This is the latest in a series of articles previewing Big Ten football in 2012. A rough schedule of previous and upcoming preview articles is provided at the end of this article.
It took a while for Danny Hope to get Purdue back to the promised land of bowl eligibility, but another surprising upset of Ohio State in November allowed the Boilermakers to reach 6-6 a season ago. That result was made all the more sweeter by knocking off high-octane Western Michigan in its backyard in the Little Caesar's Bowl.
With that slight bit of momentum now pushing this program, the door has been opened wide for Purdue to come back to prominence with Ohio State and Penn State on the postseason ineligible shelf for 2012. With impeccable timing, Hope brings back his most experienced and best team so far during his tenure in West Lafayette.
Purdue also avoids Michigan State and Nebraska in cross-division play and pulls Michigan at home, leading to one of the easiest conference schedules possible for a division contender. Although it may be difficult to imagine, Purdue is actually the biggest threat to Wisconsin in the Leaders Division chase. With a little bit of luck and perhaps a home upset of Wisconsin, Purdue could be celebrating a shocking appearance in the Big Ten Championship.
Of course, for all of that to happen, Purdue needs to avoid the injury and ineligibility bug that has plagued their starters for the last two seasons. Especially hard hit has been the quarterbacks, although Hope has up to seven quarterbacks on the roster this season, including three with significant playing experience.
Will Purdue stay healthy and survive the tough opening stretch of conference games against Michigan, Wisconsin, and Ohio State? Will Danny Hope lead the Boilermakers to a shocking division title? Will Purdue finally take advantage of experience and a favorable schedule? Let's take a look.
Going into last season, Purdue appeared to have too many quarterbacks with Rob Henry coming back to take away the starting job from Caleb TerBush and Robert Marve. However, Henry was lost for the season in August practices and Marve was also banged up. Which left the quarterback duties to TerBush, who managed 1,900 yards in the 13 games a season ago.
Marve participated frequently upon his return to health, and one would figure he would get some more opportunities in his senior season. Hope probably does not care who starts at quarterback, just that he receives consistent play from whomever that player is. However, Hope was quoted as saying intended starter TerBush "has taken his game to a different level" as a senior in fall camp, and "that might be the most important thing for out football team right now."
Purdue has slowly improved the running game during Hope's tenure, and they averaged 182 yards per game on the ground in 2011. With starting running back Ralph Bolden still recovering from his third ACL surgery during his college career, that leaves a huge question mark at running back. Akeem Shavers and Akeem Hunt will split duties when Bolden is out, but this offense needs Bolden to be healthy to improve those rushing numbers towards 200 yards per game.
One thing that will help the Purdue running game is a solid offensive line. A solid top seven players have emerged in fall camp led by center Rick Schmeig and LG Peter Drey. Drey is the only player of the top seven to have any health concerns, which means that Purdue is ready to pave the way for better offense in 2012.
Depth at wide receiver is thin, but the starting trio of junior Gary Bush, senior Antavian Edison, and junior OJ Ross will bring back over 1100 yards of receiving from a season ago. These three are on the same page with TerBush and should improve the numbers above 200 yards per game passing in 2012.
As long as Purdue stays healthy and balanced on offense, they will be difficult to keep off the scoreboard in 2012. The Boilermakers will be in the strange position of putting some pressure on opposing offenses to perform at a high level to keep up in 2012.
The Boilermaker defense in 2011 returned nine starters, but that turned out to not be the end of the story as opposing offenses generated more offense than Purdue surrendered in 2010. In fact, the defense gave up 20 more yards per game than the offense generated, which put Purdue in a deep hole in certain games against better teams like Michigan and Wisconsin.
Outside of the trip to Indiana, the Boilermakers struggled to stop teams when on the road. That absolutely has to improve if Purdue is to compete for a division title. The one big question mark heading into this season is the defensive secondary, which needs to replace both starters. That will put the pressure on cornerbacks Josh Johnson and Ricardo Allen to generate some interceptions that were lacking a season ago.
Purdue was led on defense by three linebackers a season ago, and two of them return in Will Lucas and Dwayne Beckford. Lucas and Beckford combined for four sacks and 13 tackles for loss in 2011, but these numbers will need to improve in 2012. Look for some more blitzes in key situations to enable these solid linebackers to shut down plays in the backfield.
