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MnB B1G Preview: Q&A with Hammer and Rails

Travis Miller, owner and operator of the Purdue blog "Hammer and Rails" here on SB Nation, took some time to talk about Purdue football and answer our questions.

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Pat Lovell-USA TODAY Sports
Could you talk briefly about the transition from Danny Hope to Darrell Hazell? Why, in a nutshell, was Hope worthy of firing, even after he had brought the program to bowl eligibility in back to back seasons? Generally, how did you and the fan base view Hazell as an improvement, even though he was largely unproven?

Travis Miller: In retrospect, I think Danny Hope had a bit of a raw deal, but it felt like the team had topped out. His first season was 5-7, but it felt like a success because Purdue beat Ohio State and was really a play or two from winning at Oregon. It was also very, very close to beating Northwestern, Michigan State, and Notre Dame. He had all the injuries in year two, but years three and four people soured on him mostly because the same mistakes the team was making in year one that cost them those close games they were still making in year four.

The largest reason he got fired was that his teams looked completely and utterly unprepared in big games in 2012. That was his most experienced team and with both Ohio State and Penn State ineligible the division was there for the taking. Instead of taking advantage, Purdue got drilled in consecutive home games against Michigan and Wisconsin, blew the game at Ohio State that was there for the taking, and followed it by getting blown out by Minnesota and Penn State.

Again, it was the same mistakes that his teams had always made. Purdue should have beaten Notre Dame if not for his insistence on rotating quarterbacks. Against Ohio State, Purdue needed one first down to seal the game and not only went too conservative to get it, they gave up a game-tying drive in less than a minute to a backup quarterback. Sure, he got to bowl eligibility, but is it really an accomplishment to beat an FCS team, Eastern Michigan, Marshall, Indiana, Illinois, and an awful Iowa team?

At least with new coach Darrell Hazell there appears to be more discipline and accountability on the surface. Last season was far from what people wanted, but I think they are willing to give Hazell a chance because he is trying to change the fundamental flaws of the program and rebuild from the ground up instead of trying to gloss over the same things that have been ignored for years by the previous staff.

Despite the obvious 1-11 season, how has Hazell done so far? More importantly, how are the folks over at Hammer & Rails viewing him? What is your own opinion on Hazell? How has it changed since his hiring, if at all?

Travis: I think 1-11 was a surprise because I really thought there were six possible wins last season. I thought the talent was there to pull a surprise or two and teams like Indiana (no defense at all) and Illinois were beatable. The biggest surprise was not that Purdue went 1-11, but that it was dominated in virtually every game.

The offense wasn't just bad, it was historically bad. I admit I was concerned when Hazell wanted to be more of a power running team and had similar personnel to his excellent Kent State team, but we were the worst rushing team in the Big Ten. His offensive line, even with four seniors, was terrible.

I think people are trying to be patient, though. Again, Hazell is breaking everything down and building it back up from the most basic level possible. There is more discipline and more teaching of basic fundamentals that Hope’s teams lacked. His best year at Kent State was year two, so hopefully there will be a big jump forward this year.

The schedule is also easier. There is no road game at a very good Cincinnati team. There is no BCS-level Northern Illinois coming in. Ohio State is off the schedule. As is Penn State. Last season Purdue opened with seven teams that had either played in a BCS bowl or had an excellent chance of playing in one in the first eight weeks. That is not the case this season.

Talk about how you think Purdue fits in the "new" Big Ten conference layout. Are you relieved to be no longer in the same division as Ohio State and Penn State, or does it even matter? How soon do you think Purdue can compete for the West division crown?

Travis: I certainly like it a lot better. Getting the gift of Indiana as a guaranteed crossover every season is the gift that keeps on giving. I can’t respect a program that had everything perfectly set up for the Pizza Bowl at minimum but then couldn't even field a semi-competent defense to go with a killer offense. When you get the worst BCS level program in history as a guaranteed game for a crossover and no one else does, that is a blessing.

I also feel like Purdue can definitely compete better in the west than the east. Illinois is often mediocre at best. Purdue can at least be on the same level as Minnesota and Northwestern every year. That leaves Nebraska, Wisconsin, and Iowa. Our history with Iowa is good. We’re still feeling out Nebraska. As for Wisconsin, well, they own us. I feel like if Purdue can get to the level of at last being competitive with the Badgers we’ll be in good shape.

What needs to happen for the offense to improve and be competitive? Is it all on offensive coordinator John Shoop?

