Remember last year's game between Purdue and Illinois? In a season filled with terrible games to watch, that one was ranked somewhere near the top as two teams who seemed utterly incompetent battled to see who could accidentally find the end zone. At the end of the day both teams combined for 731 yards of offense, but it took them 142 plays to get there.
That's an average of 5.1 yards per play, which isn't terrible, but if you took out a 63-yard touchdown pass to Akeem Shavers and a 63-yard run by Ralph Bolden the average goes down to 4.3 yards per play.
It was just ugly, and Purdue would emerge as the victor. Hopefully the Illini can return the favor by going into Ross-Ade Stadium and winning their own ugly game. Though this Purdue team could look a lot different, so let's take a look at what exactly it is we're dealing with.
Name: Purdue Boilermakers
From: West Lafayette, Indiana
2013 Record: 6-7 (3-5)
Returning starters: Five offense, eight defense, both specialists
Yes, Danny Hope's Purdue teams went to a bowl game in two straight seasons, which may seem like it should be enough for Purdue. However, while bowl games are nice, what Purdue took notice of was the fact that even though the team was going to bowls it wasn't improving. So now they brought in a man they hope can take the program up a level.
And that man is Darrell Hazell.
Hazell has an impressive resume as an assistant, particularly the seven seasons he spent at Ohio State under Jim Tressel -- six of which were as assistant head coach. While Hazell's offenses are a bit more colorful than anything you'd expect from Tressel, they're very similar in their approach to the game. He appreciates field position more than flashy plays and quick tempos.
Personally I'm a fan of Hazell and I think he's going to do a good job at Purdue -- or as good a job as anybody can realistically do at Purdue -- but there is some uncertainty here. Yes, Hazell turned around a rather moribund Kent State program that hadn't won seven games in a season since Glen Mason's 1987 team (and that was the first time the team won at least seven games since 1976, so, yeah, Kent State has pretty much sucked for a long time) when he went 11-3 last season. However, while that's certainly a notable achievement, it was only Hazell's second year as a head coach anywhere.
We don't yet know whether or not Hazell can experience sustained success as a head coach. I think he can, but we'll have to wait and see.
History With Illinois
Did you know that there's actually a trophy for this game? We do, it's called the Purdue Cannon. Purdue students came up with the idea in 1905 though it wasn't awarded as an annual trophy until 1943. Which is amazing because you'd think that in 1943 any kind of cannon would have been melted down and fired at Nazis.
Anyway, this year's game will be the 89th time the teams have met, with the Illini holding on to a narrow 42-40-6 edge in the series. And I say holding on because Purdue's made up a lot of ground , as the Boilermakers have won seven of the last eight meetings. Yep, the Illini haven't beaten Purdue since 2010 and they haven't won in West Lafayette since 2001; the year they went to the Sugar Bowl.
When you consider the trophy, the evenness of the series and the relative proximity of the campuses, you'd think this would be more of a rivalry but, alas, we're Illinois and we don't have football rivals.
What Do We Know About The Offense?
Danny Hope's teams were pretty balanced as far as run-pass is concerned, but under Hazell we should see the Boilermakers morph into more of a run-first offense, though they might find some more creative ways of going about it. Of course, while I don't know exactly what kind of offense we'll be looking at -- will it be more of the old Ohio State, or will it keep some spread elements, or both? -- we do know that there's a lot of production to replace from last season.
Rob Henry will likely start at quarterback, and while he didn't play much last season, he does have plenty of experience from 2010 when he played in 11 games. However, what I've seen of Henry, I'm not sure there's too much there to get excited about.
Akeem Hunt takes over at running back, but at only 5'9 and 184 pounds I'm just not sure he can take over as a feature back. Though don't be shocked if Hunt fills the same role that Dri Archer filled in Hazell's Kent State offense last year.
Still, on the whole, I just don't think there's a lot to be excited about on offense for the Boilermakers in 2013. This is a team that will have to be fundamentally sound -- turnovers, penalties, field position, PUNTS -- to be successful.
How About The Defense?
Well, there are eight starters back on defense, which is good because experience is nice. And the entire starting 11 save for a cornerback spot is made up of juniors and seniors. However, Kawann Short is not one of them, and it's not like this was a very good defense with Short last season.
The Boilermakers allowed 31.2 points and 5.7 yards per play last season. The latter statistic isn't terrible -- though it sure as shit isn't good, it's not even above average -- but there is some reason to think it can improve a bit in 2013. While Short is gone the Boilermakers do have five other members of their front seven back, led by Bruce Gaston.
The secondary was actually pretty strong last year as Purdue finished fourth in the conference in passes defensed with 75, and it has three starters returning, including Ricardo Allen at corner.
So while I don't think this is a defense that's going to shut offenses down, I do believe it can be better than what we saw last season. It may even end up being the strength of the team.
Who On This Team Should I Be Aware Of?
I like Bruce Gaston, but I don't think he's quite the player Kawann Short was. He's just not an explosive player as much as he's a big dude that anchors down in the middle of the field and is a pain in the ass to get out of the way. And don't get me wrong, that has value. It's just he's not a disrupter like Short was, and this defense will miss that.
No, the guy you should really be aware of is Ricardo Allen. He's been named All-Big Ten second team in each of his first three seasons and now he's a senior. He only defended five passes last year but that's got more to do with teams avoiding him than his actual ability.
The Illini would be wise to follow that gameplan.
Where Will This Team Finish In The Big Ten?
I picked Purdue to finish last in the Leaders Division, but realistically they can finish as high as fourth. The schedule isn't easy, though if there's a silver lining it's the fact that Notre Dame, Northern Illinois, Nebraska and Ohio State are all coming to West Lafayette. So there's a possibility that Purdue can pull off an upset -- and I'd consider a win over Northern Illinois an upset -- along the way.
It's just that I don't see this team capable of doing much more than that. The games against Illinois and Indiana will be what decides where in the division Purdue ends up.
Can The Illini Win This Game?
Yes, though I'd be a lot more confident about it if the game were being played in Champaign. It'll probably be another game similar to the one we saw last season in which the team that comes up with a couple big plays and holds on to the ball will leave with a narrow victory.