Steps Forward? (A look at the weekend)
This week, my pal J has been pulling more than his weight on this site. My job situation has kept me occupied, and honestly, this football season has left me at a bit of a loss.
During the week, between the games, I don't know what to say. I'm not with many of you guys who believe all is lost and Hazell isn't the right guy. And I'm not with some others who can just deal with crappy play and act like everything is A-OK.
Losing in a historically-notable fashion, week-after-week, isn't easy for me to swallow. But at the same time, I can't really stop watching what's happening. It's not like a car wreck for me, I really don't want to see how bad things can get...I just want to see something positive...something to build on. And those glimmers, if they exist, have been tough to spot.
Being a Purdue fan the last few years has been Groundhog Day. Our favorite football team gets smoked by good teams, our favorite basketball team seems to lose games they shouldn't.
Friday night, my wife and I went to Mackey to watch Purdue play Northern Kentucky. Yeah, that Northern Kentucky team. Oh wait, you're probably like me and know nothing about that program other than Purdue should beat them handily. So when I arrived at the game a few minutes late and the Forces of Good were already down by 6 or 7 points, I was kinda shocked. But, I figured, hey, slow starts happen and Matty's teams do that from time to time...no big deal.
But NKU, other than cheap looking uniforms, didn't look like a bad team...and each time Purdue would take a marginal lead, one of their guards would either blow by Purdue or they'd hit a three after Purdue rotated too slowly on a switch.
We've seen this before...in fact, we saw this time and again last season. Matty's defensive-minded team and program fails at the one thing that used to define it.
Based on the size of the crowd, not many of you were at the game last night...and in spite of all of the ridiculous Polly Anna talk on Twitter, most Purdue fans saw zero minutes of the contest. So let me tell you my perspective on this team based on that game:
The Purdue team of '12/'13 would have lost that game by 7-10 points.
Sure, last year's team was bad...a non-cohesive team with no real threats to score from the outside who only shot three pointers poorer than free throws. An aimless offense that relied on teardrop shots or defensive breakdowns for points, seemed to be the exact opposite of clutch and couldn't stop anyone on defense.
Well, the last of the three problems from last season reared its hideous face last night as one of NKU's guards impersonated Trey Burke. Not only did Jordan Jackson drive around Purdue's guards with ease, but when Purdue would rotate over to stop him, he'd draw the foul and hit the free throw...over and over and over again. He hit his first 8 free throws, finished with 23 points, 8 rebounds and 5 assists. It was frustrating to watch him show up a bunch of former 4-star recruits who simply couldn't stop him. He wasn't the only one though- the little white shooting guard kept hitting big shots and the big white stiff PF added a few from long distance as well. It was kind of infuriating.
At one point, I said to my wife, "here we go again." Just as last year's team had to rely heavily upon Freshman, this team does too. Too much youth lead to slow rotations...same thing last night. Those slow rotations allowed NKU to get open threes...then when Purdue would over-commit to the perimeter, they'd get an easy putback as Purdue refused to block out.
Jay Simpson looked very good at times...and at others, looked out of place. You can see glimpses of why Simpson might become a very special player...but at this point, AJ Hammons is clearly better. And during this short suspension, he was very missed.
I heard people quip that if Hammons is missed this much, Purdue is in trouble. I think Purdue should have handled NKU easier without 20, but I think it's a different Purdue team without him. Not having a guy that scores 10+ with 6 rebounds and 2 blocks does make a difference. And in a defense that relies on switching, a big shot-blocker who is a deterrent to teams that drive matters a lot.
Let's not forget that Hammons still practiced with his teammates during his suspension; so their muscle memory, their tendencies on defense, are still heavily-reliant upon Hammons.
Back to the game- if you didn't watch, you might not realize how dead Purdue was in the last minute. They were down four points with under a minute left. So, Purdue looked to one of the new Seniors for leadership. Errick Peck hit a three that closed the gap to one point. Then, they sent Jackson to the free throw line...who finally missed. After missing a second free throw line, Purdue had the ball and a chance to win, and RonJohn was fouled.
Last season, this would have spelled doom. This time, Johnson hit two free throws, and Purdue got the lead. NKU had good looks on their next possession; one a nearly wide-open putback...but the home team won.
If Purdue makes the NCAA tournament, which I believe they will, this win will be extremely important. Purdue had to win; without Hammons. And yes, this was an ugly win. But a few good lessons came out of it; and painter will be able to teach from this one.
When Purdue played hard, good things happened. When the Freshman took breaks and let down their intensity, they drew stupid fouls and allowed easy buckets. The leadership of Peck, Carter, Carroll and TJohn (of course) seemed apparent...but all of them are growing into the roles. Johnson forced a few shots in an effort to will Purdue back into the game, but he has urgency about him that he began showing late last season. He finished with 10pts and 4rebs.
