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Thursday, August 23, 2007

The Story

When Michigan and Ohio State rotated off Purdue's schedule in 2005, the eyes of a nation (and a blog) envisioned ill-gotten Rose Bowls or at least Januaries spent in Florida. This did not so much happen. Instead the Boilermakers' big prize was an Insight Bowl berth against a Maryland team that had scratched its way to bowl eligibility despite being good in not one statistical category. Three hours and many errant passes later, Purdue's two-year reprieve from the Big Two ended in a 24-7 loss. Cue the first serious mutterings about Joe Tiller's job since the great mustachioed one rolled in from Wyoming.

It wasn't supposed to be like this. I hate to remind readers convinced the words that appear in this space are even slightly useful and edifying about this, but in the above-linked preview I was preparing for a Boilermaker onslaught:
Oh yow. Loaded for bear are the Boilers and it is going to piss people off. You have not two but three quarterback-splintering defensive ends, linebackers that in any other year would be amongst the best in the league, a quarterback I like an awful lot, and a set of wide receivers that finally has the mutant death freaks Tiller's been waiting his entire life for. ...

mgoblog would consider Purdue a serious contender for the conference title even if they played Michigan and Ohio State.
Purdue ended up out of the bowl picture and inaugurated MGoBlog's burgeoning tradition of picking one Big Ten team, overrating the hell out of it, and watching it implode spectacularly. Why did this happen? In large part, horrible play from Brandon Kirsch, Curtis Painter (Painter did have a valid excuse: extreme youth; also he improved last year), and every single back seven defender who suited up for Purdue over the past two years.

Quarterbacks occasionally blow up and take whole teams with them, but the defense thing was odd. Just as the Big Ten was getting used to the idea of Brock Spack cobbling together a functional, often tough defense out of rubber bands and Sharpies, the bottom dropped out. At some point after Stu Schweigert left Purdue apparently stopped recruiting defensive backs, instead scrambling to field a roster of black-clad smurfs no doubt pulled directly from upper-level mechanical engineering courses. Unfortunately for the Boilers, World of Warcraft loot does not spontaneously materialize when you jam your flash drive into your ear. Thus two years of unrelenting failure to defend the pass (111th in 2005, 104th in 2006) and -- once a host of fine defensive linemen graduated, leaving Anthony Spencer and nothing else whatsoever on the line -- one year of the same utter failure to defend the run.

All those guys are back, as are virtually all the other guys on the other side of the ball. But so are the big boys. Purdue is going to have to run to stand still.


Last Year

Pass Eff
Please do not be fooled by the numbers at right. Purdue's seemingly explosive 2006 offense was greatly aided by the schedule -- which brought forth a I-AA team, two MAC teams, and Notre Dame but not Michigan and Ohio State -- and the Purdue defense, which was so bad that it forced the offense to go for points and yards at all times even against the dregs of the schedule. Purdue scraped by Miami (Ohio) 38-31, beat Ball State 38-28, and even gave up 35 points to I-AA Indiana State.

Against the tougher defenses on the schedule, all two of them, Purdue was fairly inept. When Wisconsin came calling, Purdue put up three points. Penn State shut the Boilers out. Proceed with caution.


Rating: 3. Remarkably, redshirt junior Curtis Painter has now flailed his way through one and a half seasons as Purdue's starter without proving himself particularly competent or getting yanked by the notoriously trigger-happy Tiller. Chances are a third season of muddling will end with Painter holding a clipboard; it's now or never.

Painter did improve radically in his second year as a starter, but he had a long, long way to go to get there. In 2005 Purdue adopted the closest thing to a run-first mentality they've had in the Tiller era, going with a dubiously successful spread option game based on Nevada's "pistol" formation where the quarterback often lines up halfway between the center and a traditional shotgun snap. This almost achieved run-pass parity -- Purdue threw only 16 more times than they ran it in '05. Painter came on in relief of Brandon Kirsch midway through the season and blazed his way to 96th in passer efficiency, completing 52% of his passes despite playing in Tiller's sophisticated short passing game and throwing five picks to three touchdowns.

