the Spartans were bad and this was a must-win. Now they are undefeated and could be 8-0 coming to Ross-Ade. They wear you down with the running game. They currently have the worst pass defense in the league, which helps Purdue. Overall they are 13th in yards per game given up, but they only give up 20 points per game. Purdue has a chance playing at home. Probably a loss, but it could become a shootout

At Ohio State – It would be absolutely shocking if Purdue won at Ohio State, so they have to get win No. 4 before going to Columbus or the bowl hopes are all but dead. Purdue’s defense is much improved, but it would have to slow down the league’s best offense and win in a shootout against a defense that has been bad, but is showing signs of improvement. Almost certain loss.

Vs. Northwestern at Wrigley Field – Northwestern might be the worst team in the conference. They are slow starters, often falling behind early, and the offense doesn’t have the firepower to catch up. Only Indiana has been worse defensively in terms of points given up. Their run defense is at a horrific 234 yards per game given up, so even a modest improvement by Purdue should mean some big yards on the ground. Absolute must-win. No exceptions

Indiana – Indiana probably has the toughest schedule in America. They have already played three top 5 teams and they have three more top 11 teams left in Michigan, Ohio State, and Michigan State. They seem certain to have at least 6 losses by the Bucket game, as the offense has been bad and has loved turning the ball over. They are having the bad injury luck we are having, and there is no guarantee they beat Maryland, Minnesota, and Rutgers to stay afloat for a bowl assuming they lose the other three. I think Purdue is capable of picking one of the next four on the schedule, plus it should win the Northwestern game. That means a bowl would be on the line with the Bucket, maybe for both teams. Absolute must-win. No exceptions

I cannot believe I am saying this, but I think the season hinges on the Wisconsin game. The Badgers have Illinois and Army in the next two weeks. If they struggle with either of them, or even lose, That game is there for the taking. As I said, we’re not going to get a better chance at ending that streak, and I think we have to do it.

What Purdue Needs in the Second Half of the Year

Fix Finishing Drives – It is a bold statement, but scoring points wins football games. We’re moving the ball, but not scoring. I liked the wrinkle of Austin Burton coming in on a few plays per game, but we need to settle on a QB and ride this out. Going from one TD per game to three is doable and would probably get the three wins we need.

Offensive Line Improvement – This helps the first point, but they just have to get better every week, somehow. The good news is Indiana, Wisconsin, Northwestern, Nebraska, and Iowa are in the bottom half of the league in terms of pass rush. Indiana hasn’t even recorded a sack yet in five games! Indiana, Northwestern, and Wisconsin are the three worst scoring defenses in the conference. All this should help.

Find a Way to Generate Turnovers – The defense has been very good by Purdue standards, but it is not getting turnovers. It has forced six fumbles and not recovered any. It has two interceptions, but the last one came from walk-on Zane Greene in the final minute of the UConn game. Turnovers result in shorter fields, something Purdue needs to break its offensive woes because it is having to drive the length of the field time and again and just sputters out after 50-60 yards. Purdue is -5 in turnover ratio right now (and all 7 are on Aidan O’Connell).

Throw Deep – You have David Bell. Send him deep at least 3 times per game and just tell him to go catch it.

I still think we can and even will get to a bowl. I have faith we get at least one of these next four and the bye week coming right now will be a big reason for that. We had the “let this one get away” game. Now we need the surprising upset. In 2017 it was Missouri (to an extent) and Iowa. In 2018 it was Ohio State. In 2019 injuries prevented it (though Indiana was very close), but last year the Iowa game was a surprise in retrospect. We have the ability to spring one surprise and there will be at least one game where the offense gets on track. Win that one, then beat Northwestern and Indiana, and Purdue is in a bowl game.