His brother was very good when looking to score, but ironically, wasn't great as a facilitator. He threw a few passes that seemed to look like he just didn't know where he was going with the ball before he left his feet. The result was 4 turnovers; most were in the lane (if my memory serves me correctly). But his shot looked good; he has much better rotation on his jump shot now and took advantage of the lack of respect NKU gave him...he took smarter shots than last season. He had 18 points and 5 assists and led all Boilers in both categories.
Simpson was great when he was on; 14pts and 6rebs...he has great footwork in the lane, but struggled when trying to body up on the lane. Peck had 11 points and 9 rebounds...and was solid and consistent...and he shot one three pointer...at the right time. He seems to let the game come to him and played like a veteran.
The best stat of the game for the Boilers was this: They made 16 of 20 free throws. Obviously, every one of them was needed. Atop of shooting FTs better, they also are just a much better shooting team this season. Those of you that are already complaining about this win, please let me make a request: Just wait until they're at full strength before judging the entire season...OR wait for a few games to be played before you burn all of your Purdue gear. If you'd rather seethe about the way Purdue won, hey, that's up to you. But as for me, all I can think is that that game would have been a loss a year ago...so I'm happy about it being in the left column.
We get to see Matty's boys face another world beater on Wednesday when Central Connecticut State comes calling.
Now, let's talk about football for a moment.
I told you in my predicto that I didn't think Iowa would be a push-over. Turns out, they did what most teams have done against Purdue this season- controlled the Boilers and beat them soundly. Iowa ran the ball better against Purdue's front than they had versus anybody this season. Purdue's defensive and offensive fronts both were manhandled buy the Hawkeyes...but unlike the aOSU and Nebraska games, I think there actually was something positive. It's not that they scored...although that's better than the alternative (that we know well).
Purdue wasn't knocked out of this one early and competed for a half. BUT, when Mostert fumbled after the best run of the day, Purdue was on the ropes. One play didn't beat Purdue, but one play absolutely turned the tide.
Purdue's LBs struggle mightily in most phases of the game- their pass coverage forces the safeties out of position, which forces CBs to make too many tackles. Of course, when one of the CBs is a leading tackler, that's usually an indicator that too many big plays are being given up. The offensive line was better today in pass coverage, but still is unable to create space for RBs. Purdue hasn't had over 100 yards rushing since September. It doesn't matter if it's Dawkins, Cottom or Hunt at RB, there's no place to run for Purdue's backs right now. And since the threat of Purdue's running game doesn't scare any opposing DC, they can focus on pass defense...this formula leaves our Boilers in a week-to-week struggle that's not stopping anytime soon.
Here are my positives from the day- Howard had a big sack to stop Iowa on a fourth down in the first quarter. Obviously it didn't prove to a be a big play in the grand scheme of things, but sacks have been few and far between for this defense and getting off of the field is something this D has struggled to do.
Next, Anthrop played well. 82 yards receiving and a TD is nothign to sneeze at...but he had a big drop on a third and short that might have kept a drive alive. Knauf still hasn't played like he did before his suspension...but let's remember that his best games were when Henry played QB.
Finally, Appleby actually played. He went 5 for 6 in garbage time. While I'm not sure #12 would have any more success than Etling has, I do know that giving Appleby a chance to see the field each game, even if it's when the game is out of hand is not a bad thing. I'm hoping he doesn't transfer because I wanted him to be the starter this season...but I'm not sure if anyone would blame him for contemplating that after this season if nothing changes. It's one thing to be on the bench because a QB is great or if a team just wins...it's another to be buried on the pine while a team can't win and the QB play is less-than-stellar. Let me reiterate, I don't think Etling is losing these games...but what we all know is he's not winning them either.
Purdue heads to Happy Valley next week...a place where only one Purdue team has left with a victory. I can't see that trend being bucked. The following week, Purdue will have their greatest chance of a B1G win as they host Illinois. I'm not saying it's a good chance of a win, but after watching IU's offense, it's tough to see a scenario in which Purdue's offense can hang with them. And while PSU is only a game over .500, Iowa had the same record prior to this week...just sayin'.
Some More Perspective
Purdue's rushing game has been attrocious this season, and the 40yds/game during the last two contests has been tough to watch. BUT, the University of Michigan has averaged -35 yards rushing per game the last two games. So I guess it can get worse...
Dammit, that wasn't my point.
Cal still parallel with the Boilers...
Cal got smoked today by USC...and their record fell to 1-9. With two games left, their best chance for a win will also come against a 3-win team; Colorado.