Things did improve last year. Purdue went back to its gunslinging ways -- Painter's 530 attempts were only exceeded by the crazed systems at New Mexico State, Hawaii, and Texas Tech -- and Painter's completion percentage was an almost respectable 59%. Yards per attempt were an above-average 7.5, and 22 touchdowns is an impressive total even if it came paired with 19 interceptions. But... not so fast my friend! This is where Purdue's improbably soft schedule deceives. Take a look at their performance when only conference games are considered (all ranks are compared to the rest of the Big Ten):

All GamesConf. Only
Comp %59.5% (T-3rd)57.4% (6th)
YPA7.5 (5th)6.7 (6th)
Int20 (11th)12 (T-9th)
TD24 (2nd)9 (7th)

Purdue had a decidedly mediocre passing attack despite missing the second- and third-best pass defenses in the conference*. Any appearance of "good" is pure vapor.

And who can you track this to? Purdue had a veteran line returning last year, one that gave up relatively few sacks (Purdue was 22nd in sacks allowed). Dorien Bryant and company appear to be a highly competent and deep set of receivers. Jaycen Taylor and Korey Sheets combined for over 1,400 yards at better than 5 YPC. Everything appeared to be in place for a genuinely explosive offense, not one that would roll up big yards against Indiana State and then clunk out three versus Wisconsin and zero versus Penn State.

The inescapable conclusion is that Painter is the issue with the Purdue offense. I noted my skepticism re: Painter last year and it's worth reiterating:
What does '06 hold for the now-sophomore Painter? Probably additional pain. Painter's iffy stats were gained against a who's-who of D-I's worst pass defenses (MSU, Wisconsin, Indiana, Illinois) and Penn State, who killed Painter to the tune of 6-17 for 60 yards. His last statistical reference point, high school, doesn't imply he'll make a great leap forward: as a senior he only completed 51% of his passes. The implication is that Painter's probably unsuited to Purdue's dink-and-dunk passing game, as he either failed at in in high school or was asked to bomb it deep instead. Either way it bodes unwell. Purdue should be happy if he makes gradual progress this year with an eye towards proficiency in '07.
There was gradual progress, and this is the "eye towards competency" year. But given that dubious 57% completion rate in conference -- one that probably would have been around 55% if the Big Ten played a round robin -- and Painter's wretched spate of unforced errors against a horrible Maryland pass defense in the bowl game, I remain skeptical even a thoroughly veteran Painter will ever be more than average. Dude just can't throw straight.

*(as measured in terms of yards per attempt.)

Tailback & Fullback

Sheets is somewhere in the middle here.

Rating: 4.
Fullbacks don't exist at Purdue, so this unit consists solely of senior Jaycen Taylor, the nominal starter, and junior Kory Sheets, his nominal backup. Last year the pair split matters almost right down the middle:


You can see that Taylor was more effective as both a runner and receiver despite seeing scanty time in Purdue's opening triptych against I-AA and MAC foes; this is why he is the nominal starter going into the year. That distinction is going to be ceremonial as Tiller rotates the pair to keep them fresh. Sheets is slightly bigger and more of a straight-ahead guy (though he's no pounder, he is the default choice on short yardage); Taylor is the shiftier one and the possessor of the headshot at right, which was immediately admitted to the inaugural Big Ten Headshot Hall of Fame along with J Leman's remarkable mullet-flag combo.

There's good reason to expect continued success for the Boiler platoon even in the face of stiffer competition. The duo was good even against the tougher run defenses on the schedule, combining for 120 yards on 28 carries versus Illinois, 88 yards on just 17 carries versus Wisconsin, and 59 yards on just 14 carries versus Penn State. Though Purdue's heavily skewed run-pass distribution (57% passes; by way of comparison zone-mad Michigan ran 57% of the time last year) no doubt helped those averages, few teams could hope to match Purdue's productivity against that level of opposition. Purdue is in good hands here, even if they choose to use said hands sparingly.

Wide Receiver & Tight Ends

Rating: 4. It's hard to believe Dorien Bryant is still suiting up for Purdue. He's a perfect storm of circumstance for the Brooks Bollinger Memorial Eighth Year Senior Award: a major contributor as a freshman -- probably Purdue's second best wideout even then -- he was spectacularly decapitated by Ernest Shazor in the waning moments of a tight game against Michigan, fumbling just as Purdue neared game-winning field goal range. Then the Boilers dropped off the schedule for two years. All I have are fuzzy memories of the guy getting killed some time ago and a vague recognition of his existence well off my radar. By all rights he should be in his second year in the NFL (or, more likely, Arena League) by now.

