It’s kind of hard to believe, but Purdue has played six games and it officially at the halfway point of the season. They’re 3-3 at this point, which means they’re also halfway home to a bowl ga---okay, I’ll stop now, I just had a lot of celebratory brews this weekend. So what have we learned? Well, as I said, Purdue is 3-3. And for all the angst that has surrounded this program this year, that’s….really not a bad place to be. Being .500 halfway through the slate isn’t terrific, to be sure, but did you expect a lot better? I know some expected a 3-1 start in the non-con, which honestly wasn’t unreasonable looking back, since Central Michigan is kind of terrible. But expecting a team that went 1-11 a year ago to burst out of the gate at 3-1 is a bit pie in the sky, no matter what the schedule looks like. So Purdue has won a couple games they “should have” won, plus now a game that most prognosticators appeared split on. If you’re into what point spreads tell you, this game opened at 11.5 in favor of the Illini, then was down around 8 or 9 by kickoff, depending on where you looked. Purdue then went on to win by double digits after trailing a couple of times in the first quarter.
It’s tough to remain objective as a fan. It’s even tougher when it’s your alma mater and you feel as though these guys, in part, represent you. And when you’ve been trying to be patient for a long time and looking for signs of improvement for years, it becomes easy to let a poor performance snowball into believing the coaches aren’t right for it, the players aren’t good enough and the program doesn’t even belong in the conference.
However, when we look back, we wanted to see progress. That’s what I always come back to, and here we are. Last year’s squad was 1-5 after six games (with the one win being the squeaker over a bad, depleted FCS school) and the season felt beyond over. It felt absolutely hopeless, like even scoring would be an accomplishment (getting outscored 114-7 over three games at this stage last year). There is no such futility this season. Sure, wins from here on out will be scarce, but at least now you have some measure of confidence that they can move the ball and with a few breaks toss a scare into some teams that are unquestionably better right now.
We had said a 4-8 season would be a step forward, and it would be. And right now, that is still obviously within reach. However, given the confidence that seems to be building within that locker room, perhaps the boys don’t intend to stop at four wins.
Regardless, there have now been three weekends in 2014 where Purdue football has been fun again. Two of those were by double digits and in all three wins, Purdue rolled up some significant offensive numbers. If you’re going to be a mediocre team, scoring points in bunches is definitely a more fun way to do it and a good way to maybe get some seats filled at your home games. It also should make you quietly excited about what could happen next year. Make no mistake, this is all building to years three and four under Coach Hazell. Nobody expects big things in year two.
Things get a lot tougher in the near future for Austin Appleby, but for now he made the very most out of his first career start. Everyone, from players to fans, seemed to notice his confidence and command of the team. Again, no shot at Danny Etling, who we like a lot, but Appleby is a fresh look and perhaps the offense will just respond better to him. That sort of thing happens sometimes and it’s not necessarily a referendum on who the more talented QB is – sometimes a guy just gels better with a team.
Yes, it was “just Illinois,” and the other wins were over early season patsies. However, we often look at games as Purdue is playing them and comment to one another about what last year’s team would have done. And let’s not fool ourselves – last year, they would have lost (probably by double digits) in this weekend’s game and probably would have also folded against Western Michigan. So once again, it gets back to that not-real-exciting word: progress.
The second half of the season gets tougher, as noted, and the Illinois game was actually Purdue’s first official road game (ND was neutral, technically). Now they come back home to face a tough but not as hard-edged as last year MSU team. Then they go on the road back-to-back weeks to face Minnesota and Nebraska, followed by home tilts with Wisconsin and Northwestern before finishing up down in Bloomington. As I said, nothing looks like a lock win or even one where you might say “Well, if Purdue is getting better, they need to win this one.” But could they rise up and take down the likes of Minnesota or Indiana? Sure they could. Could they even surprise us all by winning one of those that don’t seem likely? The fun part now is that at least it seems possible. At least it seems like they’re playing the same sport as the rest of the conference.
Young, developing teams that are struggling to find their groove can have their season go in a couple of different directions. One, they can be like Illinois may be now – imploding and costing their coach his job. Or they can actually get better and perhaps improve the rest of the way. Let’s hope that happens and that the Bucket game gets us excited for next fall rather than for basketball.