(Note to the reader: This post is longer than normal...but read it in chunks if you don't have time to read it in its entirety...Then, let us know your thoughts...I think we're witnessing a critical period of time for Danny Hope's coaching staff)
In 2009, Purdue fans were in an optimistic mood. Almost everybody, including Joe Tiller, was ready for a change following the '08 season. We all knew Hope was an emotional guy...a high-energy guy. We all liked that too. After years of watching a stoic coach hold a stop watch, crunch on ice chips, hold his nose at the refs and complain about the disparity between Purdue and the cream of the conference, it was good to see something fresh.
And we saw something new last season. We saw a team that was a seemingly-manic as its coach. Coach Tiller was never too high, never too low. Coach Hope is a red ass when angry and happy like a little kid after a big victory. Football should be an emotional game...I like that emotion. I still think that personality type was what the program needed, especially after the last few seasons of JT's time in West Lafayette.
That said, I have to be fair and look critically at what we've been witnessing the last two seasons...and it's worse than not good. Possibly more disparaging, Things are going backwards...and it has little to do with injuries, in my opinion. The optimism for this coaching staff among the fan base seems to be waning.
Everyone reading understands the painful reality the Purdue football team's attrition has probably brought to the coaching staff. But, injuries to skilled players have no effect on the offensive line. This offensive line, at times, has looked as bad as any I've seen since Akers was coaching at Purdue. Colletto's lines were generally powerful...but slow. Tiller's lines (even the least talent-laden) were generally lean, but very skilled at protecting for the spread system. But Coach Hope's second offensive line seems to be months away from being ready. On paper, they're formidable- tall, long arms, great strength and weight. But, in person, versus less-than stellar competition, this unit seems to be manhandled regularly. The problem starts there...the OLine is Hope's baby...and his baby is kinda ugly right now.
Make no mistake, I'm not blaming Robert Marve's current injury on that line. But he was hit a ton the first few games. Granted, some of that was because he refused to get rid of the ball...but some was because he was simply running for his life as soon as the ball was moved. Today in the second half, they seemed to wear down Toledo and blew open some substantial holes...but this wasn't aOSU or Wisconsin they were facing. In the BT, it wearing a team down as the game goes on will become less and less likely. I have friends that say Bolden and Smith's losses are a difference of two or three games. They might be right, might be wrong. But, experts say that games are won in the trenches...in that case you can see why Purdue's offense is struggling to find an identity and has not yet found a rhythm.
Atop that, the play-calling has been horrible. The draw has been the mainstay this season from Coach Nord, next, a ton of reverses to the short side of the field...and for the life of me, I can't understand why the coaching staff keeps going to these dry wells. These plays have yielded very-limited success...and more-notably, have helped Purdue become one of the less-potent offenses in the nation. The 1-2-3-4 First Down Chant might need to be shelved for a while, in my opinion. The whole point of that was to demonstrate the frustrating nature of the way Purdue's offenses would rack up yards and first downs a they'd march down the field. This simply doesn't happen with regularity this season. Purdue has had more three and outs than their competition this season. Let that sink in- that's versus UND (who can't seem to stop anybody but Purdue), a 1-AA opponent and two MAC teams. That's flat-out awful. Do you think things will get better as the BT season commences?
Defensively, Purdue is struggling mightily to stop third down conversions. Some other Achilles heels seem to be the dreaded tight end dumps over the middle, delay draws and running backs who simply bounce their runs outside. These problems are officially a theme...and by the way, those plays don't take a genius like the Manatee to draw up or even a wise offensive sage to spot. This was a struggle last season too. People tried to blame it on a young/unhealthy LB corps then...now, according to Hope and others, this is supposed to be one of the best units on the team...it simply doesn't look that way though.
When Purdue has needed stops most this season, they simply haven't come. When a tackle has to be made, it almost never is as opposing running backs and quarterbacks seem to have Teflon-coated jerseys on when they're needed to be brought down. These same problems have seeped into the kickoff coverage units...Mercifully, Purdue doesn't have to kickoff all that often (read above for an answer why).
Recurring Special Teams Problems
Speaking of special teams, here's what we've seen- no consistency from the punters, a pre-season all BT kicker miss routine field goals and a kickoff coverage unit that seems to wilt when needed most. Versus UND, Ball State and most recently, Toledo. This kickoff team (that's filled with starters) exhibits poor spacing and worse tackling more often than not. This gives an already beleaguered defense a short field to defend, time and time again. Keep in mind, Purdue hasn't been playing teams with deadly kick returners or Beamer-coached ST units...they've faced a mediocre UND team, a D1-AA team and two MAC teams (yes, I'm repeating for effect).
