I took Sunday off to let things marinate. I try not to be reactionary. That means when things go well, I try not to get too high and when things go like they went last Saturday night, I try not to get too low. Hammer and Rails, at its core, is a fan blog, if anything we try to err on the side of optimism and I didn’t have any optimism in my heart yesterday.
Now that we’re onto Monday, and that horror show is a little further in the rear view, my perspective is clearer. Purdue played well enough to win, but didn’t pay enough attention to the details to make it happen. The offense did the big stuff well. Card was dealing both inside and outside the pocket to the tune of 32-46, 323 yards, a touchdown and a pick. Some of y’all wanted a more traditional air raid attack, and that’s about as close as you’re going to get. On defense, the coverage wasn’t bad. Shrader only completed 14-28 passes for 184 yards and an interception. There were a few stupid penalties late that extended Orange drives (11 penalties for 127 yards in total...gross), but for the most part, they kept the passing game in check.
This team continues to get better in key areas.
Let’s Talk About the Offense
At the same time, that game made me want to punt kittens, and I love kittens (seriously, we have 4 cats). The offensive line continues to be an issue, and it’s not an issue with an easy solution. Getting Gus Hartwig back would help some things, but the overall talent is average at best, and that’s being kind. On most teams, our tackles would be guards, and our guards would be depth pieces. Of course, Purdue only has 3 functional tackles on the roster at the moment, their current starters and a back up whose knee squeaks when he runs. You can work around that in the passing game, but when it comes to getting the hard yards on 3rd and 2, there’s not much you can do. I know everyone wants more creativity in short yardage, but good teams line up and gain 2 yards whenever they want. Bad teams have to dig deep in the playbook to come up with short yardage plays. Purdue’s trying to be a good team, but it’s not working.
The issues in the run game, and short yardage in particular, are two fold. First, the offensive line doesn’t get any push in either A gap. Second, because the other team is aware that Purdue struggles to run the ball inside, it makes running the ball outside more difficult. If the other team doesn’t have to sell out to stop the inside dive or power, it allows them to stay at home on the perimeter and sniff out fakes. Once you establish the inside run, it makes the outside runs much easier.
The coaching staff will need to fix the offensive line with recruiting and a targeted use of the transfer portal. Out of every position group, you want continuity on the offensive line. You want guys that have played together, in the same position, for multiple seasons. You might plug in a new starter or two every year, but ideally, the new starter is the depth from last season, not a G5 transfer. In reality, Purdue returned 1 starter, Mahamane Moussa, from last season. Mbow was a starter at guard, but is now playing tackle. The three inside guys consist of two G5 transfers (both undersized) and the backup center playing on a bad wheel. There’s not much to be done other that to hope Gus gets back at some point and hope this staff does a better job of recruiting and developing offensive linemen than the last last staff.
The lack of offensive line power and cohesion makes things difficult for Devin Mockobee. He is a tough, shifty runner, but I don’t consider him particularly explosive back. Mockobee needs space to do his “crazy legs” routine, and he can’t find any. His main skill is making linebackers and safeties miss in the hole, or better yet, at the second level. The problem he’s running into at the moment (both literally and figuratively), is there are no clear holes to hit. Against Virginia Tech, they tried to fix this by going to the delayed hand off and attempting to usher the play side edge past the mesh point to give the backs more space to work. That’s not nearly as effective the second time around. You’ve got to be able to run simple concepts like inside and outside zone, and build from there. If you don’t have those two staples as a foundation, it’s hard to build a run game.
Then there is the fumbling issue. If you haven’t noticed, teams are trying to rip at the ball out at the end of every Mockobee run. He likes to swim his arms forward at the end of runs for momentum (I assume it’s something he’s done since pee-wee football) and every defender within a 5 yards radius is punching at the ball when he uses his ball carrying arm to swim forward. He was benched in the first game for that type of fumble, and had 3 more against Syracuse, none of which ended up as turnovers. Despite luck, 4 fumbles in 3 games from your lead back, all coming in a similar manner, is inexcusable. The problem is, the more you fumble, the more the defense attacks the ball. Rest assured, Wisconsin will be looking to punch the ball loose every time Devin gets in traffic. He has to fight his natural tendency to swing his ball carrying arm when he gets in traffic and that’s a tough ask. It’s hard to fight instinct.
There’s much to talk about and little time, but I do want to touch on Card’s turnovers. First off, if you understand the air raid offense, you know a certain number of interceptions are baked into the game plan. If you throw it 46 times, it’s not the end of the world if a defensive back makes a play, or the quarterback makes the wrong read once. The three fumbles were all a function of something different each time, and occasionally out of his control. Unlike Mockobee, I don’t think this is going to be a recurring issue with Card. It was just one of those games. It be like that sometimes.
Now About the Defense...
