Darrell Hazell's first season in West Lafayette didn't go well. Actually, it went horribly. It was downright awful; almost embarrassingly so. The lone Purdue victory? A 20-14 win over Indiana State, and that game wasn't decided until senior Ricardo Allen picked off a Sycamore pass at the Purdue 30 yard line with just 46 seconds left in the game. And it's not like Indiana State was one of those good division 1-AA teams; the Sycamores went 1-11 and lost 55-14 to Illinois State and 49-7 to Missouri State. The best thing you can say about Purdue football in 2013? Nobody died.
Moving on to 2014, things have to get better. Right? Well, it would be harder to get much worse. For starters, there may not be "sure wins" on Purdue's schedule; their best shots are against Western Michigan, Central Michigan, Southern Illinois, at Illinois, and at Indiana. (And before you ask, there's a chance that Southern Illinois could be favored to win at Purdue.)
As I suspected, Purdue decided to turn the offense over to true freshman Danny Etling when Nebraska came calling. And he looked the part of the shell-shocked freshman, completing just 48% of his passes in his first four starts. And if not for that 55 yard bomb to DeAngelo Yancey with just 39 seconds left in the game against the Husker reserves, Purdon't would have been held scoreless in Etling's first three starts. Want a sign of hope for Purdue? (No, it's not former head coach Danny Hope.) Etling completed 67% of his passes and averaged 290 yards per game through the air. Etling is your prototypical pocket passer who isn't a threat to run. On the season, Etling completed 56% of his passes for 1,690 yards and ten touchdowns. Sophomore Austin Appleby (6'5" 229 yards) saw very limited action in a backup role last season, completing five of six passes for 68 yards.
When teams hand the ball to a true freshman quarterback, it helps to have a strong running game to take the pressure off. That wasn't the case last year for Purdue as Akeem Hunt (5'9" 184 pounds) struggled to answer the call. His average dropped from 8.0 yards per carry as a sophomore to 3.8 last season as a junior. Even with his carries tripling last season, he only gained 129 more yards to total 464 yards and one lonely touchdown. This spring, Purdue moved speedy Raheem Mostert (5'11" 186 pounds) from slot receiver to running back for his senior season in an effort to get the ball more often to their best athletes. Mostert is a two sport athlete who won the 100 and 200 yard dash at the Big Ten track and field championships this spring clearly is one of Purdue's best athletes.
Sophomore wide receiver DeAngelo Yancey (6'2" 200 pounds) led Purdue in receiving last season, though he only caught one other touchdown pass besides his season-long 55 yarder against the Huskers. For his true freshman season, the speedy deep threat caught 32 passes for 546 yards. Last season, Purdue wanted to feature tight end Gabe Holmes (6'5" 243 pounds) in the passing game, but a wrist injury ended his season after the second game. The NCAA awarded him a medical redshirt, so he's back for 2014, though he'll have to fight to regain his starting spot from fellow senior Justin Sinz (6'4" 251 pounds), who caught 41 passes for 340 yards and four touchdowns. With senior Dolapo McCarthy (6'5" 220 pounds) also moving to tight end this season, look for Purdue to utilize the tight ends more this season.
The Purdue offensive line was a tire fire last year, which led to sophomore Jason King (6'3" 300 pounds) being thrown into the starting lineup, figuring that it was better to get a freshman some experience over seniors who weren't getting the job done anyway. Phil Steele noted that King was Purdue's "most consistent offensive lineman" by the time last season ended. Junior center Robert Kugler (6'3" 284 pounds) will be a three year starter, who'll be counted on to provide some leadership. Junior right guard Cory Clements was a second team JUCO all-American and will be counted to make an immediate impact. He'll be hard to miss, as he reported to preseason practice with 400 pounds on his 6'8" frame. Bottom line is that while Purdue's offensive line may not be much better, they probably can't get much worse this season.
As you might expect, Purdue's defense was just as awful as the offense, ranking 111th in scoring defense and 114th in total defense. Just like on the offensive line, Purdue tried a youth movement up front on defense, throwing sophomores Ra'Zahn Howard (6'4" 315 pounds) and Jake Replogle (6'4" 240 pounds) into the mix late in the year as true freshmen. Senior Ryan Russell (6'5" 275 pounds) will be counted on to be more consistent. Some plays, he looks like an NFL prospect, but then seems to take the rest of the series off. On a defense that desperately needs playmakers, Purdue definitely could use Russell to deliver on his potential.
Initially, senior linebackers Joe Gilliam (6'1" 227 pounds) and Sean Robinson (6'3" 240 pounds) will be counted on, though expectations are that redshirt freshmen Danny Ezechukwu (6'2" 246 pounds) and Antoine Miles (6'3" 250 pounds) will challenge for playing time. Recruitniks might remember Miles as a defensive tackle who committed to Nebraska for about a week in December 2012. True freshman Gelen Robinson (6'2" 230 pounds) and Ja'Whan Bentley (6'3" 245 pounds) will also push for immediate playing time, as will Kentucky transfer Langston Newton (6'4" 265 pounds). The bigger 'backers may all content for playing time at the "joker" linebacker spot in the Boilermakers' 3-4 alignment as a hybrid linebacker/defensive end.
When you realize that Ricardo Allen was a third round all-Big Ten honoree who was drafted in the fifth round of the NFL Draft, it only makes you wonder how bad the rest of the secondary was. Some of that was due to injuries; senior safety Landon Feichter (6'0" 189 pounds) broke his leg against Indiana State, causing him to miss half the season. But in 2012, Feichter recorded 80 tackles and was honorable mention all-Big Ten as a sophomore. At the other safety position, senior Taylor RIchards (5'10" 192 pounds) ranked third on the team with 64 tackles last season. He's suspended for the first two games of the season for an operating while under the influence charge from last December; he'll be back to face Notre Dame. While Richards sits, junior cornerback Frankie Williams (5'9" 186 pounds) will slide over to safety; he's probably the best defensive back on the Purdue roster.
Did Purdue hit rock bottom last season? It's hard to argue that they didn't, though it's also hard to see immediate signs of a rapid bounceback. This season, it would seem the Purdue might be satisfied to just find some something positive to build on for 2015. For this season, you'd think that Nebraska would be a heavy favorite to win the rubber game of the Huskers' designated rivalry series. Why would Purdue be Nebraska's designated rival? Unlike some of the other teams in the West division, Purdue is a team that hasn't historically been dominated by Nebraska. And that makes Purdue a better choice as a rival than others.