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Friday, August 18, 2006

The Story

Well, that was humbling. Purdue did not storm the Big Ten like a horde of ill-tempered ferrets en route to a Rose Bowl sponsored by Quaker Oats. They stormed about as far as the Notre Dame game and fell over stone dead. Brandon Kirsch, like every Purdue quarterback since Drew Brees, was unceremoniously yanked midseason to make way for Curtis Painter. The supposedly intimidating defense featuring all eleven starters from a pretty good 2004 unit underwent a collapse so

Spack and Herrmann... like twins!
epic that Boiler fans started noticing the very suspicious resemblance between Brock Spack and Jim Herrmann. Purdue was eliminated from bowl contention after just eight games before showing some life against MSU and the Big Ten bottom feeders.

Now Joe Tiller finds his seat somewhat warm for the first time in his career at Purdue, though grumbling Boilermaker fans would do well to remember the state of the program when he arrived in West Lafayette. Still, a bowl would be advisable during year two of Not Playing Michigan Or Ohio State, especially because only four games on the schedule seem particularly difficult.

If Purdue is to return to the hallowed ground of the Music City or Sun or whatever their equally anonymous replacements are after the offseason bowl shuffle it'll be on the backs of their offensive line, which returns four starters from a good '05 unit, and the wide receivers, deeper than at any point in Tiller's tenure. Add in Kory Sheets and new quarterback Curtis Painter has a lot of ammunition at his disposal. He'll need it, as the defense is in chaos.


Last Year: Quietly effective, though we must again hasten to point out that Purdue drew a miraculous array of snuggly soft defenses. The only teams to finish the year with non-embarrassing stats were Penn State and Akron. Still, they were 25th overall with a nice balance between run and pass despite having major quarterback issues the whole year.


Rating: 2.

Brandon Kirsch -- hailed in this space last year as the Dalai Lama of football -- got yanked midway through Purdue's dismal 2005 in favor of redshirt freshman Curtis Painter. Painter proceeded to limp through the season, completing just over 50% of his passes and throwing three touchdowns to five interceptions. Dude. Total balls. Painter did manage to have some positive impact with his feet, rushing for 251 yards and 4 touchdowns.

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. His legs should help him but Painter's in for a rough year.

Since the only things Joe Tiller likes more than yanking his starter are Quaker Oats and life insurance, you should get familiar with Boiler backup Joey Elliot so you can impress friends and relatives by detailing strengths (isn't the starting quarterback), and weaknesses (when inserted into the game he becomes the starting quarterback) during his inevitable relief appearance and two midseason starts before he finds his butt stapled to the bench again.

Running Backs

Rating: 3. Kory Sheets inherits the job full with Jerod Void off to... well, not the NFL. Sheets did pretty well with his 104 carries last year, averaging 5.5 yards a carry. (Insert your standard disclaimer about the terrible Big Ten defenses here.) Since Void did little better and Sheets figures to improve -- he was but a freshman last year -- Purdue should get better production out of this position group. Hey, Sheets has a Wikipedia entry (which says he was "basically tied with Minnesota running back Lawerence [sic] Maroney" in YPC last year), which is more than Void can say.

Sheets has adequate speed to hit the corner and makes decent yardage after contact. In the spring game he had 116 yards on just 12 carries before leaving with a high ankle sprain.

Tiller keeps rumbling about needing Sheets to be an "every game back" instead of an every-down one, so expect to see healthy doses of backups Jaycen Taylor, a JUCO transfer who came in during the spring and impressed, and converted fullback Anthony Heygood. Heygood should get the short yardage duties while Taylor spells Sheets at various points during the game.

Wide Receivers & Tight Ends

Rating: 4.

Purdue returns a pair of the most mismatched receivers in the country. 5'10" Dorien Bryant is a Breaston-esque waterbug while 6'9" Kyle "Stork" Ingraham's nickname says it all. Bryant's perfectly suited for the Purdue offense, capable of getting open on short routes and racking up YAC once he receivers the ball. He'll be the primary option again this year, and not just on pass plays. Purdue got him a couple touches per game in the run game (though those may have been WR screens that ended up being laterals) and has him return kicks.

Ingraham height comes with a similarly large body that robs the explosion out of his breaks. As a result he's only effective on certain routes against certain coverages and is unlikely to top his 41 catches from '05, especially since his fitness is in question after a pair of offseason ankle surgeries. You might expect that Ingraham would be a dangerous red-zone weapon, but after seven touchdowns as a sophomore he was shut out last year. That's probably more on the quarterbacks than him, though: he didn't get any shorter.