But he is not and thus the Boilers have what's probably their deepest and most intimidating wide receiver corps in the Tiller era. Bryant alone has 167 catches and 2,028 yards over the past two years. An excellent fit for Tiller's YAC-heavy spread attack, Bryant is a slightly less explosive version of Steve Breaston with reliable hands. Junior Greg Orton leapt into the starting lineup a year ago, catching 58 balls for 790 yards. Orton's 6'3" and possesses deep speed and leaping ability, a dangerous complement to Bryant. He's also damn physical:
Even wide receiver Greg Orton ... mentioned the physical play when asked how he improved during camp.

"By being more physical," he said. "Coach called us out on the physicality, so we made a lot of physical plays."

Olivia Newton John has nothing on these guys.

Most non-Purdue offenses would stop there, but the Boilers also have TE Dustin Keller and sophomore Selwyn Lymon. Lymon was a top 100 recruit a couple years ago who picked Purdue over Michigan. His 33 catches and 580 yards as a redshirt freshman are impressive numbers, but they'd be more impressive if Lymon hadn't done almost half of his damage in one ridiculous game against Notre Dame in which he had 8 catches, 238 yards, and two touchdowns. After that outburst and a decent showing (4 catches, 60 yards) against Iowa he clunked back to earth, catching just twelve balls over the last eight games of the season. He's got the same size and athleticism Orton does, though he's a bit of a improbable injury magnet. Last season he missed some time after getting a paintball in the eye; this offseason it was the more conventional but more dangerous nightclub stabbing. Would someone get the kid a Wii or something? Check that, he'd probably just throw the controller into his spleen. Make it a 360.

Offensive Line

Rating: 4. The right side of the line, including senior center Robbie Powell, returns intact. Right guard Jordan Grimes was second-team All Big Ten a year ago and is getting some All-American buzz, for what that's worth; Junior tackle Sean Sester is entering his third year as a starter. Experienced and bearing at least a moderate amount of hype, this trio is a major strength.

The left side of the line, however, is a question mark. Gone are tackle Mike Otto and guard Uche Nwaneri; projected Otto replacement Garrett Miller missed spring practice with a shoulder injury and just underwent a knee scope. He's out for at least the beginning of the season and perhaps beyond. Junior Dan Zaleski is the man drawn into the lineup; his height (6'4") is something of a red flag at left tackle, where 6'5" is usually considered a minimum these days. There's some coach-puffing here; I doubt it's legit. The Boilers have to hope Miller gets healthy.

Meanwhile, three underclassmen compete for Nwaneri's job. I know nothing of them save their recruiting rankings, which were mediocre. Even that is of scanty predictive value: offensive linemen are notoriously hard to project, especially once you get past a few specimens that are obviously marked for stardom. At least there are three of them. One should prove adequate.


Last Year

Pass Eff
The operative theory here has always been that Purdue's defense is consistently underrated because they tend to face more opponent possessions playing opposite the frenetic Tiller offense, but last year they were just plain awful all around. A completely green secondary existed only to watch opponents sail into the endzone unopposed, and it was the strongest unit on the team not named "Anthony Spencer." The run defense ceased to exist, ceding nearly five yards a carry and finishing 114th in the country. They gave up 191 yards per game overall and 225(!!!) in Big Ten play despite missing the Big Two. Putridity would have been a step up. Disgusting wretchedness would have been a pleasant distraction. Mere averageness would have been celebrated like James Laurinaitis coming within a mile of Brent Musberger's turgid manhood. It was bad.

So the eternal conundrum: is it good to return nine starters when they were so resolutely awful a year ago, especially when one of the non-returners is Spencer? Since many of the starters in question were non-redshirted sophomores and freshmen with very good excuses for sucking like "can't drive," "doesn't need to shave" and "still kind of into the Wiggles" the tentative answer in this case is yes. But please don't hold me to that. I mean, my god... the triple digits!

Defensive Line

Rating: 3. Only one starter departs, but he happened to be the only competent player on last year's defense and a first round NFL draft pick: Anthony Spencer. Spencer was some kind of hero a year ago, collecting a staggering 26.5 TFLs and 10.5 sacks despite being the only identifiable threat on the Purdue defense. He even picked up six pass breakups. Now he's gone; surprisingly there might be a player or two left behind.

