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Preview 2014; Purdue Boilermakers//

Purdue - RB Raheem Mostert CI

Does Darrell Hazell have any tricks up his sleeve to turn around a nose-diving Purdue program? 

It’s not like the Boilermakers were scaring anyone, but they went from a bowl appearance in 2012 – granted, it ended with a 58-14 stomping from Oklahoma State in the Heart of Dallas Bowl – to a 1-11 season that should’ve and could’ve been winless, needing everything in the bag to beat Indiana State. 

The defense was bad, the offense worse, and it wasn’t as if Hazell did anything impressive to inspire confidence that he’s the guy who can make Purdue football relevant in the new Big Ten West. So is this just a big rebuilding job in the hopes of a payoff that came for Kent State in 2012 under Hazell’s watch, or was last year the sign of big, big problems ahead. 

This is a young team, but there’s experience returning with 16 starters back. Hazell’s biggest issue, though, is showing that all the veterans can produce, and even more importantly, finding the right parts from the recruiting class and from the depth last year to rely on. 

There’s little star power to count on, and that’s a problem in a Big Ten season with plenty of leaders and big names to rally around – but that just means the expectations for Purdue football are going to be that much lower. That might not be what Hazell is looking for, but at the very least, his team can sneak up on everyone. 

The opportunity is there, though, to rebound and come up with a far better season, helped by a much, much easier schedule that’s tailor-made for bowl eligibility, but first, Purdue has find something that works. 

To be fair, outside of Indiana State and Illinois, it’s not like there were any real breathers on last year’s slate. Indiana wasn’t that awful, and seven teams finished with nine wins or more. Throw in Iowa and Penn State – who each finished with winning records – and maybe, just maybe, everything was so bad because Purdue played better teams. That’s not really the case this season with Western Michigan, Central Michigan, Southern Illinois just a few of the winnable games. 

But Boilermaker fans aren’t looking just to go to a bowl – how is it possible to be competitive again in the Big Ten race? More importantly, can Hazell be the guy to do it? 

He parlayed his one great season at Kent State into the next job, but it remains to be seen if he really is a rising star that Purdue was able to snag, or if he’s in a bad situation and he’s going to need lots and lots of time before everyone figures out whether or not this can work. 

Following one of the worst seasons in Purdue football history, he had better show that things are about to change. And soon. 

What to watch for on offense: The running game has the potential to be far more dangerous The biggest problem last season was an offense that never seemed to get the ball to its key players in places where they could do anything with it. RB Akeem Hunt is an electrifying kick returner and good veteran, and fellow RB Raheem Mostert has the speed to make big things happen every time he touches the ball, and now they have to start throwing a scare into opposing defenses. 

Yards after the catch were almost non-existent at times, and the ground attack averaged a pathetic 2.5 yards per carry with six touchdowns, coming up with 805 yards on the year. The line has to help, and it could with just enough options coming into bring a little thump, but it all comes down to Mostert and Hunt. Granted, a quarterback has to take the heat off by improving the passing game, but the two most promising running backs need to work behind veteran fullback Brandon Cottom, get into space, and start cranking out a few big runs here and there. 

What to watch for on defense: Will there ever be a pass rush? The Boilermakers generated 22 sacks in both 2011 and 2012, and 31 in 2009 and 2010. Last season, it was next to impossible to get anyone up front to breathe on a quarterback, with five of the 14 sacks coming against Indiana State and four coming against Iowa and Illinois. Four of the final six games were sackless, and tackles for loss were hard to come by, too. It’s time for Ryan Russell to be the next superstar, Ryan Kerrigan type at one end, but it hasn’t happened so far. The defensive tackles were considered a plus with Kawann Short and Bruce Gaston doing their thing in recent years, but now the D will be relying on a few young, untested options to shore things up. Who can break free to be disruptive? The defense has to start creating its own opportunities. 

The team will be far better if… the offense can move the ball a little bit. A big chunk of the problems came from an inability to keep the chains moving, and it showed with no long possessions, no time taken off the clock, a gassed defense at times, and too much work needed to get back into games. Purdue lost the first quarter 101 to 35 last season, and part of the reason was a 31% clip on third downs. A bad running game meant long downs and distances, and the quarterbacks rarely came through in time to change games around. Purdue isn’t built to grind, but it can bring a little more explosion if the line provides the time and if a starting quarterback emerges. It’ll be hard to be competitive, though, if the offense can’t stay on the field. 

The Schedule: Will the team be any better? It has to take advantage of the MAC games against Western Michigan and Central Michigan to open, and it can’t slip up against Southern Illinois after going to Notre Dame on Saturday night September 13th. But where are the Big Ten wins going to come from? 

The winnable conference games on the schedule – Illinois, Minnesota and Indiana – are all on the road, and while some of the toughest games are at home, it’s hardly a given that games in West Lafayette will help against Michigan State and Wisconsin. Even though there’s a week off in the mix, a mid-season stretch of three road games in four – going to Illinois, Minnesota and Nebraska, and hosting Michigan State, will be tough. There’s another week off to rest up before closing out with Northwestern and Indiana. 

Best offensive player: Senior RB Akeem Hunt. At the very least, he’s going to split time with Raheem Mostert, if not lose the starting job at times, but he has proven that he can be the main man for the offense – even if it’s not going anywhere. A fantastic kick returner, he averaged over 26 yards per pop, and he led the team in rushing. Fine, so he only ran for 464 yards, but fullback Brandon Cottom was No. 2 with just 154. Hunt has the hands, the speed and the experience to do far more, but someone has to block for him. 

Best defensive player: Senior DE Ryan Russell. Consider this more of a hope than a sure thing. He has the size to be a top-shelf run stopper, and he has the ability and athleticism to grow into a top pass rusher. Now it has to happen after struggling with just two sacks and not nearly enough disruptive plays. The line gets three new starters – likely all sophomores – and more than ever, teams will be able to key on stopping Russell. He has to use his tools and his experience to build off a good offseason and start to become dangerous. He has to be too good to stop. 

Key players to a successful season: Sophomore QB Danny Etling. It might be his job for the moment after taking the reins and struggling in place of Rob Henry, but there are good options nipping at his heels. Austin Appleby is a big passer who was every bit as good as Etling this offseason, but the real upside is in David Blough, a baller of a playmaker who might be the type of true freshman who can handle all the pressure right away. The coaching staff won’t sit tight for long if the production isn’t there – the schedule is too light to not be good offensively right away. Etiling has the experience, and he bombed away fo 485 yards and four scores in the season-ending loss to Indiana, but that might not be enough. 

The season will be a success if … Purdue wins four games. Western Michigan and Central Michigan have to be must-wins at home to double last season’s victory total by September 6th. Southern Illinois needs to be a win to make it 3-1 – assuming a loss to Notre Dame. Purdue will probably be the underdog the rest of the way, but they might be just good enough to rise up and tag an Illinois on the road or Northwestern at home. Four wins with at least one Big Ten victory will seem like a monumental step after last year. 

Key game: Aug. 30 vs. Western Michigan. Something has to start to work, and it has to begin with the opener. The Broncos were every bit as disappointing as Purdue was last season, albeit on a smaller scale. Considering how bad the Boilermakers were right out of the gate – getting blasted by Cincinnati and struggling against Indiana State – it would be a very big, very cathartic moment to come out and rip apart WMU. Anything less would an uh-oh moment – it could mean another long season. 

2013 Fun Stats: 
- Third Quarter Scoring: Opponents 106 – Purdue 35
- Punt Return Average: Purdue 11.6 yards – Opponents 3.3 yards 
- Rushing Yards Per Game: Opponents 235.4 – Purdue 67.1