By CLIFF BRUNT
When a young, struggling team with a new coach is playing a nationally ranked squad, success isn’t necessarily best measured by watching the scoreboard.
Though I have great respect for Purdue’s history of being a thorn in Notre Dame’s side, watching the Boilermakers’ close call against Indiana State and Notre Dame’s loss to Michigan gives me two thoughts. One – Purdue is a ways from being able to compete against the big dogs. Two – Notre Dame is very upset, and Purdue, as Bill Goldberg used to say, is next.
I don’t expect things to go well for the Boilermakers on Saturday night. I think a three-touchdown loss is in the works. But here are five things to watch – the games within the game that can keep things entertaining, even if the score isn’t ideal for Boilermakers fans. These are focused on the offense because that is the greatest area of concern.
1. How will Akeem Hunt perform?
Hunt could start for Notre Dame in some capacity. He is explosive, and his 22-carry, 82-yard performance last week showed he has some durability. Purdue is committed to getting him the ball, as evidenced by the reverse on the opening kickoff against Indiana State that he returned for a touchdown. The Boilermakers had some success with him last week on quick tosses. The Boilermakers need to get him the ball in open spaces, but that will be difficult if the offensive line can’t hold up for long enough to let plays develop. Perhaps the real question is whether the rest of the Boilermakers will allow Hunt to perform.
“He’s a special player, and we have to make sure he gets all the touches he needs, and we’ll do that as we move through the season, but he’s really gifted,” Hazell said. “The more he plays, the better he gets. We need to make sure we get him involved pretty quickly.”
2. Can Rob Henry get it together?
The odds are stacked against him this week. Even though Michigan’s offense was very successful against Notre Dame, the Irish have loads of NFL-quality talent on the roster, led by defensive end Stephon Tuitt and nose guard Louis Nix. Henry will need to be used in a way that features his running skills, meaning coach Darrell Hazell may need to include some zone read and rollout action to help his cause. Purdue has just one proven threat at this point – Hunt. That’s not going to be enough against Notre Dame, so the Boilermakers will need to manufacture things for the Irish to worry about. Henry has been an effective runner throughout his career, but he has just eight yards on 13 carries this season. The Boilermakers could improve this total by making Henry’s running a more significant part of the game plan.
So far this season, Henry has completed 55.9 percent of his passes — a low number in this day and age — for 311 yards. He has yet to throw a touchdown pass and has thrown two interceptions. I’ve been in favor of him remaining the starter, but he needs to improve.
“He definitely took steps forward,” Hazell said. “He needs to play better and he knows that. But he definitely took steps forward in terms of communication and in terms of taking care of the ball. We didn’t have any turnovers, so he did a good job in terms of taking care of the ball. But we still need to get better at seeing the field a little bit better. He had a couple of slants on the back side where he didn’t see it that were uncontested throws. We need to see those things.”
A blowout loss on Saturday makes the Playing for Next Year Train move a little faster. When it arrives, it will be with a freshman quarterback.
3. Can the Boilermakers play well after the first quarter?
The same problem that plagued the Boilermakers last season has reared itself again.
Purdue outscored its opponents last season 91-73 in the first quarter, but was outscored 128-99 in the second quarter and 110-90 in the third. In other words, the Boilermakers would start well but couldn’t sustain it.
This season, Purdue was in a scoreless tie at the end of the first quarter of the opener against Cincinnati and trailed just 14-7 at halftime before losing 42-7. Against Indiana State, the Boilermakers led 7-0 at the end of the first quarter and 10-0 at halftime, but were outscored 14-10 in the second half and had to be saved by a last minute interception by Ricardo Allen.
The inability to maintain success is both physical and mental. The Boilermakers must play at their best the entire game Saturday — just to make it a game. Otherwise, this could be worse than the Cincinnati score.
4. Can a receiver or two emerge?
Purdue has usually had excellent college receivers. Purdue’s top wideout through two games this season? Shane Mikesky. He has four catches for 43 yards. That’s usually a half for an elite Purdue receiver.
Tight end Gabe Holmes leads the team with nine catches, but he only has 69 yards and he is out with a wrist injury. Backup running back Dalyn Dawkins is second on the team in yards receiving.
It’s not what Purdue fans are used to. Even on teams that lost, the offense put up numbers. This season will be especially tough for the fans if the team loses AND it’s boring to watch.
Danny Anthrop could play this week in the slot. He’s been recovering from an MCL injury to his left knee, but Hazell said he might play Saturday. He would likely be one of Henry’s top targets if available.
5. What’s up with the offensive line?
The protection for Rob Henry has been shaky at best. Only his mobility and the fact that Purdue doesn’t bother throwing deep has prevented him from being sacked more than three times.
The bigger problem is in the run game. Purdue is averaging just 125 yards per game and a horrific 2.9 yards per carry. The Boilermakers ran six plays from the 1-yard line last week against FCS squad Indiana State and came away with a field goal.
When you’re on the 1-yard line, it’s about your manhood. You line up, you knock the other guy back, you score. Yes, those guys missed their blocks. But somehow, you get it done with first-and-goal from the 1-yard line twice. I would give Indiana State credit, but with all due respect, Purdue was bigger and stronger and should have won those battles.
“We have to do a better job of blocking,” Hazell said. “We missed a couple key blocks on those plays in the red zone, that I thought they were walk-in touchdowns after you watch the film if the guys sustain the block. We’ve got to play more consistent up front. If we do, it’s a game that probably you’re 17 points out, probably 17-0 at the half, maybe 24-0. But we can’t fall off those blocks inside.”