Spencer's bookend, senior Cliff Avril, played Biggs to Spencer's Woodley with six sacks and 15 TFL of his own. A glance at the game-by-game stats shows a slight bias towards the delicious cupcakes Purdue opposed but not a major one. Already established as a fair-to-pretty-good Big Ten defensive end, Avril will push for All Conference honors in his final year. If he gets there it'll probably be second team, but that's not out of the question.

Opposite Avril will be either senior Mike McDonald or junior Alex Magee (pictured). Normally the scanty playing time McDonald received would be a major red flag, but he was a JUCO transfer a year ago and defensive end was already in capable hands. He's got a year to do something; replicating Spencer's production is highly improbable, but he's not necessarily going to be the suck. His contribution is a total unknown. He'll miss the early part of the season with an ankle injury.

Magee, on the other hand, has seen the field but as a defensive tackle. At nearly 300 pounds he's not going to edge-rush anyone and will be a liability against the pass (he had 2.5 sacks in extensive time at tackle last year) but should be decent against the run.

The reason Magee is moving to an unnatural postion is Mike Neal's healthy return. Neal was injured prior to the Notre Dame game and missed a good section of the season; even when he returned he wasn't fully healthy. Now he is and has claimed a starting spot:
"He's going to be an anchor,'' Spack said. "He commands a double team and is athletic enough where he's going to give some centers a hard time. Mike can make plays. He's really an end in a tackle's body.

"A huge part of our front this year will be our tackles and he's going to be a big part of that.''
Maybe this is true? He did blow a midly competent returning starter out to end.

Redshirt junior Ryan Baker, he of the elaborate and elongated recruiting saga (Baker waffled between Purdue and Notre Dame, finally committing a month and a half after Signing Day), started last year and proved an adept pass rusher for a defensive tackle with six sacks. That much penetration coupled with only 2.5 non-sack TFLs brings his run defense into question, though. Someone on the line has to be at least partially culpable for the run defense. It wasn't Spencer, and it probably wasn't Avril either. Baker's a little light for a DT at 288 and only had 25 tackles last year. Number can be deceiving for DTs, but might he be one of Purdue's many issues against the ground game? If McDonald is healthy and effective Baker might be relegated to passing downs.


Rating: 2. This has been a major sore spot for the Boilers over the past few years and things probably aren't going to get any better in 2007. Senior Stanford Keglar, when his first name isn't busy mocking Michigan's academics, spends his time starting -- he's entering his fourth year doing it -- and watching opponents motor by him as he flails his stubby arms. In three years he has nine TFLs. As Mike Valenti would say, "MAKE PLAYS!"

Middle linebacker Dan Bick led Purdue with 95 tackles a year ago but has had a tough time staying on the field. He returned to practice just days ago after battling a nasty neck injury. Still on anti-inflammatories, Bick is no guarantee to remain on the field.

Weakside linebacker and redshirt junior Anthony Heygood was a running back until half of the 2006 season had elapsed. He was moved to linebacker, picked up six tackles, and now projects as Purdue's best option there:
"He's clearly our best weak-side linebacker," Purdue coach Joe Tiller said. "And if you grade him out over the entire spring, he was our best linebacker overall."
I suppose it's not impossible that Heygood pupates from little-used running back to standout linebacker in under a year, but if history is any indication -- remember Travis Thomas' ill-fated move for ND -- that Tiller quote probably means "our linebackers are bad" instead of "Heygood is good."

Defensive Backs

Safety Brandon Erwin defending the pass. Sorta.

Rating: 2. Defensive coordinator Brock Spack is a straight-talking, mustachioed sort who's prone to frank evaluations of his charges. His word is far more valuable than that of most coaches when attempting to assess the strengths and weaknesses of a particular team, and he's got an interesting take on the much-maligned Purdue secondary:
"Our front seven must shut down the running game," Spack said. "All I hear about is our secondary, secondary, secondary. I'm so sick of it. The secondary didn't hurt us last year. Watch the tape, show me where it hurt us. We didn't give up many long balls last year.

"Where the secondary hurt us was when a long run broke, we'd whiff, miss a tackle. But the secondary didn't hurt us with the pass very often. We don't lose games because of our secondary, and they are the most improved part of our team."

