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Previewing the 2016 Purdue Boilermakers

NCAA Football: Iowa at Purdue Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

The final straw for Purdue’s administration? A 14 point loss to Iowa resulted in the dismissal of Darrell Hazell on Sunday, with wide receivers coach Gerard Parker taking over as the interim coach for the rest of the season for the 3-3 Boilermakers. How will Purdue react, now that the players and coaches know that they won’t be together after this season? That’s an unknown factor going into this Saturday’s game against the Huskers.

Offensively, this is the first season since Hazell took over that the Boilermakers haven’t changed quarterbacks. One could argue that with former Purdue quarterbacks Austin Appleby and Danny Etling starting for SEC schools, quarterback hasn’t been Purdue’s problem. David Blough has completed 56% of his passes for 1,756 yards and 12 touchdowns...but with ten interceptions. Blough’s average of 293 yards per game passing leads the Big Ten. Blough has rushed for 61 yards this season on the ground, though Nebraska defensive coordinator Mark Banker still remembers the 82 yards rushing Blough had in last year’s Halloween nightmare. (Blough’s lifetime rushing total against teams not named "Nebraska": 73 yards.)

Running back Markell Jones leads Purdue with 372 yards and two touchdowns rushing this season, though a shoulder injury sidelined him against Illinois and limited him against Iowa last week. He’s listed on top of the depth chart this week, so he’s expected to start. If Jones can’t go, look for freshman Brian Lankford-Johnson, who rushed for 199 yards and two touchdowns in relief of Jones. All together, Purdue ranks 13th in the Big Ten, rushing for 136.3 yards per game.

Blough’s top targets in the passing game are DeAngelo Yancey (24 catches for 391 yards and three touchdowns) and Domonique Young (29 catches for 338 yards and a touchdown). 17 different receivers have caught a pass, with six receivers in double digits in catches.

Ross Els hasn’t really improved Purdue’s defense in the first six games. The Boilermakers are last in the Big Ten in total defense (446 yards per game) and rush defense (264 yards per game). They are 13th in the Big Ten in scoring defense (mostly because /michiganScoredAgain), giving up over 34 points each game. A big issue is the inability for the defense to get off the field; Purdue’s opponents successfully convert a third down 49 out of 95 times (worst in the nation) and are a perfect five-for-five on fourth down.

Tuesday, Gerard Parker reported that defensive tackle Jake Replogle (concussion symptoms) and linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley are questionable for this Saturday’s game, though they hope to be able to play. Parker does not plan to provide updates on their status this week. Senior defensive end Evan Panfil is tied for fourth in the Big Ten with four sacks, and his 6.5 tackles for loss leads the Boilermakers. Redshirt freshman linebacker Markus Bailey leads the Boilermakers with 43 tackles; he also has an interception on the season. Senior strong safety Leroy Clark is second with 39 tackles.

Considering the injuries and uncertainties at Purdue, you’d have to expect the Huskers to be prohibitive favorites in this game. But last season, nobody expected Purdue to be competitive in that Halloween game either. (Perhaps that’s why the coaches decided to experiment with an aerial circus with Ryker Fyfe.) While I don’t expect Nebraska to be out for revenge, I do suspect they want to avoid the multitude of mistakes that were made last time.

Below, you’ll find our summertime preview of the Purdue Boilermakers:

Last year in my Purdue preview, I thought Purdue would be improved and might even become bowl eligible. Well, that didn't happen. The Boilermakers only went 2-10, and one of those wins was against 1-AA Indiana State, a team that went 5-6 on the season. But I did nail one conclusion in my preview:

"I won't be surprised if the Boilers pull off a conference upset or two this season..."

Well, they got that conference upset, sad to say for all Nebraska fans. Looking over the advanced statistics from SB Nation's Bill Connelly, Purdue was competitive early in the season in narrow losses to Marshall (who scored twice in the final three minutes), Bowling Green (who scored the winning touchdown with nine seconds left) and Michigan State (who had to hold off a Purdue comeback in the fourth quarter). But after that, the Boilermakers were simply awful the rest of the season, save for one Halloween Husker nightmare.

Under Darrell Hazell, Purdue has changed quarterbacks in the first part of each season, giving a freshman a chance to shake things up. In 2013, it was Danny Etling, who was replaced in 2014 by Austin Appleby, who then was benched in favor of David Blough (6'1" 205 lbs.) against Bowling Green. Blough completed 58% of his passes for 1,574 yards and 10 touchdowns, with eight interceptions. Blough also rushed for a net of 94 yards and four touchdowns, though that's a little misleading because 82 of those came against Mark Banker's defense. If past history is an accurate predictor of future behavior, Purdue should be switching to redshirt freshman Elijah Sindelar (6'4" 226 lbs.) in the early part of the season. The former four-star recruit has a big arm and might be a better fit for new offensive coordinator Terry Malone, who plans to implement a west coast style passing attack.

No matter who ends up being the quarterback, it might be a good idea for Purdue to lean on sophomore running back Markell Jones (5'11" 207 lbs.), who started six games last season as a true freshman. He rushed for 875 yards and ten touchdowns, averaging a crisp 5.2 yards per carry earning him third-team all-Big Ten honors. In his first start, he rushed for 157 yards against Michigan State. Last year, he split duty with D.J. Knox, who is out after tearing his ACL this spring. That'll leave the backup spot a bit of enigma initially. Junior David Yancey (5'10" 220 lbs.) would seem to be the most likely candidate from last season's roster, but keep an eye on incoming freshman Brian Lankford-Johnson (6'1" 195lbs.), who has impressed in summer workouts.