A couple of contributing seniors graduate, leaving the door open for freshman Selwyn Lymon, a top-100 recruit in '04 who missed last year with NCAA Clearinghouse issues, and sophomore Greg Orton. Both are imposing physically, 6'4" ~200 pound receivers who should knock socks off at the NFL combine in a few years.

There is a tight end: Dustin Keller had 13 catches a year ago.

Offensive Line

Rating: 5. The offensive line was not the source of Purdue's problems, allowing the second-fewest sacks in the country and paving the way for a darned decent rushing attack (182 yards per game, 31st in the nation) despite not having a star in the backfield. Disclaimer: the general permiability of Big Ten defenses and the dinky nature of the Purdue passing game should dampen the superlatives thrown their way (not that there are many for a 5-6 team anyway).

Still, that's a good performance that should only get better with four starters returning. Only center Matt Turner is gone, and his shoes will be filled indirectly by Uche Nwaneri, an '04 starter who missed last year after breaking a teammate's jaw in a practice fight. He'll play guard as Robbie Powell slides over to fill Turner's shoes. With Purdue moving even further towards the Texas-style zone read game they used for portions of last year, the onus will be on the line to keep


Last Year: Even more disappointing than the offense, Bernard Pollard, Ray Edwards, and company were at the forefront of the Terrible Big Ten Defense vanguard, finishing 100th in total defense and 91st in pass efficiency. They weren't awful against the run -- 50th -- but that was too little, too late. Given last year's disaster, the return of only four starters could be viewed as a positive, but Purdue is scrambling for answers up and down the roster.

Defensive Line

Rating: 2. Edwards and Rob Ninkovich are gone and unlike Void were good enough to draw NFL attention (both were mid-round picks). Gone with them is underrated defensive tackle Brandon Villareal -- third on the team in tackles -- and running mate Brent Grover, leaving almost nothing in the way of proven talent. Senior defensive end Anthony Spencer is it. He was the a nominal starter going into last year, but Ninkovich wrested the job away from him. He managed 3 sacks and 7.5 TFL in limited time. In '04 he was the full time starter and a good one. He'll be fine.

The issue comes on the rest of the line, which is full of who-dats: juniors Eugene Bright and Ryan Baker and sophomore Alex Magee, none of whom have anything other than spot plays probably found in garbage time. The coaching staff is making standard preseason noises about encouraging growth and yadda yadda yadda, but no one really knows how they'll react until they step on the field.


Rating: 2. Purdue would have two returning starters here if middle linebacker George Hall hadn't been busted down to third string during spring for disciplinary reasons. He still hasn't regained his starting spot. As it is, strongside linebacker Stanford Keglar is the only returning starter who's still a starter. Josh Ferguson is the new man in the middle; Dan Bick is on the weakside. All are juniors.

Adding uncertainty to the... well... uncertainty, Bick has offseason shoulder surgery he hasn't recovered from well. A redshirt was a possibility, but Bick is "responding well" to an injection -- dodgy ground. Bick's undersized to begin with; the chances of him making it through the season are slim. Whether yet more unproven backups draw into the lineup or hall reclaims his spot, this is another position at which Purdue has no idea what it's getting this year.

Defensive Backs

Rating: 1. In the most dramatic of the many highlights featuring the Purdue secondary, Bernard Pollard dished out one of the year's great hits when he jackhammered Minnesota's Gary Russell to the Metrodome turf. Sadly for the Boilermakers, the rest of the highlights were touchdown catches. The secondary was a disaster par exellence, finishing 91st in pass defense efficiency despite having the aforementioned competent defensive ends. Starting corners Zach Logan and Paul Long were disasters. Pollard was labeled a team cancer by Tiller even before the season clattered to a halt. Teams passed willy-nilly on Purdue.

So perhaps it's for the best that only Logan returns this year to start. (Long is going to a backup at safety or corner or both.) Tiller threw the competition in the secondary wide open amongst 17 contenders in the hopes of finding a combination that works. They're still fighting it out, so facts are few and far between. We do know that junior Aaron Lane is penciled in as the starter opposite King. Relevant facts on Lane:
  • He's 5'8".
  • He transferred from the University of Saint Francis to walk-on at Purdue.
  • USF is an NAIA school.
  • Lane was a little-used running back at USF.
O RLY? If Lane isn't completely overwhelmed they should make a movie about him starring a hobbit. And someone has to be the nickel and dime backs.