There's an old football adage that I've found to be true- bad teams always seem young. They're always awaiting the arrival of a RS player or recruit to complete the team. Good teams seem to have underclassmen who are frustratingly good and seem to start for 5 or 6 seasons. Purdue isn't the latter right now...nor were they in '09.
There's Always Something
In much of the last season, I can remember thinking,
"if only the defense could stop the run..."
"if only the DBs could stop the pass..."
"if only the quarterback could make a few deep throws and be more-consistent..."
"if only the punt and kickoff units could keep their spacing and cover more-consistently..."
"If only this team could put together a complete game."
Ahhh, wouldn't it be great? And they did a few times last season toward the end...it seemed some of the lessons learned might carry into 2010. But, we seem to be experiencing Groundhog Day all over again. Versus Notre Dame, the defense held UND relatively in check (23 points)...but the offense was a no show (12). Today versus Toledo, Purdue's offense put it together in the second half (20 points in that half alone), but the defense allowed the statistical-worst offense in the nation to make plays when as it needed to assure victory. In the middle two games both the offenses and defenses struggled at times...particularly, allowing nearly 300 yards passing against W. Ill, then going scoreless for two-straight quarters against BSU.
As a rule it seems, Danny Hope's teams have struggled mightily to make "big" plays when their backs are against the wall in the first halves of each season he's been at Purdue.
Perhaps Hope's camps haven't been as effective as they've needed to be. Perhaps the coaching staff simply doesn't game plan aggressively early on as they don't have confidence in the individual units at the beginning of the season. But whatever the case is, something needs to be done. If the offense can't score a ton of points and force opposing teams into a high-paced game that leads to mistakes...or the defense can't consistently come up with turnovers and stops as needed...or the Special Teams units cannot make tackles or produce enough points, something's gotta give. It's a team game, and since none of the individual parts seem to be dominant, the collective unit must compliment the sum...it hasn't happened yet.
What can be done?
As J said in his post-game wrap-up, we're not proponents for people calling for the firing of Hope at this point as the season should be judged in its entirety, in our opinion. But, there might be some things that can be done to send a message to everyone on staff that there will be accountability and he simply expects more from his staff. Plus, I've never been a fan of people who just talk about problems and never have any proposed solutions...sure, my solutions aren't flawless, but in my opinion, something needs to be done.
Last season, Hope spoke of the importance of the Special Teams units as he named J.B. Gibboney as the ST Coordinator. The kick coverage was bad last year...but Hope blamed that on the fact that they couldn't put the guys on the field they needed/wanted to. This season, the kick coverage is still lousy...and starters are out there playing on those units. I'm not a fan of a mid-season firing...but think Gibboney needs to be relieved of his duties and shifted within the staff...perhaps to a position's coaching role.
The next potential change would be removing the "Co" from in front of Gary Emanuel's title and make him DC...then moving Landholm into the LB coaching role. Hagen would then become ST coordinator and would also coach the DLine.
Above, you can see how critical we are of the play-calling by Nord- it's been as vanilla and uninventive as I can remember. That said, I think his hands are tied more than any other coach's due to the losses of key players.
Granted, the chance of these changes, or changes like these, happening is extremely-slim as Hope seems to be staunchly-loyal. But, the margin for error of how to attain a winning record or respectable bowl has just gotten slimmer and slimmer...and with it, the leniency among alums, the general fanbase, and ticket holders/buyers might be disappearing.
Just as the Toledo loss back in 1997 became a defining moment and rallying cry for the Tiller's team and coaching staff, we could be witnessing a similar period of time right now, if some positives can be gleaned from it. If Hope's program is to take a collective step forward it will be because of the hard lessons learned thus far, and the difficult, if not aggressive decisions made during the upcoming bye week.
A Bleak Outlook
Purdue is currently last in scoring offense, second-to-last in passing, last in kickoff returns, and tied in seventh for scoring defense all while playing the 8 most-difficult schedule thus far.
This week alone, Wisconsin scored 70 points, aOSU scored 73, UM scored 65 & MSU scored 45. Without major changes, could Purdue see one of the most lop-sided losses in recent memory in BT play? Or worse yet, could the Boilers end up in the cellar of the conference?
Games that looked like gimmes don't look like it anymore as Illinois is playing respectably and IU is flat-out playing well...Finding (at least) 4 wins in the remaining schedule, at least at this point, seems to be a bit of a pipe dream
The odds of having a winning season, or even going to a bowl game decreased drastically today following the loss to Toledo. Hope and co. simply can't wait until the end of the season to make a move...The time is now.