Through four games (and part of a fifth, as the NIU game is going on as I type this), there has been a general trend for Purdue, and that is to perform at a level that I suspect Coach Hazell would term "unacceptable". In particular, the offense has been poor, and against the competition the Boilers have faced and will face, the defense simply will not be able to carry the load themselves.
However, for one night, through three quarters of play, a national television audience got a glimpse of what Hazell and Shoop hope to build in West Lafayette: a competent offense that moves the ball steadily downfield, eating the clock and scoring points. Here's Rob Henry's line at that point: 17-26-0-167-2. That's not flashy, but it's a 65% completion percentage against Notre Dame, which is saying something, and that 2 at the end? Those are touchdowns. You may not recognize them, because through two games, Henry had zero.
Unfortunately, the fourth quarter didn't go quite as planned, but the Boilers nonetheless put up a valiant effort, and even had the ball late in the fourth with a chance to tie or win. Even though they couldn't pull out the game, they did show that when things go well, this team can hang with a lot of opponents ... and then the next week, in Madison, they showed the exact opposite. Let's take a closer look at both games - which seems more likely to expect, moving forward?
Looking at the stats, there's one thing that jumps out immediately: pass protection. The Irish did not get a hurry against Henry and recorded just one sack, late in the fourth on Purdue's final drive. In contrast, Wisconsin had 7 hurries and 4 sacks, similar to the pressure that Cincinnati showed (8 hurries, 1 sack).
It isn't that the running game was effective against Notre Dame: quite the contrary, in fact. With 38 yards in 21 carries, the running game actually hurt more than it helped ... you can't pass on every play and hope to be successful, but you've got to get better than 2 yards per carry (with 1 sack for -2 yards, that means Purdue was 20 for 40 in actual runs) in order to take pressure off Henry and the passing game. The Wisconsin game was a bit better, with 74 yards on 17 running plays, Purdue wasn't throwing away downs, but it's fair to note that quite a bit of that came after the game was out of hand.
So maybe that's part of the problem - with such an unbalanced offense, Shoop and Hazell can't get the results they want because they're not in the down-and-distance situations that makes their desired playcalling effective. (Purdue did convert on 7 of 12 third downs in the first three quarters against ND.) Or it may be that the offense simply isn't good, and that Notre Dame's defense either isn't good or didn't play well that Saturday.
According to the play-by-play, Purdue had 21 second-down plays: 2 from short distance, 6 from medium, and 13 from long. Third down plays were similar: of 16 plays, 12 were third-and-long, 2 were middle, and 2 were short. Time and again, the Boilers found themselves in situations that called for passing, and yet on 13 occasions, they got a first down anyway. (That's by far the most passing first downs they've recorded in a game this season; they had 20 in the other three games combined.)
The Boiler running game has not been anywhere near what Hazell is accustomed to seeing. They're currently 116th in yards per game, which sounds pretty bad, but it's actually worse than that. Purdue is averaging just 70.5 YPG on the ground; the median value in I-A football is about 184 YPG, and 9 teams (including two triple-option teams, Army and Navy) average over 300 YPG. (Wisconsin and NIU are both in the top 10.) So Purdue is over 100 yards under what a middle-of-the-road team would gain, and even taking into account quality of opposition, that's got to be a serious concern. There are a few Big Ten teams with shaky defenses, but even those teams may put up better numbers if they know you've got to pass most of the time.
Purdue was just 2 of 14 on third downs against Wisconsin after going 0 for 4 in the fourth quarter against the Fig Things; at 17 for 58 (29.3%) on the season, they're again in the 100s, along with a bunch of bad teams plus a few really good teams that don't care if they convert or not because they may just score in three plays on the next drive.
It wasn't so much the numbers as it was the timing: Rees had 200 yards passing through three quarters, and Notre Dame was 7 of 12 on third downs just like Purdue was, but they hadn't really produced any big plays. ND's 11-play, 80-yard second-quarter drive ended in a field goal, and their two third-quarter TDs came on 10- and 11-play drives ... essentially the same bend-but-don't-break philosophy Michigan had tried the week before.
The fourth quarter was Purdue's undoing, but in two different ways. The defense only gave up one big play - the 82-yard touchdown to Daniels - but allowed four straight first downs by the Irish to run out the clock. Two plays in particular were crucial ones: the 18-yard completion to Daniels on third and 6, where a three-and-out would have given Purdue plenty of time for one last drive, and the illegal participation penalty coming out of a time out on third and 3. ND didn't run the ball that effectively, with 36 carries for 98 yards, but they got enough when they needed it, and the passing game got one big play when Purdue absolutely couldn't afford one.
Even so, the defense did quite a bit to keep the Boilers in the game. After the Two Minutes of Doom, and after Henry led Purdue back within seven, on the very first play of the next drive, Richards' forced fumble gave Purdue the ball back in Notre Dame territory before the unsportsmanlike conduct penalty moved it out. It's not the defense's fault that the offense lost two yards on the ensuing drive.
The Wisconsin game was a different story. While the Badgers were just 5 of 13 on third downs, they didn't need to be any better. Wisconsin averaged over 8 yards per carry, and this wasn't a triple-option attack that is so different that it's hard to defend with a single week of preparation ... it was just Wisconsin's traditional steamroller offense. Purdue probably won't see another running game as good as the Badgers', but Ohio State, Nebraska, and Iowa have all put up some solid numbers so far, and that could be a problem for Greg Hudson's defense if this is a systemic issue rather than simply a case of playing one of the best rushing teams in the country.
Still, those five quarters seem to be a reflection of the one problem Hudson's crew has had this season: an inability to get opponents off the field. Purdue is 111th in defensive third-down efficiency, at 48.3% ... that's about 10 points higher than median performance and about 20 points higher than top-25 performance. I suspect that some of this comes from the ineffectiveness of the offense, and that avoiding three-and-outs on offense would give the defense more of a breather so we could see better performance from them, but some of it is simply not executing on third downs.
It was good to see Purdue play hard and nearly pull off an upset on national TV, but their fourth-quarter play, plus the rout at Wisconsin, seems to be a better reflection of where the team is right now ... and looking at the halftime score against Northern Illinois, I'd say that's another indication that Hazell and his staff have a lot of work to do to build a contending program here. There are simply too many things that aren't going right at this point.