Safety is equally dodgy. Torii Williams returns from a broken leg to claim the strong safety spot. As a freshman in 2004 he saw time in nine games, making 14 tackles and a sack against Iowa. Tiller's still somewhat hesitant about relying on him exclusively...
“We hope to get him in shape,” said Purdue Head Coach Joe Tiller. “Kinda the same with him as (Kory) Sheets. We'd like him to play every game all season long. Not necessarily 60 minutes, but we'd just like to have him every Saturday.”
... but he'll get the opportunity to establish himself as a starter. Given his decent play as a freshman, Williams seems more likely than the rest of the secondary to emerge into an All Big Ten type, but right now he's just a rumor. JUCO transfer Justin Scott will start at free safety.

Special Teams

Kickers & Coverage

Rating: 3. Well, take it from Tiller:
"If anyone in the room is interested, let me know before I leave," Tiller told reporters at the Big Ten kickoff meetings this week in Chicago.
If no intrepid sportswriter steps forth into the breach, duties will fall to either senior Casey Welch or freshman Tim Dougherty. Welch was stuck behind the maddeningly inconsistent Ben Jones even when Jones was busy murdering Purdue's '04 season. If he plays he'll probably be as inconsistent as Jones was but with a weaker leg. More likely it'll be Dougherty, who was 9/11 on field goals in high school. He could be good, but it's not likely.

The situation at punter is similar but the projected starter has more of a track record. Transfer Jared Armstrong was a JUCO All-American last year, averaging almost 44 yards per punt. Punting is punting. He'll be fine.


Non-Conference: Decent. Two wretched opponents in Ball State and Indiana State, a good MAC team in Miami(OH), and the annual rivalry game versus Notre Dame, away this year. A bonus game @ Hawaii brings the schedule to an uneven 13 games.

Conference: Purdue misses Michigan and Ohio State again, though this year that seems more like a ticket to the Motor City Bowl instead of the Rose. The Boilers have only two tough road games versus Iowa and Michigan State and the advantage of three swing games (Minnesota, Penn State, and Wisconsin) against beatable foes at home.

We're Sure About

Bryant and Ingraham. They've been around long enough for everyone to get a handle on them. Bryant's a dart over the middle who can kill you with RAC and Ingraham is plodding but a matchup issue.

We Have An Idea About

The secondary. Unless there's a miracle it's going to be ugly.

The Exact Date Painter Is Temporarily Benched. Probably the week after Notre Dame.

We Have No Clue About

Painter himself. He's the looming ??? over the Boiler season. Nothing in his history indicates he'll break out, but he ws just a freshman last year.

An Embarrassing Prediction, No Doubt

Best Case

If Painter comes around quickly the Purdue offense has a lot of clay for him to work with. Bryant is a dangerous slot receiver, Ingraham is nearly unstoppable on fades, and Lymon and Orton have oodles of potential. The offensive line is the most experienced in the league and Sheets should be at least average. A competent-to-good Painter would make Purdue a threat in all its games. However, the defense appears to be adrift even if one or two players have an unexpected renaissance. At their best, Purdue will wax the chumps they're supposed to and then play a series of terribly entertaining shootouts that they'll do just better than split, going 10-3.

Worst Case

If Painter's reduced to running the zone read because he can't throw Purdue is dead meat. They managed to get away with it somewhat because their foes were Indiana, Illinois, etc, but any half-decent team on the schedule is going to move the ball on Purdue and without a functional offense to respond, college football might lose a treasured mustache at season's end. 5-8.

Final Verdict

Predicting Purdue's season is, in essence, predicting Painter's. The defense might improve a bit over last year but the secondary looks amazingly bleak and this year there's no Edwards/Ninkovich duo on the edges. The offense, which was quietly all right a year ago despite the whole business with the quarterbacks, will have to score to keep up. With a veteran offensive line and a surplus of talent at the skill positions, it'll come down to Painter's ability to run the offense. Survey says "meh." Purdue figures to return to a bowl, but not a good one.

Wins: Indiana State, Ball State
Probable Wins: @ Illinois, Indiana, Miami(OH), @ Hawaii, @ NW
Tossups: @ MSU, Minnesota
Probable Losses: @ ND, @ Iowa, Wisconsin, Penn State
No Chance: None

Predicting 8-5 can't be too far off, can it?