Cue Darrell Hazell, fresh off rebuilding job at Kent State that allows me to use the word miraculous without being the least bit hyperbolic.
Now he comes to Purdue, tasked with breathing life into a program that has stagnated badly for well over half a decade. Hazell is a good coach who will probably succeed in the long run, but taking the first steps back to success will be difficult. This isn't a Purdue team that is built to win this year.
For a start, the backbone of the Golden Flashes resonance in 2012 was forcing an obscene amount of turnovers on defense and keeping things safe, and boring on offense....until Dri Archer did so much as think of touching the Football, then all bets were off. It worked for Kent, but it isn't a model that you can plug and play.
From season to season, and certainly game to game, turnovers are random. Having a fantastic turnover margin for one season does not mean that a team will repeat the feat the next. If anything having an abnormally high number of turnovers in one season makes it less likely to be repeated the next. You could make a decent living in vegas placing season over/unders based on little more than betting against teams with double digit turnover margins from the previous year.
Purdue a year ago had a lot of the same problems as Kent State did. Down to down consistency wasn't really a thing for either offense. The big difference was that Kent State had an identity, they knew what they wanted to do (run the football) and they went about making sure that they ran the damn football. But they had Archer who gave them a big play element, that is something that isn't really there for Purdue. Akeem Hunt is who everyone assumes with be the Archer doppelganger. I see Hunt having a good year, but I don't see him having 2,500 all purpose yards in 2013. Same thing for Brandon Cottom, I see him possibly doubling his yardage from a year ago, but I don't see a Trayion Durham impression happening. But what do I know? A year ago I didn't see how George Winn could possibly withstand the challenge of Jameel Poteat. Wrong, so so wrong. But the Durham and Archer comparisons might not mean anything, because Hazell did not bring OC Brian Rock with him to Purdue
Hazell went out and got John Shoop to be his coordinator on offense. It is a pretty good hire, Shoop has a track record of forming above average offenses, and offenses that are very pleasing to the Big 10 eye. He was the coordinator at North Carolina during the Butch Davis era. Those UNC teams played good offense yes, particularly in the running game. But the passing game for the Tar Heels was about getting their superior athletes like Dwight Jones, Hakeem Nicks and Greg Little the ball in space and let them go do something with it. They did it through an endless stream of quick hitches, slants and outs. The quick game was it was about. Making the defense respect the quick game, which set up the play action deep.
That won't work at Purdue, at least not this year. Looking at the roster I don't see where the big plays in the passing game are going to come from. In fact aside from Hunt there isn't a skill position player on Purdue who would make me sit up and take notice in a defensive meeting room. Thats a problem because the Boilermakers have a serviceable offensive line, and a capible signal caller in Rob Henry. But this offense will go nowhere if it is just Akeem Hunt trying to make plays.
If Purdue is going to come into Nippert and be the first non conference opponent in a decade to steal a win they are going to have to do it with defense. Purdue returns nine starters on that side of the ball which is good, that they were terrible last year isn't so good.
Bruce Gaston is a mountain of a man, and a legitimate NFL prospect as a tackle. Ryan Russell is the next great Purdue defensive end, and if not great than very good. He also has the NFL in his future. Beyond those two it can be a little bit dicey, particularly in passing situations where they were 82nd in passing down sack rate a year ago, and that was with Kawan Short. UC will face better lines this year, South Florida and Rutgers come to mind, but this is good way to start the year. If Gaston and Russell are disruptive it could mean that the hype about the offensive line might be unfounded.
There is no doubt about the Purdue defensive backs though, this is a really good group. I am particularly fond of Ricardo Allen who could set the NCAA record for career pick sixes this season. Its not just Allen though, both of last years starting safeties (Taylor Richards and Landon Feitcher) return. A Sophomore, Frankie Williams will man the other corner spot. Together this is a slightly undersized, but very fast and aggressive secondary. The way these guys play the ball should remind new defensive coordinator Greg Hudson of his last job at Florida State. What won't remind him of Florida State is the linebackers.
I'll let Tom Dienhart handle this one;
Here is all you need to know: The Boilermakers’ top linebacker is a former quarterback: junior Sean Robinson. Enough said. This position has an abyss for nearly a decade, with an alarming lack of production and playmaking ability.
If I am Eddie Gran this is the group that I target to attack on Saturday. Purdue's best linebackers are currently high school seniors. Hudson is going to have to try something to hide this group as much as possible. Whether that is by playing a 3-4 with hybrid ends/linebackers on the edge, or by using his secondary depth and going nickel a ton. But it is far and away the weakest part of the Purdue defense.
I hate to be that guy who always predicts his team to win. But I have a hard time envisioning scenarios in which Purdue comes out on top. Their are a couple that come to mind, Gaston and Russell are terrors from the start against an offensive line still adjusting to a wealth of new protection schemes. They put their finger on the pulse of the offense and shut down the running game forcing the Bearcats to go to the air which feeds into the hand of Allen and Co who manhandle the Bearcats terribly talented, but still terribly young receivers (particularly if Anthony McClung is less than 100%). That is the one that I keep coming back to. I still think that UC should win this game, but it is not a foregone conclusion.