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MnB B1G Preview: Nailing down some answers with TMill of Hammer & Rails

Is Marve the answer?  How many years are we going to ask this question?  This is the last one, right?  He isn't eligible anymore, is he? (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
Is Marve the answer? How many years are we going to ask this question? This is the last one, right? He isn't eligible anymore, is he? (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
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Purdue week rolls on with our insider look at the Boilermaker program.

TMill of SBN's Purdue blog Hammer & Rails was kind enough to answer a few of my questions regarding the Boilermaker's past, present, and future. Thanks TMill, and on with the show.

Purdue had a fairly schizophrenic season in 2011 that started with an up and down non-conference lineup and continued with a series of close Big Ten games (a five point loss to Penn State, an overtime win vs. Ohio State) and blowouts (45 point loss to Wisconsin, 22 point loss to Michigan). In fact, Purdue only won or lost back to back games twice all season -- back to back losses to Michigan and Wisconsin in the beginning of November and back to back wins vs Indiana and Western Michigan to close out the season. What caused the inconsistency? Was it a matter of the schedule setting up poorly, or was there something along the way that hindered Purdue from putting together a winning streak.

It was a number of things. Poor special teams play cost us wins at Rice and Penn State, as we had a field goal blocked on the final play at Rice and missed both a Figgie and an extra point at Penn State. At Wisconsin we simply refused to play defense, while Michigan was one of those games where one or two early mistakes snowballed. Iowa was the opposite of Wisconsin in that we completely refused to play offense.

It reached a point where I could not figure out what was going on for most of the season. We kept switching quarterbacks. We never got into a rhythm offensively or defensively. There were bizarre decisions made by the coaching staff (Specifically settling for a field goal instead of running against a gassed defense for a touchdown at Rice).

The constant string of injuries that have befallen Purdue skill position players over the last couple years have been somewhat of a conference wide running joke. What are the latest knee injuries that Big Ten fans should be aware of, and who is getting healthy? Has anyone tested the water in West Lafayette yet for anti-ACL agents?

Well, Ralph Bolden suffered his third ACL tear against Indiana last year and is a major question mark if he will play or be effective at all. Running back Brandon Cottom and quarterback Rob Henry are also both recovering from tears, with Henry the furthest along. Henry will likely take some wildcat snaps at quarterback and, in my perfect world, would be converted to receiver.

Quarterback is a position that has long been celebrated by Purdue, and the majority of the last decade and a half has been extremely productive for Boilermaker quarterbacks. Lately, however (and I touched on this Monday), quarterback play has dropped off. Is this a function of the coaching change, a talent development issue, or just unfortunate circumstances (i.e. the constant stream of ACL injuries). Will Purdue be able to return to being a very good passing offense, or has the focus shifted too far to the run game for anyone to expect more than average production out of Purdue's quarterbacks?

I think it is a combination. Robert Marve has had two tears, but Danny hope seems hellbent on not picking him or Caleb TerBush as THE guy, which drives us crazy. TerBush makes fewer mistakes, but lacks the big play ability Marve gives us. Then you have Rob Henry, who was a team captain last year before tearing his ACL. He's the most mobile of the three, but the worst thrower. He's the classic, "needs to be on the field, but where" guy.

Then you have everyone we've recruited at quarterback. Austin Appleby, Robert Gregory, Aloyis Gray, and Bilal Marshall are all 2012 guys and we already have a four-star QB for 2013 in Danny Etling. None of them will play this year and Henry appears to be the starter in his final year in 2013 after TerBush and Marve are gone, but it appears there will be a steel cage match to decide then.

Our biggest problem is that we simply won't pick a guy and stick with him. In 2009 our offense was quite successful (when it held onto the ball, as turnovers cost us four losses) by having one guy as THE guy. The last two years we've either been forced to play or chose to play multiple QBs, and the offense has sputtered. Right now, my choice is Marve, with TerBush as the main backup and Henry as a wideout/wildcat type.

Purdue had a very diverse, and large, group of running backs split carries last year. Is that going to continue this year or is someone primed to take on the role of feature back? Is this the year Purdue's spread rushing attack jumps into the conference elite?

I think the running game this season will be quite effective, especially if Henry's knee is 100% and Bolden can be effective at all. Akeem Shavers had a monster bowl game and Akeem Hunt had 100 yards against Indiana, but that's against Western Michigan and Indiana. Honestly, people in motorized wheelchairs could probably rush for 100 yards against Indiana. Maybe even corpses.

The Akeems should be a nice 1-2 punch and Hope has shown he's not afraid to give wide receivers like Antavian Edison the occasional carry. I also really like Brandon Cottom as a bruising fullback if he returns healthy.

Purdue has a couple all-conference caliber defensive players in Kawann Short and Ricardo Allen, but overall the defense has struggled in the recent past, performing at a below average level in the Big Ten. What do you expect from the defense this season? Are there other players that you expect to emerge as all-conference level performers?

