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November 20, 2013
Behind enemy lines: Purdue
Something's got to give. The Illini travel to Purdue on Saturday for a battle between two winless teams in Big Ten Conference play.
Orange and Blue News caught up with Brian Neubert from Gold & Black Illustrated to get the inside scoop on the Boilermakers.
The game on Saturday is between two struggling programs, as Illinois and Purdue both enter the contest at 0-6 in the Big Ten. Which team - and which head coach - has the most at stake?
Brian Neubert: There's no question in my mind, at least as someone who doesn't cover Illinois, that Tim Beckman has exponentially more at stake than Darrell Hazell and Purdue. Hazell's in just his first season at Purdue and reasonable people will easily recognize that he took on a pretty difficult situation here.
Beckman's in year two and it seems from afar that a good deal of unrest came out around Illinois after just that one season. Considering Beckman's not yet won a Big Ten game as Illinois' coach and the Illini are in the rare position of being the favored team, I think all the pressure is on the road team here.
Illinois is playing with a senior quarterback and against a team that doesn't look equipped to really exploit its greatest weakness: Run defense. So if Illinois can't win this game, I'd have to think it throws a log on the fire Beckman's standing over. But again, I don't cover Illinois, so I'm not sure I'm the person to ask.
Putting points on the board has been a challenge all season for the Boilermakers, but now they face a team with the 10th ranked scoring defense in the conference. Can the Purdue offense turn the corner against Illinois, and who are some of the key players who need to get it done?
Neubert: Don't know. We'll see, but I'll say this: If Purdue can't run the ball on Illinois, they can't run the ball on anybody in the Big Ten. And Purdue hasn't been able to run the ball against anybody this season. The only team out there that runs for fewer average yards per game than Purdue is Washington State and it doesn't even try.
Purdue is playing a freshman quarterback, throwing to all young receivers, behind an offensive line that's been shaky all season. The Boilermakers have been prone to turnovers - often disastrous ones - and sacks.
It's not been pretty, but the Boilermakers did have some modest success against Penn State, getting Danny Etling in a bit of a rhythm with more horizontal-type passing, and that set up chances to make the rare big play down the field. But Etling got sacked six times and turned it over three times.
One positive for Purdue is their passing defense, which ranks 5th in the Big Ten (214.6 yards per game). Will they be able to slow down Illini QB Nathan Scheelhaase and the Illinois passing attack?
Neubert: The only reason Purdue's pass defense has respectable numbers is because the Boilermakers have been so porous against the run. There's no reason to throw the ball against Purdue if you don't have to and opponents haven't had to. They've passed for big plays while gauging Purdue with the run, for the sake of keeping balance and keeping Purdue off balance.
Purdue has been atrocious on third down, part of the reason being opponents' success with the run on early downs. But the Boilermakers have been vulnerable to the big play in the passing game also. They've gotten very little pass rush all season.
Purdue has a long tradition at the quarterback position. Talk about true freshman Danny Etling, and the season he is having since stepping in as the starter in week five against Northern Illinois.
Neubert: He's a tough evaluation, because he's been under siege. I think he's been sacked 25-plus times now since coming in against Northern Illinois. Part of that is on him for holding the ball too long and not being decisive, but that's the deal with freshman QBs. They need help, and Etling has gotten very little. The receivers are young and tight end Gabe Holmes was lost for the season months ago. He was the team's most reliable target. Now, receiver B.J. Knauf is done also.
Etling hasn't had any semblance of a running game to fall back on. Again, not pretty. Add it all up and the freshman's been turnover-prone and his accuracy has drifted a time or two. But he's a promising player and his finer moments this season he's shown a strong arm, some zip on the ball and some measure of pocket presence for a young player. But everything around him has been shaky and that's made him very much so, as well.
What are your keys to this game, and how do you expect it to play out on Saturday? Final score?
Neubert: Purdue has zero margin for error, so it has to avoid negative plays on offense turnovers, sacks, etc. This offense is just so limited that it absolutely cannot afford to hurt itself. Purdue has to manage some kind of running game. Unbelievably, it's gone the whole season so far without a running back running for a touchdown or gaining 20 or more yards on a carry.
And as bad as the offense has been, the defense has arguably been the greater disappointment, since it's at least playing older guys. Illinois is bad, but at least they can score. Purdue hasn't shown this season it can stop people or score. Not good.
I haven't formulated a prediction yet, but it's really difficult to find reason to pick Purdue against anybody right now. This season has been such a struggle.