Travis: The offensive line has got to get light-years better. John Shoop’s offense can work, but Purdue could not protect the quarterback or block for the run at all last season. That led to multiple three and outs, then the defense would wilt and wear down, leading to blowouts. Purdue was in a handful of games last season for about a half (down 14-7 at Cincinnati, down 7-0 at Michigan State, down 14-7 to Iowa, etc.) but the offense was just so awful that you never felt like it had the ability to come back at all.

I think if there is dramatic improvement on the offensive line you’ll see Purdue get better in a hurry. Danny Etling has shown a lot of promise at quarterback, but honestly, the guy that really impressed me in spring practice was true freshman David Blough from Texas. He graduated early to go through spring ball and probably had the best day of the three quarterbacks in the spring game. It also helps that he draws a lot of comparisons to another quarterback we famously had from Texas.

Generally, how would you judge recruiting under Darrell Hazell?

Travis: It’s improving. He pulled in some 4-star talent in David Hedelin and Gelen Robinson that will play at the largest areas of concern (offensive line and linebacker). Now, can he develop it? The biggest knock on Hope is that he would get talented players only to have them not work out. Purdue rarely gets a lot of four and five star guys, but the ones it has gotten have not worked out at all for the most part.

Hazell’s guys have to come in and improve, which is something that the players recruited by former Purdue coach Danny Hope never did. That was a big reason Purdue was so bad. Guys that should have improved never really did.

How do you expect Purdue to do in 2014? Is there one game you are dreading, and one game you are really excited for?

Travis: I always dread the Wisconsin game because they physically dominate us every single year. You know what is coming and we are still completely unable to stop it. I expect another 300-400 yard rushing game from the Badgers.

As for one game to be excited about, I would say the opener against the Western Michigan Broncos. We’ve lost 10 in a row for the first time in 105 years and haven’t beaten an FBS level team in almost two years. WMU was terrible last year, so the fact that I might get to see Purdue actually win a football game is exciting enough. When we couldn’t even beat Illinois last season a win over Western Michigan would be improvement.

You have been a relatively vocal critic of Morgan Burke and the Purdue athletic department. Can you sum up your position for Michigan fans? Or, in a nutshell, what's your biggest criticism of the athletic department? How does Purdue fix it?

Travis: Many Purdue fans are turning against athletic director Morgan Burke, but I have tried to take a more broad view at times. He is the longest serving athletic director in the Big Ten and he has done an excellent job of improving facilities. Purdue has an excellent new baseball facility, is building a softball field to rival it, and there have been great improvements for women’s soccer, Mackey Arena, Ross-Ade Stadium, and a world-class aquatics facility under his watch.

That said, people are far from happy that we finished in last place in football, last place in basketball, and we’re on our way to finishing last place in baseball. The baseball facility, while nice, was poorly managed and finished a year late, costing us the ability to host the 2012 NCAA regional on campus and forcing up to play in friggin’ Gary, Indiana instead of at home. If you don’t think that made a difference look at what Indiana did last season in making it to Omaha. It was properly rewarded for a great season by getting to play at home in their new facility while Purdue’s "dream team" had to take its regional on the road because the project was mismanaged to the point it was a year behind schedule.

The biggest criticism of Burke is that everything in the athletic department is done for the sake of being run in the black. Purdue gets the same river of Rotel and Barbasol money rolling through campus that everyone else in the Big Ten does, but it sponsors the fewest varsity programs of anyone in the Big Ten. It is a good thing that Purdue doesn’t take money from the school’s general fund, but he is giving $3.5 million back to the school instead of keeping it in the department. I am all for meeting budget, but Burke is pretty much intractable on things. I am a huge advocate for installing permanent lights at Ross-Ade mostly because that is the way college football is going and the versatility of even a 3:30pm kickoff isn't there unless the TV networks foot the bill for temporary lights, but Burke is completely against it.

Then you have championships. We’re historically the worst athletic program in the Big Ten. We have three total national championships, which is fewer than every school in the conference except Rutgers. Purdue has fewer Big Ten championships (71) across all sports than every school except Penn State, Nebraska, Rutgers, and Maryland. Penn State will soon pass us even though we have been in the conference for almost a century longer and Purdue even has fewer Big Ten championships than the University of Chicago, which hasn't competed in almost 70 years.

I am sick of all the losing. To me, the athletic department has no ingenuity and is perfectly fine with maintaining the status quo. We’re like the Chicago Cubs of the Big Ten. The river of BTN revenue sharing is like Wrigley Field in the 70’s and 80’s where it is sold out nearly every day and the money is coming in regardless of how good we are.

Special Thanks to Travis Miller for taking the time to answer our questions! Be sure to check out Hammer & Rails any time you're curious about Purdue athletics!