It was October 4th, 2000 , and I sat in the stands at Ross-Ade Stadium as Drew Henson, David Terrell, and Anthony Thomas led #6 Michigan to a 28-10 halftime lead against Joe Tiller's Boilermakers. This was approximately a month before the Northwestern game that I referenced last week*, and that proximity alone endows this with a bit of retrospective ominousness. Needless to say, Drew Brees et al went on to break 11-year-old-me's heart, the first of two such instances that season which were made worse by the fact that I was there to witness the collapse firsthand each time. Purdue held Michigan to a mere three points in the second half while Brees and the "Drew Crew" put up 22 (which, to be fair, compared to the aforementioned Northwestern game represents a valiant effort on the part of the Michigan D). Brees picked Michigan's defense apart, finding guys like Tim Stratton, Vinny Sutherland, John Standeford, and Seth Morales with ease, a conductor building reality and sound with an understated yet knowledgable flick of the wrist. The motion and its effect let one know that yes, you are in fact in the presence of a maestro.
Fast forward to 2004, and I am in the stands at Ross-Ade once again, watching the freshman duo of Henne and Hart attempt to take down Kyle Orton--who I would eventually root for later on as a Chicago Bear--and a game Purdue squad. It was a much different game than the 2000 matchup, obviously: the game ended with Michigan on top, 16-14, after Garrett Rivas hit a late field goal to take the lead, which was shortly thereafter sustained by a spectacular fumble-inducing hit by Ernest Shazor. Most of my memories of that game involve Braylon looking like the Bad Braylon--aka most of his NFL career, sadly--and Mike Hart grinding out a superb performance (206 yards) that somehow didn't translate to many points.
The 2004 game was not a testament to the offensive brilliance that Purdue had put on display in years past, the 3-4 hour long symphonies orchestrated by Tiller and Brees with an almost startling combination of effortless grace and cold-hearted Gradgrindian efficiency. Despite the low-scoring nature of the game, you still had the sense that Purdue had the firepower to do some serious damage on offense. One of the moments I remember most vividly from that game--other than The Hit and one particular pass that went right through Braylon's hands, inspiring an older Michigan fan near me to explain matter-of-factly how Braylon was "always good for one or two of those a game"--was Orton's 64-yard touchdown pass to running back Brandon Jones. Orton dropped back and it was almost immediately apparent that Jones's wheel route down the sideline opposite from where I was sitting was taking him to a path of little resistance; Scott McLintock was the only thing between him and the end zone. If you remember what McLintock's skill set was like, this was not exactly an ideal situation for Michigan. Jones caught the ball and high-stepped out of a futile McLintock tackle attempt.
Purdue could dink and dunk, but, if you weren't paying attention, they'd smack you in the face like Rick James slapped Charlie Murphy in Dave Chappelle's True Hollywood Stories sketch. Despite the lack of points on that day, that Purdue offense boasted weapons like Dorien Bryant (a tiny speedster who I'm sure Rich Rodriguez would have loved to snake oil away from Tiller if he was in Ann Arbor back then) and Taylor Stubblefield, who had a fairly disappointing outing in this game but ended his career as FBS's all-time receptions leader with 316 (a record that was only broken in 2011 by Oklahoma's Ryan Broyles). Additionally, Brandon Jones was a decent if unspectacular back, and Jerod Void might have been the most Purdue-y tailback of all-time, which isn't so much a "bad" thing as it is a descriptor of what he was: undersized, not exactly speedy, and not exceptionally powerful. Still, Void, like several other Purdue backs, was productive enough, particularly in the fabric of Tiller's pass-first offense.
Fast forward six years later and I'm at Ross-Ade once again for the 2010 game, which, I don't need to tell you, was Rich Rodriguez's last win as Michigan's head football coach. Perhaps that should indicate that what I am about to describe verges on the macabre.
*As a poster on Lake The Posts pointed out: NU scored 54 that game, not the 56 that I mentioned. The mythology of certain events increases proportionally with the passage of time. P.S. The common denominator of the 2000 Purdue and Northwestern games was that I was at both of them, so...yes, I apparently single-handedly destroyed Michigan's hopes at a BCS bowl game that year. My bad, guys.
The horror, the horror. The West-Lafayette skies were dreary Midwestern gray. The clouds opened up to fits of intermittent rain, the kind that wouldn't ever let you get comfortable. We made our way to the game, all the while carrying the feeling that this was a different place than the one I had been many times as a kid.** Although they were surely out there, it seemed that nobody was tailgating, and that certain stretches of campus seemed as subdued as a campus can be on a fall Saturday. It seemed that last Breakfast Club of the season had put the students to sleep, and the overall world-weariness of the older fans kept them from coming out in droves.