The defensive line is the strength of the defense this year thanks to seven of the eight players on the two-deep chart returning for 2012. Junior Brandon Taylor will likely be slotted in at defensive end, although most of the pressure on opposing offenses will probably be generated up the middle. Senior Kawann Short broke out with 6.5 sacks and 10.5 tackles for loss in 2011 and could be the next Ryan Kerrigan if he continues to improve in 2012.
With all the strength up front, Purdue should hold opposing running games well under 150 yards per game again. As long as the secondary comes together by the middle of the season, Purdue will be respectable on defense once again.
With Carson Wiggs handling the kicking and half the punting duties, Purdue always felt like a chance for points was there whenever the Boilermakers crossed midfield in 2011. Now Wiggs is gone, which will make the kicking game suffer significantly.
However, junior punter Cody Webster helped Wiggs achieve 38 yards per punt net in 2011 and will be ready to punt 100 percent of the time this season. Considering the strength of the Purdue offense and defense, the special teams just needs to avoid being a liability. Holding field position overall should be good enough to keep Purdue in many games.
Raheem Mostert averaged a very good 34 yards per kick return a season ago, and he found the end zone on one occasion. Although numerous players received a look at punt returning this spring and fall, Josh Johnson will probably take over the punt returns to start the season. If he falters, Ricardo Allen or Frankie Williams could easily step in good good speed and hands.
Three freshman kickers will split the kickoff and field goal duties. In all likelihood, the best recruit of the bunch Paul Griggs will get his opportunity first at field goals. Thomas Meadows will be the kickoff man to start the season, and these two probably have the inside track to become the top kicker of this unit over the next four seasons.
A small step back for this unit should be expected. If Purdue steals another game with special teams like it did a season ago against Ohio State (blocked PAT led to overtime, which Purdue won), then the sky is the limit for the Boilermakers.
The Boilermakers' schedule for 2012 looks like this, with predictions on wins and losses in parentheses:
9/1—Eastern Kentucky (win)
9/8—@ Notre Dame (loss)
9/15—Eastern Michigan (win)
10/20—@ Ohio State (loss)
10/27—@ Minnesota (win)
11/3—Penn State (win)
11/10—@ Iowa (loss)
11/17—@ Illinois (win)
Projected record: 7-5, 4-4 Big Ten
With the exception of the road game at South Bend, the non-conference schedule is mostly easy. Purdue should be no worse than 3-1 with the opening schedule in September. The one disadvantage for Purdue is that there is no bye week during the eight straight conference games, which could wear this team out.
Purdue will need to be ready to hit Big Ten play right away, as the hardest three games on the conference schedule kick off the October play. Purdue needs to steal a win against Michigan or Wisconsin at home in order to stay in the race for division title, especially with a tough road game at Columbus following that.
Even if Purdue is 0-3 following this stretch, the final five games are all winnable. Road games at Iowa and Illinois will be tricky, but Purdue should be able to finish strong and find a way to match the seven wins from a season ago. With a couple lucky breaks on the road that Purdue does not normally get, the Boilermakers will be playing an easy schedule and putting pressure on Wisconsin during the Badgers' tough closing November stretch.
The best case scenario has been alluded to above: Wisconsin takes on a couple of cross-division losses and perhaps also a loss against the Buckeyes. Purdue manages to win six conference games and puts themselves above all but Ohio State in the Leaders Division, which would send them to Indianapolis. The worst case scenario is a losing season, which is possible if injuries continue to occur.
I project Purdue will fall in the center of these possibilities. Another bowl will happen, but the possibility of winning the division during the Buckeyes' ineligibility will be an opportunity lost.
Thanks for reading! If you have any comments or questions about this or other articles in the 2012 Big Ten football preview series, please contact David on Twitter.
Big Ten Season Preview 2012 Summary
Team Previews: Minnesota preview, Indiana preview, Northwestern preview, Illinois preview; Iowa preview; Penn State preview; Michigan State preview; Purdue preview; Nebraska preview; Ohio State preview; Michigan preview; Wisconsin preview
B1G Scouting Reports: Sun Belt/WAC report
That's it for the preview...thanks for reading and now the season is here!