Is Saturday a Must-Win?
J talked about how it's probably time for Purdue to mix things up a bit...there's little doubt about that. But the framework, the constants of this program are here and everyone needs to work around those. What are those constants?
Darrell Hazell is a steady guy. He wears the same thing on game days...and at practice. He tries to show an even temperament...he tries to give players as few surprises as possible so they can understand the direction of the team...the philosophies and the scheme. The problem is, these things haven't looked great. We believe there's improvement...that's good, but when a coach wants the team to be rock solid on defense, opportunistic on special teams, and take what's given to them on offense...and the offense can't move the ball; one third of the plan is shot. That leaves a ton of pressure on all other parts.
The coordinators have shown some flexibility and flashes of reason to believe. In fact, Hudson's defense has looked pretty good at times...but the offense hasn't done them any favors in multiple games now (CMU and Iowa...and complete quarter lapses in a few other games). A defense that does its job needs to be rewarded with a chance to catch its breath...Purdue's offense, when sputtering barely gives them a chance to get a swig of water. That's on Shoop...that's on the WRs who drop too many balls...that's on the RBs who have been inconsistent...and that's on the QB who seems flat-out terrified at times.
We've all seen the look in Danny Etling's eyes at times this season- He looks nervous, bothered and scared. And if you've listened and read interviews from him this week, you know that his body language and that look are only telling part of the story.
A few notes before I go on- It's impossible for me not to like Danny Etling. He seems like the type of kid that I hope my son becomes as he gets older- Smart, personable, humble, generally happy. Heck, even when he's not happy, he's smiling as if he's trying to look on the bright side. I love that he's at Purdue...and wish he would have redshirted last year. But we can't go back in time.
He's now started 12 games at Purdue...and has won just one game versus Bowl Subdivision opponents. He's completing under 55% of his passes...and most of the plays are designed for short routes to be the first and second options. He's already thrown five interceptions (he threw seven last season in seven starts)...and the competition hasn't been that great. His yards/attempt are down too. I want Etling to be the next member of the Cradle of QBs...at this point, we have no reason to believe he's one of those guys.
He was thrown to the wolves last season as a true Freshman...he was hit a lot, but that's part of the job. Young quarterbacks and old QBs get pounded...it's no fun to watch...less fun to endure. But, he seems to be shying away from the contact more and more as time goes on. Plus, one of the big selling points of starting Etling by the coaching staff was that he threw the ball accurately while on the run. I've seen little evidence of that in the last 12 games.
Purdue will play their third beatable opponent in three weeks. On paper, in spite of three wins, the Illini are not a great team. Their three wins have come versus teams with a lower RPI than Purdue's (103)...and they didn't beat them up by any means. Beating a Sun Belt, Con USA and an FCS team shouldn't instill confidence in anything other than the schedule-makers ability to bring in patsies.
On this side of the contest, we Purdue fans have no delusions of grandeur- a bowl game isn't really the goal...I think we all just want the program to move forward. Beating a Bowl Subdivision team was a small goal, winning against a conference team would be the next small step for Hazell's program...and honestly, I don't see much of a chance of this happening again in the subsequent three or four weeks after Purdue visits Champaign. So the time is now.
Shoop's gotta do his job and put players like Mostert and Knauf on the field*...and then give these guys along with Hunt, Anthrop and Yancey opportunities to do something with the ball in their hands. Pounding the ball, and controlling the clock is a great idea...especially with a salty bunch of offensive linemen and a bruising, grizzled RB. Purdue has neither of these things.
I do understand the conundrum that the Purdue coaches face when they look at their starting QB. They want stability and consistency because the QB is important to the entire team. They also clearly have made the team philosophy that for a guy to take a starting role, he has to earn; clearly earn it, in practice. They didn't think Appleby grabbed the starting job from Etling and made the decision clear for them...and all evidence that I've seen corroborates that idea.
Plus, when Appleby has played, he hasn't lit the world on fire. BUT, he's been given extremely-limited opportunities...usually in a position where he can't really win the game (without a miracle or colossal mistake by the opposition). I believe that he deserves a real chance to lead the team; not a pat on the head.
In public, Appleby has said the right things. At practice he has looked solid, at the very least. It's time to give him the starting job...Not just for the Iowa game, but for at least three games, if not the rest of the season.
If the coach's job is to win games, they need to have the best possible QB on the field on game day. Practice absolutely matters...games matter more. The coaches owe it to themselves and both guys that are vying for the job to make the competition fair.
Just as Appleby wasn't able to distance himself from Etling during practice, Etling hasn't put any space between himself and Appleby when it's counted the most- on game day. Etling's numbers were absolutely atrocious on last Saturday afternoon...no other way to say it or spin it. Following a bad game v. CMU earlier this season, Etling was given a second chance...I don't think he's earned a third chance based on his body of work.
After a shaky start to his career as Purdue's QB that included a completion percentage that hovered under 50% in his first five games played (while having 5 Ints. and only 4 TDs), Etling finished last season strong. In the final three games last year, he completed over 66% of his passes, had 6 TDs and just two Ints...but he's taken a step backward this season. We all know he can throw the ball; his issues are in between the ears at this point.
Just as easily as we can see that Etling is lacking confidence right now, his coaches and teammates see it as well. I don't believe his career is necessarily over as the starting QB at Purdue...I do believe he shouldn't be starting for the remainder of this season. My opinion along with a dollar will get you a pack of gum at your local gas station; I get that. But Purdue needs to beat Illinois- Can the coaches tell alums and media alike, in the wake of what we saw last Saturday, that Etling is clearly the best option at QB? If so, they haven't been able to this week.
Hazell seemed agitated earlier today, when asked about why Appleby has now gotten more than half of the snaps with the ones in the last two practices. Whether he'll say it or not, he probably knows that the time has come for a change. Sadly, Purdue can't replace its receiving corps or give the offensive line another off-season to get a year older. But the coaches can change starting QBs now.
Beating a B1G opponent would be a sizable and needed step forward for the program that needs to show improvement. To do that, they've gotta have a QB that will make plays...not just for a quarter or two, but for a full game.
*And whether it was Hazell or Shoop's call to not play either of these guys; shame on that coach...or those coaches. Knauf is healthy now, and Mostert's time is limited.