Spack's at least somewhat wrong. Despite a respectable pass rush, Purdue finished 81st in opponent passer efficiency. Brady Quinn was 29 for 38 for 316 yards, Brian Cupito 20 for 34 for 205, Drew Tate 17 for 23 for 253. Colt Brennan laid unholy waste to the secondary: 33 for 48, 434 yards, three touchdowns and one interception. Purdue's defensive incompetence was a ten-man operation with Anthony Spencer doing what he could, and the secondary shared in that.

But maybe he's not entirely off. 81st in opponent passer efficiency is the best ranking Purdue could muster last year outside of Spencer and his sacks, and the secondary figures to improve significantly from a year ago. The top five players return; last year each was thrown into the fire before the umbilical cord was cut. The crispy quintet:
  • JUCO transfer Terrell Vinson, starting cornerback
  • true freshman Royce Adams, starting cornerback
  • true freshman David Pender, nickelback
  • true freshman Brandon Erwin, starting free safety
  • JUCO transfer Justin Scott, starting strong safety.
Not one of these players even had a spring practice to acclimate to the college game before being thrust into the starting lineup. The results were predictable.

This year things should improve, as freshmen thrust into starting lineups tend to do. As a bonus, Purdue also get to deploy the services of hyped safety Torii Williams, a star-crossed fellow who's missed the last two years with injury. He's unlikely to start behind two established players, but will provide another option in case of injury or continued suckitude from either starter. Six deep and now not entirely green, there's a possibility this unit experiences a remarkable turnaround. Or they could just continue being bad. Check back in November for my prediction.

Special Teams

Rating: 1. The departure of redshirt freshman Tim Dougherty for Louisville stings badly. He was in a tight competition with returning starter Chris Summers for the placekicking job that Summers was horrible at last year, going 8 for 20 and chopping years off Joe Tiller's life. There is one other option on the roster, true freshman Brody McKnight, but if he was third string behind the previous two and ends up starting chances are the Purdue field goal kickers will again be amongst the worst in the league. This is a spot at which Purdue would probably prefer not to return a starter.

Also a problem are the return units. Purdue was 99th on punts and 87th on kickoffs. This seems more likely to be a wholesale lack of blocking than any deficiency on the part of the returners, since the main guy taking kicks back was the explosive Bryant. Freshman corner Royce Adams returned the punts and did so poorly. Returns will likely be disappointing once again.

Punter Jared Armstrong, decent a year ago, returns.


Turnover Margin

The theory of turnover margin: it is nearly random. Teams that find themselves at one end or the other at the end of the year are highly likely to rebound towards the average. So teams towards the top will tend to be overrated and vice versa. Nonrandom factors to evaluate: quarterback experience, quarterback pressure applied and received, and odd running backs like Mike Hart who just don't fumble.

2006Int + Fumb +Sacks +Int -Fumb -Sacks -
-0.07 (66th)11172.21 (56th)20
1.43 (22nd)

Despite a turnover number extremely close to zero there's a lot to look at here. Painter's interceptions should come down as he matures and makes better decisions, but that should be offset by a major fumble correction. Purdue was +8 a year ago, which is well into the realm of fortune unlikely to repeat. Expect this number to drop a bit. Well... don't "expect." TO margin is so low-event and swingy that you shouldn't expect anything, but chances are this is moderately negative at year's end.

Position Switch Starters

Theory of position switches: if you are starting or considering starting a guy who was playing somewhere else a year ago, that position is in trouble. There are degrees of this. When Notre Dame moved Travis Thomas, a useful backup at tailback, to linebacker and then declared him a starter, there was no way that could end well. Wisconsin's flip of LB Travis Beckum to tight end was less ominous because Wisconsin had a solid linebacking corps and Beckum hadn't established himself on that side of the ball. Michigan flipping Prescott Burgess from SLB to WLB or PSU moving Dan Connor inside don't register here: we're talking major moves that indicate a serious lack somewhere.

Anthony Heygood is a half-season removed from being a fourth string running back; he's now the starting weakside linebacker. Alex Magee, 300 pound defensive tackle, may be a starting end.

Dumbest Thing In CFN Preview

Just because.
What to watch for on offense: An unstoppable passing game.... with Dorien Bryant, Selwyn Lymon, Greg Orton and Dustin Keller returning, the passing game that ranked sixth nationally last year should be unstoppable.
Sixth nationally if you only pay attention to the most shallow indicators. CFN in a nutshell: an inch deep and a mile wide.

