Ah-ha! You thought we were done doing this, didn't you? Well, we're not. So why the delay? For one, we took a brief break because Signing Day happened, we did a roundtable, and we took a look at how the Legends and Leaders teams did on Signing Day as well. So, yeah, it was a pretty busy couple of weeks. But hey, we need to fill the off-season with something, so here we are, looking at Purdue.
Danny Hope's fourth and final year at Purdue was a bittersweet symphony. He entered with a great deal of hype (by Purdue standards) after injuries kept 2010 from being decent and 2011 from being a better year than one that culminated in a low-level bowl game. In 2012 the Boilermakers started 3-1 in their non-conference record, with the loss coming in a close 17-20 nail-biter against Notre Dame in South Bend. That hard-fought performance, combined with the convincing victories against Marshall and EMU, had Purdue fans believing they could possibly run the table in the Big Ten.
That didn't happen. Purdue lost their next five games in either embarrassing blowouts (Michigan, Wisconsin) or gut-wrenching fashion (an overtime loss against Ohio State). By the time Purdue had lost to Minnesota, a team everyone thought they would soundly beat, it was all but decided that Hope was done. It didn't matter that he won the final three games against Iowa, Illinois, and Indiana, bringing Purdue the six wins needed to take them to another consecutive bowl game.
The Boilermakers got shredded in the Heart of Dallas Bowl (58-14) by Oklahoma State. The only consolation fans had for witnessing that game was the knowledge that they were starting over the next year with a new coach, Darrell Hazell of Kent State.
Expectations Coming In:
It was pretty much Big Ten championship game or bust for the Boilermakers. Purdue fans had been skeptical of Danny Hope ever since he was hired--most thought he didn't have the pedigree to succeed as a Big Ten head coach, however just as many were willing to give him a chance. Year Four was seen as a good gauge because it was the culmination of Hope's first full recruiting cycle, where the players he recruited were now experienced upperclassmen. If there was a year he could succeed, this would have been it.
It's doubtful that Purdue fans expected a conference championship after two bowl-less seasons and a weak-willed 7-6 run that ended with a nail-biter against Western Michigan in the Little Caesar's Pizza Bowl. However, what they did expect was an appearance in the championship game, not just because they were looking for a significant step forward as a reason to keep Danny Hope on as the head coach when his seat was heating up, but more because the Leaders Division was wide open.
Ohio State and Penn State were both ineligible, and Wisconsin looked like it was about to take a significant step backward. Indiana was still rebuilding, and Illinois was (at the time) deemed the only other plausible dark horse. If Danny Hope didn't take the Boilermakers to at least the Big Ten championship game with the division as open as it was, many thought it would be enough to cost him his job. (Turns out it did.)
Best Moment of 2012:
Optimism reached its peak in West LaFayette when Purdue destroyed Eastern Michigan, 54-16. After the close game to Notre Dame a week before, the utter throttling of the Eagles (who had already lost to Ball State and FCS Indiana State) made Boilermaker fans feel a little better going forward. The game against Marshall in the following week was closer than probably most fans would have liked (51-41), but for all intents and purposes 2012 was pretty much going as expected, and if it kept going that way, they'd be making a trip to Indianapolis for the conference championship game.
Worst Moment of 2012:
Getting annihilated by Michigan and Wisconsin in back-to-back weeks, both at home. The Wisconsin game is probably the worse of the two losses because it was homecoming. Purdue fans were counting on that game to end up in the win column because the Boilermakers and the Badgers reside in the same division and it was a must-win in order for Purdue to represent the Leaders Division in the championship. Though there may have been some fringe fans still holding out hope that they could still make it, by that time anyone still believing Hope would have another year was in the minority.
Expectations Going Forward:
A new coach and a fresh face typically bring a lot of optimism and energy to the program's base, and that's certainly the case with Purdue fans after the hiring of Darrell Hazell. They have no idea if he's going to succeed or not, and right now they really don't care. Hazell only has two years of head coaching experience with the Golden Flashes of Kent State. Beyond that he has been simply a career assistant, spending most of his years at Ohio State coaching the wide receivers.
Hazell's two years at Kent State were decent and indicative of a quick turnaround. He went 5-7 in his first year and then proceeded to coach one of the MAC's most prolific offenses on his way to a 11-3 record. He won the MAC's East Division title, but lost in the championship game to Northern Illinois, and also lost in the bowl game to Arkansas State.
It's not really Hazell's record that has Purdue fans most excited; it's his offense. The lack of offensive production and execution were two chief complaints made by fans looking for reasons to say goodbye to Danny Hope, and Hazell's spread offense, while it won't be anything new to the Big Ten after coaches like Rich Rodriguez, Pat Fitzgerald, Bo Pelini, and Urban Meyer have all used it, at least has some fans believing that he can bring an exciting brand of football to West LaFayette.
Purdue fans are some of the most restless in the Big Ten as they believe they should be among the conference's elite with teams like Michigan and Ohio State, and they have been frustrated as their program seems stuck in neutral behind an apathetic athletic department. Even though the Boilermakers have made two consecutive bowl trips under Danny Hope's coaching, the expectation for Hazell's first year will be that he as enough tools to continue the trend with another post-season appearance--similar to how Illinois fans looked at Tim Beckman's first year. It's doubtful fans will tolerate a step backwards, even if it's a small step. Anything short of at least a 6-6 season will culminate in disappointment and more restlessness.