The Illini return home this Saturday to face the Purdue Boilermakers as they attempt to keep possession of the Cannon trophy. Despite a 1-3 record, the team played very well in Lincoln for three quarters and are hoping to translate that performance into Lovie Smith’s first Big Ten victory. Travis Miller, site manager of the Purdue SBNation blog Hammer and Rails, was kind enough to answer a few questions about the Boilers.
1. Darrell Hazell is in his fourth season. His first three did not go well, to say the least. What were expectations like heading into 2016 and have they changed yet? Are fans ready to chase Hazell out of town?
Things looked pretty dismal before the year started, but it was hoped that maybe the loss of his coordinators (Greg Hudson on defense and the universally reviled John Shoop on offense) would allow for a step forward. We were hoping that with a semi-competent offense and a very weak schedule to start there might be a bowl game.
Then Cincinnati and Maryland happened. It is not so much that Purdue is losing. We can handle losing. It’s that they are getting blown out by mediocre teams and many of the same mistakes that were there in year one are still there. All through this, we are fed the same line, “We will review the tape and fix it. We’re just not executing properly”. Maryland running for 400 yards? Execution. Cincinnati converting 12 straight third downs? We’ll review the tape and fix it. Well, these were issues last year too, and the year before that. Last season Purdue lost four home games to teams that finished .500 or worse (Virginia Tech, Minnesota, Illinois, and Indiana). In all of those games Purdue should have at least been competitive. Instead, they looked awful and got destroyed.
Hazell has now been the architect of six games where Purdue has given up at least 50 points. Before that, Purdue only had two such games between 1997 and 2012. At this point it is inevitable. Barring a miraculous turnaround he needs to be gone. Sadly, we do not trust our own administration to do the right thing and there lies the real problem. Illinois just made a nine figure commitment to football with its stadium renovations. Purdue needs something similar and it is on the drawing board, but there is no timeline for it. There is a legitimate question on if Hazell will be fired at the end of the year and his $4 million buyout paid while everyone else in the Big Ten forges ahead.
2. The Boilermakers offense put up 45 points in the first game of the season but lost by nearly that margin last week at Maryland. How would you evaluate QB David Blough's season so far?
He had an awful game against Cincinnati with five interceptions, but otherwise has done okay. He was undone at Maryland by an awful situation on the offensive line where both starters were out and both reserves struggled mightily. He ended up running for his life all day and it affected him from the first quarter on. It is similar to what happened to Danny Etling and Austin Appleby before him. His lines were awful, he got jumpy as a result, and then the team struggled.
3. The Purdue D is led by Ja'Whaun Bentley, but they don't rank in the top 75 in the nation in any defensive statistic. What is the biggest weakness/hole on that side of the ball that has contributed to their struggles?
Ha! What hasn’t? Let’s see: We can’t get off the field on third down. We can’t stop the run. For much of the Maryland game we had the wrong personnel on the field in a 4-2-5 formation that was grossly out of position against a team running down our throats. Purdue is a poor tackling team, takes terrible angles, has no speed, and does not have a consistent pass rush. Other than that we’re practically the ’85 Bears on defense.
4. Illinois has lost 4 of their last 5 games against Purdue. The Cannon has remained in West Lafayette for quite some time now. Does Purdue actually get hyped for this "trophy" game? Is this a "calendar-circler" for the Boilermakers given their struggles against FBS teams?
I would say we get hyped because it is a chance to win an actual football game. We know we’re not great, but Illinois has not been much better. The 2013 game was strangely entertaining because you had Illinois on a 20 game B1G losing streak facing the worst Purdue team in history. Both teams were so bad it was entertaining because they were equal. Naturally, Purdue failed to exploit the Illinois run defense and lost 20-16. Having it be a trophy game is nice, but mostly it is a close series and one where either team can win. I mean come on; Hazell has two conference wins and one of them came at Illinois! That alone means we have a small chance, right??
5. Finally, who wins in Champaign on Saturday?
Illinois, probably by at least 25. I am done with Hazell. Last year’s game in West Lafayette was really the beginning of the end. The offense had multiple three and outs and the Purdue D let Illinois, the worst running team in the Big Ten, go for well over 300 yards. I have zero confidence that Hazell can fix anything because nothing has gotten better after 40 games with him in charge. The Illini may be 1-3, but at least they have lost to some really good teams. Purdue struggled to get by Nevada and has looked just terrible in every aspect of football against its other two FBS opponents.
6. Bonus question: How the hell did a giant sinkhole form on Purdue's field and is it an actual concern going forward?
Apparently one of the pipes under the south end zone burst and caused some minor flooding, which led to a sinkhole. As far as I know they will have it fixed before October 15 against Iowa, but if they had to move that homecoming game to Lafayette Jeff High School the sparse crowd could likely fit in just fine.
Thanks again to Travis for answering our questions and be sure to head over to Hammer and Rails for some excellent Purdue sports coverage.