I said in the preview, “What scares me the most about Shrader is his running ability. No one is going to confuse him with Kyler Murray in terms of elusiveness, he’s a tough guy runner. When he runs, he runs like a tight end (he played wide receiver at Miss State for a year under Mike Leach). He’s not looking to slide, he’s looking to take a safety and put them on their back. Outside of Thieneman (and he’s had a few freshmen moments), Purdue’s tackling in the secondary has left much to be desired. Kane is playing with one hand and Cam Allen isn’t exactly known for his ability to get ball carriers on the ground. In addition to his work as a runner, he’s a difficult guy to sack. Purdue’s outside linebackers and defensive ends will need to break down and wrap up, because you’re not going to get his guy on the ground with a run by arm tackle. If Syracuse wins, it’s because Shrader was reasonably accurate with his throws and hurt Purdue with his legs.”
I’m sad to report my evaluation was spot on and Purdue couldn’t do anything to stop the Shrader run game. I wasn’t surprised they ran Sharder, but I wasn’t expecting 25 carries for 195 yards and 4 touchdowns. That was literally the worst case scenario for the Purdue defense. In the end it came down to tackling (or lack there of) and Purdue failing to set the edge on defense. The outside linebackers have to be more cognizant of their rush lanes and the defensive ends have to get outside faster if Purdue tries to use a twists and stunts to keep the QB in the pocket.
I will give them some grace. The quarterback run game is tough to stop in modern college football. In essence, Syracuse was running the option. As far as I’m concerned, Shrader was a running back, and Purdue should be able to treat him as such. Watch a play action pass. The good ones end up with the running back getting drilled by a linebacker while the quarterback holds the ball. It's not illegal for a linebacker to destroy a running back, even if he doesn’t have the ball. That doesn’t hold true for quarterbacks.
When it’s the quarterback running fakes, you have to be right 100% of the time or it’s a penalty. Shrader’s ball handling was slick, but Purdue defenders were put in a serious bind by the way the modern game is officiated. Imagine a Purdue end drilling Shrader in the back after he actually hands the ball off. It would be 15 yards and a summons to The Hague for a war crimes tribunal on Monday. When the quarterback hands the ball off and walks away, you’re coached not to touch him. When he pulls the ball and hides it on his hip, Boilermaker defenders have to ensure he has the ball before they can hit him.
Imagine trying to do that in real time. It’s a clear example of Syracuse using the rules that protect the quarterback to their advantage. Nothing wrong with that, it’s a smart game plan based on how the game is officiated, but it feels like a cheap way to play.
Offensive Player of the Game
This is the player I thought Purdue was getting when Yaseen signed out of high school. He’s a big bodied receiver that runs nice routes, the definition of a possession receiver. Against Syracuse he pulled in 10 receptions for 114 yards, with several of those receptions extending drives. Other than one tough drop, he was steady and consistent.
The wide receiver group is coming together nicely for the Boilermakers. Burks and Sheffield are dynamic slot receivers and Yaseen looks like the possession receiver every quarterback covets. The one piece that’s missing is the big outside receiver that wins 50/50 balls. At this point, they’re trying to squeeze Burks into that role, but that’s not his game. Another issue that needs to be addressed in the off-season, granted getting the 6’3”, 215 pound FAU transfer Jahmal Edrine back next season should help. Purdue’s staff tried to fill that role in the portal, but a torn ACL ruined the plan.
Defensive Player of the Game
A win by default, after once again leading the team in tackles, this time with 14. It’s never good when your deep safety leads in tackles. Those tackles are critical, but usually come at the end of decent gains, either through the air, or on the ground. This defense thrives on tackles for loss, not tackles for 8 yard gains.
Purdue needs more out of their defensive ends and linebackers. The starting safety had 14 tackles, the starting linebackers and defensive ends had 11 combined. That’s a bad sign for a defense, that in theory, should be living in the opponents backfield. If you dedicate 5 men to the line of scrimmage, those 5 need to make plays, otherwise the rest of the defense is put in a bad position. I expect this to get somewhat better as the season goes along, but they’re still missing an eraser in the middle of the field at linebacker. Brothers was better on Saturday, but better doesn’t necessarily mean good.
I don’t see this game as a harbinger of things to come, at least for the offense.
Short yardage will remain a problem, but I don’t anticipate Card coughing the ball up twice on fumbles (I don’t count the first one). Take those away, and Purdue is in a much better position to win (of course you can’t take those away, they’re part of the game). I’ll take 300+ yards with a 70% completion rate all day, everyday. Purdue will win 6 games with that type of production from the quarterback, if they don’t also turn the ball over 4 times and commit 11 penalties.
The defense is going to be a wild ride all season. Be prepared. The starting talent level isn’t great, the depth is worse, and everyone is trying to learn a new system on the fly. If it is like this in year 3, we’ve got a serious problem. The fact that it’s like this in year 1 isn’t surprising, considering the inherited gaping holes in the roster.
That was a tough loss. Purdue needs to be more disciplined in every phase of the game. At the same time, it was one loss. Treating it as anything other than that is an understandable reaction. Folks who weren’t sold on this hire are beating their chest and declaring a return to Hazell era. I don’t see it that way. I still have no idea how this is going to work out. I would be surprised if Walters craters the program, but it’s not outside the realm of possibility. At this point, we simply don’t know. That’s no different than any other team in the nation breaking in a new coach.
I’m still hoping for the best. I’ll let y’all know when it’s time to worry.