I think it will be better, and I look for Short, Allen, and cornerback Josh Johnson to be all-conference caliber players. Ryan Russell is a player poised for a big year, and our new defensive co-ordinator said we will line up in a 3-4 at times. I like Bruce Gaston as a defensive tackle and Will Lucas should be an excellent linebacker. Our biggest questions are at safety, one outside LB spot, and defensive end. There is plenty of depth, but we need proven starters to come out.

Landon Feichter has been a very pleasant surprise, emerging from unknown walk-on to solid safety. I've been a fan of E.J. Johnson since I saw him as a ball-hawking safety on consecutive Florida State championship teams. Our secondary has a lot of speed and talent, but they need to cover well for a better pass rush to develop. The middle of the field always seems open on third down too, as if we're not allowed to cover it.

Purdue has a solid incoming class of recruits from all over the country (the class comes from 16 different states) with two four-star headliners and a few borderline four-star players. What are your thoughts on Danny Hope's recruiting efforts thus far in his tenure as head coach? Are there any players in this year's class that you expect to earn playing time early?

The 2011 class was lowly rated simply because it was small. The 2012 class has a ton of potential. Paul Griggs will likely be the starting kicker from day one, and both Carlos Carvajal and Ryan Watson could play immediately. Expect someone like Aloyis Gray or Robert Gregory to convert to wide receiver, giving us the big, fast receiver we've lacked for, well, ever. I also like D.J. Knauf as the second coming of speedster Vinny Sutherland.

With Ohio State ineligible for the conference title race, Penn State and Illinois both going through coaching transitions, Wisconsin replacing some important skill position players, and Indiana decades away from contention (I keed, I keed) do you think there is an opportunity for Purdue to make a push for the Leaders division title? What has to go right for the Boilermakers to have a legitimate shot at the conference title?

Absolutely for the reasons you mentioned. At this point Indiana is going to always be Indiana until proven otherwise. We should beat them every season until they prove they are ready to be something other than a conference laughingstock that brings in a new coach every five years. We were already close at Penn State last year and handled Illinois easily just as they were starting their spiral. I don't think winning in Champaign is too much of a challenge, and neither is winning at Minnesota. Iowa is a mystery, plus we haven't won in Iowa City in 20 years, but I think we can beat Our Most Hated Rival as decided by Delaney. If everything breaks our way (which it rarely does) a win over Wisconsin in West Lafayette could send us to Indianapolis.

Of course, to be completely honest, I don't see us beating Ohio State, Michigan, or Wisconsin. The other five conference games are very winnable, but those three are pretty difficult for anyone, let alone a team of our schizophrenic nature. That said, for some bizarre reason we usually play Ohio State close and I don't understand why people think Meyer is suddenly going to turn a 6-7 team that wasn't even that good (remember, they barely got past Toledo and whose best offense is, "let's have Braxton Miller run around and chuck the ball up, hoping one of our guys catches it) into come kind of unstoppable juggernaut. They struggled with Akron, got lucky as hell in the final minute against Wisconsin, and beat an Illinois team that was starting to check out entirely. Yeah, they're awesome!

For us to make it to Indy we cannot slip up against Indiana, Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois, or Penn State, which is unlikely given our history. We also have to beat Wisconsin in West Lafayette for tiebreaking purposes. If we win those six games (which is a gigantic IF), then yeah, we should make it to Indy. If not, we need a 5-3 finish where Wisconsin somehow falls apart and the Ohio State ineligibility comes into play. Since we've made the choice in recent years to not even try to stop Wisconsin's running game, I don't have a lot of hope, but 8-4 would be nice with a 5-3 conference mark.

After three years, what are your thoughts on Danny Hope and the future of Purdue football under his tutelage? Hope has already missed as many bowls in three years as Joe Tiller did in 12, and while there were signs of slowdown under Tiller, the transition was set up to be smooth with Hope serving as coach in waiting for a year. Does Hope have a short leash going into 2012, and what is it going to take for him to keep his job long term?

I think he'll be fine in 2012 as long as we go 7-5 and reach another bowl game. It would probably take another 2010-like season where everyone, including me as the team blogger, gets hurt (don't laugh, I actually tore ankle ligaments the weekend we played Notre Dame that year and needed physical therapy for a month or two) for us to miss a bowl. The dirty secret last year is that the Big Ten was not very good outside of Michigan, Michigan State, and Wisconsin. Those teams look like they'll be the class of the conference again this year with a creamy middle and Indiana at the bottom.

People loved Danny Hope in 2009 when we were 5-7 and probably a handful of plays from being 9-3, if not better. They grumbled last year when we were 7-6, but struggled unnecessarily at times. If he settles on a QB, doesn't have another ugly non-conference loss like Northern Illinois/Toledo/Rice, and wins the games we're capable of winning while springing an upset or two somewhere (say pissing on Notre Dame's latest parade) things will quiet down. If he loses to Notre Dame again, we spike ourselves against Marshall, and struggle to go 4-4 in conference, and go back to Detroit, expect him to really feel it in 2013.