We got to Ross-Ade and were able to move down to the first few rows in the end zone seating area (just about the opposite corner from the black-clad student section). It was raining and cold and I was an idiot wearing shorts. You could tell that today was not going to be a banner day for the offenses, and yet Purdue's offensive attack redefined the word "hopeless." Sure, Michigan was awful that day too. However, keep in mind that Purdue had the luxury of facing off against Michigan's 2010 defense. Yes, that one. I'll leave it at that, lest anyone be subjected to any unfortunate flashbacks.
The Purdue offense was not just vaguely flailingly ineffective, it was obviously so. There was really no point at which I felt that the Boilermakers were going to threaten in earnest, which is hilarious given the fact that: a) this is the 2010 Michigan defense we're talking about and b) it was a one-score game throughout most of the second half. Michigan won 27-16, a late Hopkins TD sealing the deal with a few minutes to go as the spirited but undoubtedly exhausted student section looked on. The Purdue offense on that day was analogous to the guy who runs out of gas at an intersection, forcing him to walk to the nearest gas station as everybody drives by and pretends not to look. It's just sad and unfortunate, really.
Purdue had scored a defensive TD, however, so that means that the offense did not punch it in the end zone, instead pitching in a triumvirate of field goals. Purdue trotted out a pair of guys that wouldn't exactly be mistaken for Brees or Orton, let alone Painter (heck, maybe not even Brandon Kirsch). Sean Robinson is now a linebacker, apparently, and Rob Henry was essentially being used as a tailback despite the fact that he was nominally a quarterback. In fact, Henry was Purdue's leading rusher on the day (12 carries, 75 yards). A converted quarterback and Dan Dierking do not a potent rushing attack make. On the outside, Purdue's receivers were doubly ineffective (although weather conditions and QB play do need to be taken into account). Other than Gary Bush's 39-yard reception that helped push Purdue away from the shadow of its own goal line, Purdue's biggest play was an 11-yard reception from...Rob Henry. This was an offense with a serious energy crisis, a problem that hasn't lessened in intensity since that grim November day.
We left Ross-Ade that day, soaked but happy. Yet, it seemed a little sad that a place I had been to so many times and a team that I had come to watch many times as a kid seemed to be so much a shell of its former self.
Unlike Northwestern, Purdue's current problem is offense...this much is obvious. Of course, the defense needs significant work too, but Purdue has shown the ability to churn out sneakily solid defenses over the years, in addition to a steady line of terrifying defensive linemen (Avril, Edwards, Kerrigan). Even so, Purdue's M.O. will always be offense: going forward, who will be making plays for the Boilermakers? You would think that somebody has to, but the 2010 Purdue offense is proof that you can't just pour liquefied Harry's popcorn into an offense's metaphorical tank and expect it to do much of anything except huff and puff and occasionally shoot pieces of popcorn shrapnel into the eyes of Ross-Ade spectators.
The quarterback situation in West-Lafayette right now is, quite frankly, absurd. Like the chocolate fountain at Golden Corral, it is a grotesque and superfluous arrangement. Purdue has a lot of quarterbacks, and none of them seem to be all that good. Since I mostly want to focus on the skill players, I'll note the obvious: TerBush is the safest option, Robert Marve is primarily known for being that guy who transferred from Miami (which doesn't exactly mean anything anymore), Rob Henry might as well be a running back, and Erich Berzinskas and Austin Parker are freshmen.
The point that "these guys aren't Brees" doesn't need to be belabored, so I want to talk about the skill players around whomever ends up dominating snaps from the Frankensteinian QB depth chart, this "Robleb MarvehenBush" as TMill put it. As Zach mentioned previously, yes, Purdue's offense is suffering a bit of an identity crisis, a crisis that stems from the hydra-eqsue nature of its quarterback situation. At the same time, I've always been of a mind to think that players are just as important, usually moreso, than schemes. Jimmies and Joes, as they say.
Purdue brings back Ralph Bolden, but it appears that his knee injury sadly might not allow him to play this season. Luckily, Purdue does bring back the 5'11'' 203 Texarkana native Akeem Shavers, in addition to the Lilliputian Akeem Hunt (Purdue is all about tailbacks named "Akeem" right now, apparently). Shavers has about the same size and speed as former Purdue tailback Kory Sheets. Sheets's senior year stats: 168 carries for 859 yards (5.1 ypc) and 11 touchdowns (13 total). That would be something to shoot for for Shavers, and would certainly constitute a solid final year in West Lafayette.
