Our Boilers are one-third of the way through the 2009 season with the tough pre-con schedule behind them. After cooling off a bit, here's a level-headed assessment of where things stand thus far:
-Home for the holidays? Many didn't think a bowl was going to be in Purdue's post-season plans. But, if Hope's team wants to travel in December, they'll have to win 5 of their last 8 games. That's a pretty tall order for a lot of reasons. Four of the games are on the road, two are ranked, two more are just out of the polls and are receiving votes.
-Interestingly enough, computers like our Boilers quite a bit- because of the strength of schedule and the fact that Purdue has lost by slim margins in the last three contests, Purdue is ahead of Indiana, Illinois and Northwestern (in that order) in the Sagarin rankings. That said, it looks to me like the Hoosiers could be bowl eligible in October.
-You don't tackle, you don't win. Purdue's problems on special teams and defense both seem to have the same root- poor angles and even worse finishing. This Purdue team has the bad habit of not making the stop until the second or third player has gotten to the ball carrier. Even in Purdue's sole win of the season, sloppy tackling and poor fundamentals led directly to multiple scores by Toledo.
-Lack of accountability. At the beginning of the season, Hope said he wanted a few things to be the benchmarks of his team. First, he wanted them to play nearly-mistake-free football. Next, he wanted his team to be one of the hardest-hitting teams in the conference. And lastly, he wanted a team that would keep fighting, regardless of the situation. Batting .333 will make you a hall of famer in baseball, but in this case, one out of three is unacceptable. These goals weren't set by someone else, they were set by the coach- and he's simply not holding his players feet to the fire. It might be because of lack of depth, but it sends the wrong message to have guys not do as they're instructed and not be held accountable, in my opinion.
-Nothing downfield. Purdue's vertical passing game is non-existent...and we have no reason to believe it will get any better. Defenses have all but taken away Ralph Bolden from the game because they don't have to have safeties playing deep and they can crowd the line of scrimmage. Looking at Valentin, Carlos and Smith alone, I see plenty of deep threats. But, Elliott seemingly can't make the passes to utilize these receivers. With an extremely-poor-tackling defense that seems to allow points in bunches, the offense must be able to score quickly...but this offense doesn't seem to have the quick-strike capability that is a must at this point. Plus, Nord doesn't seem to put receivers in the position to get yards after the catch. Last week, Valentin and Smith had a few noteworthy YAC plays, but it was because they carried 1-3 defenders on their backs once they had the ball, not because they were given the ball in space.
-Promises unfulfilled. At the end of camp, Coach Hope said multiple times that we'd see TerBush at quarterback. He also talked about how Halliburton, Dierking and McBurse would all see significant action at the RB position. Atop that, he spoke about the talented young receivers in the stable that would almost-assuredly play big minutes. What we've seen on the field simply hasn't matched Hope's assessment. And this can be attributed to any number of things-
Perhaps Hope just uses this tactic to keep players motivated. The problem with this idea is that these guys will eventually figure out that it's BS if it is...we're getting close to that point.
Maybe Hope simply gets nervous in gametime situations...and while he has faith in these guys in practice, he can't seem to allow them to be in the game when it really matters. Sure, guys like McBurse and TerBush might not be coming along at the rate he'd like, but there are plenty of other examples of guys who have played little-to-no minutes that seemingly could help battle fatigue on this extremely-thin Purdue roster.
The last thing that might be happening is he's reassessed the situation and doesn't think it helps the program, in the long run, by burning a redshirt for a guy like McBurse, Williams, Foy, Pamphile, Bush, Henry, Melton or others just to get purdue to 3 or 4 wins this season. I'd actually appreciate this idea, but I don't think it's the case. And if he's waiting for the right situation to plug these guys in, that time seems to have come and gone.
I called last week a crossroads, but that might have been a bit too stark. Purdue came out and showed much more v. UND than they did v. UNI, but still didn't get the victory. My perspective has changed on this season. What I now wish to see is the program begin to make moves for the future. The first most-important thing that Hope needs to do is not lose the team. It's tough as defeats pile up, to keep a positive attitude and keep fighting. Purdue might be on the brink of a collapse, or, if the coaches can keep them working, could be setting precedents that might define the team in '10.
This team simply must stop making stupid mistakes- regardless of what the internal goals are of the coaches for the program, the cheap penalties and poor fundamentals must be cleaned up now. Honestly, there isn't enough youth on the field to blame these issues upon.
That leads me to an important issue, in my opinion. I don't think Hope's coaching staff is where it should be. There are some very capable guys on staff- Hagen, Williams, Jackson, Rock and others have proven to be very valuable...but there are more than of the guys on Hope's staff that must show more as the season progresses. I'm specifically worried about the Special Teams units and the play of the defense...I won't go as far to say that they should be fired, as of now, but I do think both aspects of Purdue's team must improve greatly, and much of that comes back to the coordinators.
Looking even more forward, a lot of recruits are still in play...and Saturday might have gone a long way to get these guys to come to W. Lafayette next season. But, if the team loses more games it absolutely shouldn't (a la UNI), the students and other fans will wilt a bit, and the crowds might not be as loud and energetic as they need to be to impress the potential incomers. I think the level-headed fan can understand losses, but can't understand giving games away. It could be argued that UND and Oregon were both given away too, but those teams were both talented and made plays. Purdue simply must beat Northwestern, Illinois...and maybe an unexpected team or two to really have the fanbase believing from the first game in '10. While I'm pretty sure 6 wins won't happen this year, there's no reason to believe Hope can't get things headed the right direction.