By CLIFF BRUNT
There’s a lot of talk about what Purdue might do in the Big Ten race.
It will be just talk if the Boilermakers don’t improve their running game.
The Boilermakers entered the season with high expectations, and the hype increased after Purdue put in a solid effort against Notre Dame and conference powers Wisconsin and Nebraska suffered upset losses.
Eventually, Purdue’s chances of doing anything big will come down to its ability to control the game on the ground, and the Boilermakers haven’t done that yet. Saturday’s game against Eastern Michigan provides an opportunity for the Boilermakers to prove they can line up and hammer down.
Running back Akeem Shavers has been solid, but he’s only had 23 carries for 111 yards in two games. The Boilermakers were held to 90 yards on 30 carries in the 20-17 loss to Notre Dame. Purdue is averaging 132.5 yards per game and 3.8 yards per carry in two games.
Eastern Michigan has struggled against the run this season. The Eagles gave up 329 yards rushing in a 37-26 season-opening loss to Ball State (see ISL story here), then surrendered 216 yards rushing in a 31-14 loss to Illinois State.
Anything less than a complete obliteration of Eastern Michigan’s porous run defense will be unacceptable.
Purdue needs to build confidence in its running game, no matter how overmatched the opponent appears to be. There will be times in tight Big Ten games when Shavers and the ground game will be needed to put a game away or carry the load to take pressure off the quarterback. Purdue coach Danny Hope believes the Boilermakers have a chance to have an exceptional offensive line, but he admits it’s not there yet.
We need to play better, Hope said. I like where we’re at because I think where we’re going looks good. I think that you can tell sometimes when you’re watching players or a unit of players when the light is starting to come on and they’re fixing to take a big step as a unit, and I think that’s where our offensive line is at right now.
Akeem Hunt and Raheem Mostert have backed up Shavers, but both have just seven total carries this season. Hope has said his ideal team would be balanced. So far, Purdue has 84 passing attempts and 70 rushing attempts. For that to become more even, the team needs to give Hope confidence that it can move the chains on the ground.
The running game also will need to step up now that Robert Marve is out indefinitely with a torn left ACL. The Boilermakers pass significantly more often when Marve plays than when TerBush or Rob Henry plays.
Henry, a former starting quarterback, has moved up to No. 2 now that Marve is out. He is a dangerous runner who could help boost the ground game.
I like everything about Rob Henry, Hope said. I think he’s a fantastic athlete, brings a whole new dimension to the offense and to the playing field, great character guy, outstanding leader, very, very fast and a much improved passer and a guy that the players have always believed in.
The running game isn’t all that needs to improve.
Quarterback Caleb TerBush, who was suspended for the opener against Eastern Kentucky, started and struggled for the most part against Notre Dame. He completed 8 of 19 passes for 79 yards with two interceptions. TerBush, who had been replaced by Marve heading into Purdue’s final drive against Notre Dame, stepped up and threw a 15-yard touchdown pass to Antavian Edison on fourth-and-10 with 2:12 remaining. Hope made him the starter because of his consistency. Even though Purdue will likely deliver a heavy dose of the run on Saturday, TerBush needs to demonstrate that consistency, starting Saturday. Normally, when the No. 2 quarterback is out, the starter can be secure. Henry, who is getting better by the day, is good enough to challenge TerBush later in the season if TerBush doesn’t improve.
There are no such issues on defense. The Boilermakers have allowed just 26 points in two games and 283 yards per contest. Purdue cornerback Ricardo Allen, who hurt his ankle against Notre Dame, is expected to play.
All signs point to an easy win on Saturday. The bigger questions are: How will the Boilers play early? Will they dominate the ground game? Will they protect the quarterback? Can they limit mistakes?
Not if they win, but how.
The program should feel it is on solid ground after the Notre Dame game. Now, it’s a matter of cleaning up minor details that will become major later if left unresolved.
Hope is confident that the team will be focused after the loss to the Irish.
We came away from the (Notre Dame) game obviously disappointed that we didn’t win, but very encouraged about our potential as a football team , Hope said. This outfit, they really want to win. They are self-motivated. There’s not any selfishness on our football team. They all pull the rope in the same direction.