By CLIFF BRUNT
Here are a few things to watch as Purdue (1-2) heads to Madison to play at No. 24 Wisconsin (2-1) at 3:30 p.m. on Saturday.
Can Purdue maintain its momentum?
Purdue had moments during Saturday’s 31-24 loss to Notre Dame that showed much-needed improvement in the mental toughness department.
First, Akeem Hunt plowed over a defender on the sideline on the third play of the game. That took the fight to the Irish and energized the Boilermakers and their crowd.
The second was Purdue’s response to Notre Dame’s interception return for a touchdown in the fourth quarter. The Boilermakers came right back and scored to cut Notre Dame’s lead to seven.
Those kinds of plays were missing in the first two games, and the kind they will need in Wisconsin’s especially hostile environment.
Purdue’s confidence is high. When you compete with Notre Dame on national television, when you’re willing to hit the bully in the mouth first, people notice. Prospects notice. Darrell Hazell made a statement on Saturday night. That statement is that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and the light might not be as far away as we thought.
Purdue’s players are showing signs that they’ve had enough of the complacency. The Boilermakers moved forward an entire year in 60 minutes of football. Even ESPN is saying good things about the Purdue program.
Through all that, Hazell said his players have had the right attitude since the game.
“They were very disappointed in the outcome on Saturday night, and that’s where you want them to be,” he said. “If your guys are happy because we played better or we played well, something’s wrong there. The outcome of the game should determine how you feel, and our guys didn’t feel good about the outcome of that football game Saturday night, so we’re starting to get it.”
Hazell said the team was “a foot off” from making several plays that would have changed things against the Irish.
“I told our football team that we need to find that foot this week,” he said. “Wherever that foot is, those 12 inches, we’ve got to go find that foot. Because that is the difference, the physical difference that makes the difference in your world.”
Finding it against Wisconsin would be a big deal. The Badgers have beaten the Boilermakers seven straight times. The past six have been by double digits, by a combined score of 226-69.
Can Rob Henry do it again?
The coaching staff put Henry in position to thrive, moving him around and giving him a chance to make plays. He completed 25 of 40 passes for 256 yards against Notre Dame, all career highs.
Henry has improved as a passer, and Purdue’s coaching staff showed faith in him against Notre Dame that the previous regime didn’t. By putting the game on Henry’s shoulders (and Henry playing well), the Boilermakers took a critical step in shutting down the noise about freshmen Austin Appleby and Danny Etling. Given his gigantic leap since the opener, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that he can take another one.
“He played he pretty well,” Hazell said. “He got us in and out of the huddle really fast. I thought he made good decisions with the football throwing it away, but we need for him to continue to get better.”
Can Purdue manufacture a running game?
It seems like a strange question because Akeem Hunt did so much damage against Notre Dame. But the Boilermakers ran for just 38 yards on 21 carries against the Irish. Hunt did most of his damage in the passing game, catching nine passes for 72 yards. At some point, the Boilemakers will need to be able to move the chains on the ground.
Can Purdue stop Wisconsin from running the ball?
As far as the running game goes, nothing has changed under new coach Gary Andersen.
The following numbers are 3-game totals.
Melvin Gordon has 37 carries for 482 yards. I didn’t say catches. He plays running back. That’s 12.9 yards per carry. James White has 45 carries for 305 yards. Corey Clement, a freshman, has 31 carries for 251 yards. The Badgers average 337 yards rushing per game.
Then, there are the people who block for them.
Left tackle Tyler Marz is 6-foot-5 and 321 pounds. Left guard Ryan Groy is 6-5, 320. Center, normally the smallest offensive line position, is occupied by 6-6, 322-pound Dallas Levallen. Right guard Kyle Costigan is 6-5, 315 and right tackle Rob Haverstein is 6-8, 327.
You can’t implement a conventional game plan against the Badgers because their line is so huge and their backs are so good.
“You’ve got to get a lot of men near the football, which makes you vulnerable in other spots, but you have to make them as one dimensional as you can,” Hazell said. “You have to be able to stop the power. They run it out of a lot of different formations. They have a big offensive line. That presents a little bit of an issue. But you need to get eight, nine hats around the football to eliminate some of those running gaps.”
Can Wisconsin win close games?
Purdue might be OK in a close game. Here are the Badgers’ last six games decided by seven points or less:
Sept. 29, 2012 — Nebraska, L, 27-30
Oct. 20, 2012 — Michigan State, L, 13-16
Nov. 17, 2012 — Ohio State, L, 14-21 (OT)
Nov. 24, 2012 — Penn State, L, 21-24 (OT)
Jan. 1, 2013 — Stanford, L, 14-20
Sept. 14, 2013 — Arizona State, L, 30-32
Is Wisconsin ready to play?
Being unable to line up for what would have been a game-winning field goal in the closing seconds of last Saturday’s 32-30 loss to Arizona State could have a dramatic effect on a football team. It depends on the makeup of the players. We will learn a lot about the Badgers this week.
“I think our kids will bounce back well,” Andersen said. “That’s life lessons that can be learned. You can only control what you can control, and that is a challenge, and that is the mindset of all of us in the football program right now.”