Purdue returns six of their top eight receivers from last year, with the best being senior DeAngelo Yancey (6'2" 216 lbs.). Yancey bounced back nicely last season from a sophomore slump (only 12 catches in 2014) to catch 46 passes for 700 yards and five touchdowns. Yancey doesn't have the surest of hands, but represents the biggest home run threat the Boilermakers have in their lineup. He'll be joined by fellow seniors Cameron Posey (6'1" 192 lbs) an Domonique Young (6'3" 210 lbs.), who caught 26 and 21 passes respectively last season. If Purdue is really looking to move to a west coast style attack, sophomore tight end Cole Herdman (6'4" 238 lbs) should become a bigger factor in 2016. Herdman caught 18 passes for 138 yards and two touchdowns last season.

Three starters return on the offensive line, led by seniors Jordan Roos (6'4" 301 lbs.) at right guard and Jason Kin (6'4" 310 lbs.) at left guard; both men have started since the end of their freshman seasons. Senior right tackle Cameron Cermin (6'5" 310 lbs.) missed spring practice with a shoulder injury. Sophomore left tackle Martesse Patterson (6'3" 340 lbs.) started two games last season, while sophomore Kirk Barron (6'2" 310 lbs.) has to fill the void left by four-year starter Robert Kugler, a third-team all-Big Ten honoree last season.

Last year, Purdue's defense was so bad... ("HOW BAD WAS IT???") ... that they hired Ross Els as defensive coordinator. Set aside your Ross Els' jokes for the time being, it's hard to see how Els can do worse than a defense ranked 110th in total defense, 111th in scoring defense and 108th in rushing defense. And with eight returning starters, it's not like Els doesn't have anything to build off of. A good place to start would be senior defensive tackle Jake Replogle (6'5" 294 lbs.), who was a third team all-Big Ten honoree last season. Replogle totaled 60 tackles last season with 12 for a loss. Senior defensive end Evan Panfil (6'5" 268 lbs.) added 39 tackles more, splitting time with junior Antoine Miles (6'3" 248 lbs.). Panfil and Miles tied for the team lead with 4 sacks each last season. Junior college transfer Austin Larkin (6'3" 252 lbs.) may be pushing junior Gelen Robinson (6'1" 265 lbs.) out of the starting lineup at the other defensive end position, if spring practice was any indication.

Injuries at linebacker help explain why Purdue's run defense was the Big Ten's worst (except in one game, ahem) by nearly 20 yards per game. Junior middle linebacker Ja'Whaun Bentley (6'2" 250 lbs.) missed the final seven games with a torn ACL after starting the season with 49 tackles (7.5 for a loss) in the first five. He was back on the field this spring, and should be ready to go this fall. Junior weakside linebacker Danny Ezechukwu (6'2" 251 lbs.) was Purdue's second leading tackler last season with 79 after putting up 43 as a part-time starter the year before as a true freshman part-time starter. If this group can stay healthier in 2016, the linebackers could be much improved this season.

Purdue's secondary wasn't horrible last season; not good, mind you. But not horrible: 93rd in pass efficiency defense and 89th in passing yards allowed. (Let's be honest, being 10th in the Big Ten in pass defense is better than being the worst by far in run defense.) Senior strong safety Leroy Clark (5'10" 197 lbs.) led Purdue last season with 88 tackles and nine pass breakups. He'll be joined by senior Robert Gregory (6'1" 231 lbs.) at free safety (50 tackles in 9 starts) and sophomore Brandon Roberts (5'11" 198 lbs.) at nickel back (36 tackles in three starts as a freshman). Junior cornerback Da'Wan Hunte (5'9" 188 lbs) had an impressive spring to all but claim one starting spot. If Purdue can find another decent cornerback, perhaps in sophomore Tim Cason (5'11' 195 lbs.) or junior college transfer Kamal Hardy (6'1" 180 lbs.), Purdue might continue to not be quite so horrible on pass defense.

Earlier this past winter, I found myself stuck at home for three weeks after I broke my left wrist and right thumb in a fall while trying to ice skate. To fill the time, I watched an awful lot of movies because I couldn't really type or do much else, and one favorite was Tin Cup, a Kevin Costner movie about a talented professional golfer who eschewed the sensible play in favor of always making the big play. Leading the US Open, Costner's character elects to go for the green on the 18th hole instead of laying up in front of the water hazard...and puts it into the drink.

It reminded me so much of Nebraska's offensive plans against Purdue last season. With Tommy Armstrong back in Lincoln, the Huskers had to turn to walk-on Ryker Fyfe at quarterback...but rather than exploit Purdue's worst-in-the-Big Ten rush defense, Nebraska threw the ball 48 times and only ran the ball 29 times (a season low against Purdue). The I-backs averaged over 5 yards per carry, but only rushed the ball 18 times. And in the second half, as a 21-9 halftime deficit exploded to 42-16, Nebraska only rushed the ball six times. In the movie, Costner's Roy McAvoy kept repeating his same mistake over and over again. He'd drop another ball at that spot and take another shot, so sure of his decision. And with the same result time after time: the ball plopped in the water.

Incompletions. Interceptions. Fumbles on jet sweeps and shotgun snaps. "Give me another ball." By the time Costner's Roy McAvoy finally made the shot after losing ball after ball into the water, the title was lost with a 12 on his final hole. In Lafayette, Nebraska eventually made a few plays in the passing game and scored 29 points in the fourth quarter, but that was far too late as the game was already lost in the third quarter.

To Purdue. An awful Purdue team at that.