Is Darrell Hazell in over his head?
Last year, I wrote a piece solely on whether or not Darrell Hazell could succeed at Purdue, and by extension the Big Ten. It was written largely in response to Peter Putzel saying that the Boilermakers would be lucky to win four games. Given that Hazell was inheriting a decent situation, my position on Purdue's new head coach was that he possessed enough of a Big Ten pedigree and had been successful enough at Kent State -- he had coached them to their first bowl game ever -- that he would at least go .500 in his first season in West Lafayette.
I was under the impression that a squad which had gone to back-to-back bowls under Danny Hope's tutelage would be able to match that standard. But here's what happened: Purdue did far worse than the prediction on which I disagreed so intently with Peter Putzel. In fact, they defied all predictions, falling to 1-11 in what was one of the worst seasons in both Purdue history and Big Ten history. So, now that leads us to ask a natural question -- is Darrell Hazell completely over his head coaching in the Big Ten?
As someone who advocates that any offensive style can be successful in college football, it's even more frustrating for me to look at Hazell's debut at Purdue and ward off the spread zealots who chant that "Manball" is dead. Hazell ran a straight-up pro-style at Kent State and lit up the scoreboard. He brought running back Dri Archer from the realm of obscurity into the national spotlight, much like Brady Hoke did for Ronnie Hillman at San Diego State.
Then Hazell came to Purdue, where fans proclaimed that he had not one but two possible Dri Archers in Raheem Mostert and Akeem Hunt. He had a fifth-year senior quarterback in Rob Henry, as well as two highly-touted youngsters in Austin Appleby and Danny Etling. All those reasons for optimism disintegrated when Purdue dropped 11 games.
It was hardly an inspiring introduction, and from what I've seen, the fan base doesn't expect much better for this season. That's after I was led to believe that Hazell's predecessor, Danny Hope, was fired primarily because he lost a few big games, despite posting a couple of winning seasons. Hazell's second year, while likely not going to be a massive leap forward, will be either an indicator that he's building long-term stability or that he's just a MAC coach trying to survive in a BCS conference.
Can the offensive line improve?
As Michigan fans, this might feel all too familiar, but ask any Purdue fan what the biggest problem was in 2013 and they will tell you that, hands down, it was the offensive line. That's even when the Boilermakers had four(!) fifth-year senior offensive linemen with experience. Now the only returning starter is junior center Robert Kugler. That means Purdue is going to have to rebuild even after a terrible season.
And make no mistake: Purdue's offensive line was flat-out bad. As much as we Michigan fans might moan and groan about the ever eponymous "27-for-27" and stumbling all the way to a 7-6 season, the Boilermakers had it far worse. They allowed the most sacks in the Big Ten (117th overall). They also had the worst rushing offense in the Big Ten (Michigan was the second worst), and only gained a meager 805 total yards on the ground. (Michigan, for all their offensive woes, at least broke 1,000.)
When a team does that badly with a senior-laden offensive line, it has to just make your brain explode. Michigan's best offensive lines have typically come from experienced upperclassmen, much like Iowa's, Wisconsin's, and Michigan State's lines in their best years. Purdue's presumed biggest strength going into the season turned out to be their biggest weakness. So what was the problem? Well, no one really knows. Much like the circular debate that Michigan fans engaged in 2013 regarding our porous offense -- was it Al Borges or Darrell Funk to blame? -- there is no clear answer for what specific thing needed fixing. The whole thing just needed to be fixed.
The general consensus, at least as proposed in the discussion at Hammer and Rails, is that the offensive line ineptitude of 2013 exposed the problems of the previous regime. Or, to put it another way, Danny Hope's spread offense masked a lot of the inherent problems with the offensive line, and the switch to the more technique-driven pro-style offense made a lot of the issues glaringly apparent. This, of course, isn't universally agreed upon, as Hope himself was previously an offensive line coach, and some believe that his absence, while beneficial as the head coach, hurt most in his area of specialty.
Who leads the offense?
Right now all logical signs would point to sophomore Danny Etling as your best bet since he's the returning starter, having played as a true freshmen. However, in the Hammer and Rails spring game report, Purdue blogger Travis Miller said that true freshman David Blough had the best day of all the quarterbacks. How likely is it that a true freshman is going to unseat a returning starter? Probably not that likely, but Etling did it to Rob Henry last season, and Tate Forcier did it here at Michigan in 2009. Don't rule anything out.
But this leads us to a bigger question: how good is Danny Etling? Purdue fans have been waiting for the next great Boilermaker quarterback since Drew Brees. (Does Kyle Orton count? At this point, most Purdue fans would probably settle for the second coming of Kyle Orton.) Etling looked promising in his debut as a true freshman, all things considered, and fans were delighted that he had stuck with his commitment to Purdue even after the head coach who recruited him, Danny Hope, got the boot. He came in and had a much better skill set to offensive coordinator John Shoop's offense than Rob Henry, who always seemed more like an option quarterback. If Etling can get some decent protection, then it's possible that he could become one of the better quarterbacks in the Big Ten. Needless to say he'll go only as far as his offensive line will take him.
Along these same lines, there has to be some growing concern in West Lafayette over offensive coordinator John Shoop. Even though Shoop previously held the same position with the Chicago Bears (making the Purdue job a significant step down), he was not generally considered an inspiring hire by the Boilermaker faithful, and most of the arguments advocating for Shoop were something in the vein of "Trust Coach Hazell; he knows what he's doing." The fan base seems willing to give Shoop some more leeway, at least for now, especially since they're operating under the assumption that Darrell Hazell is steadily building the program. Still, given what transpired in 2013, the question that Travis Miller posed jokingly when Shoop was first hired ("This is a lukewarm hire, but really, is it worse than the Nordfense?") might be worth re-considering.
Can Purdue get to bowl eligibility?
At a glance, the schedule appears to be manageable for a decent team, but it will probably be tough for Purdue, who is in the throes of a rebuilding effort. (If you'll remember, I said Purdue's schedule in 2013 was manageable too, which clearly shows how much I know about football.) Meanwhile, our very own schedule aficionado Peter Putzel is once again predicting the Boilermakers to have a season that barely sniffs more than a couple wins. In fact, Peter has the Boilermakers winning only two contests -- against directional MAC punching bags Western Michigan and Central Michigan -- but has them dropping to FCS opponent Southern Illinois, as well as everyone else on the schedule.
Purdue does have the benefit of playing its biggest conference games at home -- the Badgers, Spartans, and Hawkeyes all visit West Lafayette -- but a similar situation last season with the Buckeyes, Irish, and Cornhuskers hardly made a difference. The Boilermakers miss on Michigan, Ohio State, and Penn State, possibly the schedule's only true saving grace, yet the biggest road challenges -- at Nebraska, at Minnesota, at Indiana -- will likely keep the Gold and Black from entering the post-season. They also face Notre Dame in prime time at a neutral location.
If the Boilermakers can take care of the MAC teams and the Salukis, they'll only need to find three wins in-conference to make eligibility. Purdue's best possible chances of Big Ten wins will come against Indiana and Illinois on the road, and against Northwestern at home in Ross-Ade Stadium. Should Purdue fall against two or more of their non-conference foes, the road to climb in the Big Ten looks that much steeper, as they'd have to pull at least two major upsets, and a post-season trip looks like a pipe-dream.