Both Shavers and Hunt had solid years last year, with Hunt pitching in 287 yards and a touchdown on a mere 33 carries (8.7 ypc), while Shavers threw in a very respectable 519 yards on 111 carries (4.7 ypc) and six touchdowns. In spite of the QB situation, these look like two decent options. Hunt kind of reminds you of Jerod Void, i.e. the undersized and incredibly Purdue-y tailback that you imagine when you attempt to conjure up the Platonic ideal of PU tailbacks. Shavers, on the other hand, is a bigger back that Purdue hasn't really been known for (unless you go back to the days of Mike Alstott). Personally, I'd feel very good about this group if I were a PU fan. Rob Henry is a capable runner as well, and I wouldn't be surprised to see him continue to be involved in the running game.
On the outside, Purdue returns leading receiver Antavian Edison--nicknamed "Breeze"--despite his recent legal issues based on charges that have since been dropped. Edison reeled in 44 receptions, good for 584 yards and 3 touchdowns in 2011. At 5'11'' 175, he is also just about a facsimile of the Purdue skill player prototype. Justin Siller, whose 2008 performance at quarterback still produces PTSD-style night terrors in some Michigan fans, is thankfully gone, and can no longer hurt us. Purdue also returns its naturally smallish (5'10'' 181) #3 WR O.J. Ross, but he missed last season's
Motor City Bowl Little Caesar's Bowl due to reasons related to academics; however, after some uncertainty regarding his status going forward, Ross was been reinstated to the team. Purdue also brings back the aforementioned Gary Bush, who is the biggest of the bunch at 6'1'' 175. If you remember correctly, he's the guy that did this:
2011 Michigan - Purdue Highlights (via mgodisney)
Bush essentially tripled his production across the board from his freshman to his sophomore season, and for some reason my gut tells me that Bush can possibly be the big play guy that PU has been sorely lacking. His bubble screen TD against Michigan was one of the few times that Michigan's defense reverted to full derp mode last season (NB: Kovacs was not playing that day, FWIW), but he did show impressive play-making ability.
Speaking of play-making ability, the Boilers also return speedy special teams maven Raheem Mostert. It appears that he didn't catch a pass last season, but he did carry the ball some out of the slot. I would expect this to continue in 2012, as Purdue absolutely needs to continue to find skill players to account for the lack of an above average Big Ten quarterback. The Keshawn Martin comparison made here represents the best case scenario for Mostert, which would be fairly amazing for the Purdue offense if it actually comes to fruition this season (or any season thereafter).
Purdue also returns an intriguing (to me, at least) tight end in Gabe Holmes, a guy out of the esteemed football powerhouse St. Thomas Aquinas in Florida. I don't know why, but in my time watching PU last season he kind of reminded me of a Koger type player vis-a-vis his size, athleticism, and hands (the good part of Koger's hands, not the "inexplicable tendency to drop easy passes" part). Holmes will be a junior this season, and if you're asking me, Purdue would do well to further incorporate Holmes into the offense. The last time Purdue had a dominant tight end, he got drafted in the first round (Dustin Keller), so, it would be pretty neat to have anything close to that level of production from the TE position again if you're a Purdue supporter.
As far as the 2012 class goes, Purdue brings in a generic coterie of 3-star dudes at receiver, guys whom I'm sure will have productive careers but aren't exactly physically or athletically impressive (yes, like the once snake oiled Roy Roundtree). However, 4-star TE/DE Carlos Carvajal--one of two 2012 4-star guys--could give the Boilers a target that they haven't had since the 6'9'' Kyle Ingraham roamed the field after hearing the phrase "basketball on grass" and assuming that they literally played their basketball at Ross-Ade. Luckily for Joe Tiller, this hilarious miscommunication affored the Boilers a 6'9'' receiving threat in the end zone, one which Carvajal could eventually replicate, standing at 6'7'' 215 (yes, he needs to add weight big time).
**I've been to Ross-Ade 8 times, making it my second most-attended Big Ten stadium.
So, although I remain fairly skeptical of Purdue's QB situation, the overall talent at the skill positions should be very solid, if not, dare I say it, "good and occasionally dangerous." Hunt and Shavers are an adequate to decent 1-2 punch, and Antavian Edison has proven himself a capable if unspectacular #1 receiver. If Bush can continue to flash big play ability and Purdue OC Gary Nord can find ways to involve Raheem Mostert and Gabe Holmes, this offense could creep its way up to respectability and might even approach the gates of semi-formidability.
This isn't basketball on grass anymore, a phrase which has become synonymous with PU football. I'm not sure that it needs to be. These players can and should attempt to build their own legacy; pining for a reprisal of the careers of Brees, Stubblefield, Standeford, Sutherland, Stratton, Orton, Bryant, and others of the Tiller era, is not a way to go through life. While there has been a bit of a power outage in the Danny Hope era to date, 2012 should represent a definitive step forward.