BONUS! This isn't from CFN but is too good to pass up:
Painter's accuracy wasn't the problem last season. Consistency with his accuracy was the problem.
The theory advanced is that Painter was good in some games and bad in others (which is true of every player in the country) but come on! Come on!

Flickr Says...

When I was in high school, an English teacher of mine showed us a documentary about Walt Whitman. It was the kind of documentary in which Alan Ginsberg made frequent appearances, once saying that because he had slept with this other dude who had slept with some other dude who had slept with some other dude etc etc etc who had slept with Walt Whitman, he, Alan Ginsberg, had kind of sort of had sex with Walt Whitman. Which is all terribly exciting when you're Alan Ginsberg, I guess.

Anyway, all the interstitials in this thing were men hammering things and hammering things just like the fellow above. Every cut between interviews had ten to twenty seconds of men hammering things on anvils. And every one of them was completely, floppily naked. So, yeah. My associations with this picture are probably not the associations of people who attended Purdue.

An Embarrassing Prediction, No Doubt

Best Case

With 20 starters returning and reason to expect improvement from the vast majority of them, Purdue's ceiling is sky-high. If questions on the left side of the line are resolved satisfactorily, the only thing holding Purdue back from a Brees-era offense of terror is Curtis Painter's ability to take advantage of his proverbial weapons. The defense doesn't have anywhere near that sort of capability even in the rosiest point of view available, but there's reason to believe the secondary will improve greatly and sort of a vague hope the line could be okay to good, though the linebackers will probably be subpar at best. So I'm saying there's a chance Purdue is a serious threat to something other than Joe Tiller's job security. 10-2 can happen.

Worst Case

If Purdue's issue on the defense is not so much its vast (and now former) youth but rather a sheer lack of talent, last year's fiasco could repeat itself. This is really unlikely what with all the returning starters, but neither is an Illinois-like jump into the top 30 or so defenses a guarantee. Curtis Painter has the most inflated numbers in college football; if he plateaus the result could be ugly. With Purdue's MAC games against usual power Toledo and last year's champion Central Michigan, a humiliating loss there is possible, and limping through a 4-8 season not out of the question. Yes... between 10-2 and 4-8, this preview has basically abdicated on serious narrowing.

Final Verdict

Painter's problems appear to be twofold:
  • he's still learning not to throw into coverage
  • he can't throw straight.
One expects the former to improve significantly as he goes into a second full year of starting. He should find the offense easier to command and significantly cut his interceptions. The latter, however, will remain an issue. The projection here is that he'll be totally average, the fourth or fifth best quarterback in the league. This should combine with two talented tailbacks and four excellent receiving options to create an offense that's actually good instead of 2006's fools gold as long as that left tackle thing ends up resolved satisfactorily.

The defense should improve greatly just because it would be hard not to. But I have a hard time seeing any unit on it above average except maybe -- maybe -- the defensive line. A running back starts at WLB; no one emerged in the secondary like Vontae Davis did at Illinois; Spencer is gone. I hesitate to offer any specific predictions with so much in flux, but... uh... totally mediocre, prone to getting battered into oblivion by big time run games, but average against the pass?

9/1@ Toledo
Probable win
9/8Eastern Illinois
Functional DNP
9/15Central Michigan
Probable win
9/29Notre DameTossup
9/22@ MinnesotaProbable win
10/6Ohio State
Probable loss
10/13@ Michigan
Probable loss
Probable win
11/3@ Penn State
Probable loss
11/10Michigan State
Probable win
11/17@ Indiana
Probable win
Absent:Illinois, Wisconsin

As you can tell by the above I see few games Purdue shouldn't either win or lose... but few games they couldn't win or lose, either. The Boilers look to be a clear step behind the big boys in conference but are eminently capable of upsetting any of them; they look a clear step ahead of the conference's bottom but capable of dropping a game to any of them. It'll probably even out to 8-4 and an Alamo Bowl berth. Getting there might be wild.

1 Comment:

T-Mill said...

Very, very good preview, and just about what I think. We certainly looked a lot better against Toledo, but it's still Toledo. last year we would have barely beaten them so it is progress.