Spring preview: Purdue


While much ado has been made about the ending of the Michigan-Notre Dame “rivalry,” the long-running intrastate rivalry between the Irish and Purdue Boilermakers will take a break after this season, after scheduling struggles for both programs forced a break to a series that’s been played annually since 1946.

Last year was the first for Darrell Hazell, and it was an ugly one. Outside of playing Notre Dame tough, the Boilermakers trudged through an ugly season, finishing 1-11 with their lone victory over Indiana State.

To give us a spring progress report on the state of Purdue football, I tracked down our old friend Travis Miller, the editor of Hammer and Rails, home to all things Purdue sports.

Miller gave us an in-depth look at the program as it exits a very important spring.


Can you give us an honest appraisal of the state of Purdue football right now? How painful was last year’s 1-11 campaign? Is there light at the end of the tunnel?

Last year was brutal. Not only was Purdue 1-11, it wasn’t even a competitive 1-11. There were occasionally some sign of competence such as the Notre Dame and Michigan State games, but for the most part Purdue got drilled week-in, week-out. It certainly wasn’t fun.

Purdue is not going to get much better until its offensive line improves. Last year it could not protect the quarterback and could not block for the run. After seeing the spring game I am not exactly inspired. There are a few JuCo guys coming in the fall including 4-star tackle David Hedelin, but he may not be available. He played a few games for a club team in his native Sweden and is facing a possible NCAA suspension.

The good news is that it will be hard to get much worse. The schedule should be much easier with Western and Central Michigan instead of Cincinnati and a really good Northern Illinois team. If there is even a little progress Purdue should at least win its three non-conference games other than Notre Dame.


John Shoop’s offense returns 10 starters. Is that a good news/bad news sentence? Spring games aren’t necessarily a great indicator of future success, but it seemed like things are still out of sorts.

I am a big fan of the skill players, but again, the line has been awful, especially at the tackle spots. Hedelin and Corey Clements, another JuCo tackle, will likely come in and start from day 1. Robert Kuglar is pretty solid at the center position and the guards are at least coming along, but Hedelin and Clements need to be an answer at tackle. In the spring game none of the returning tackles looked all that good and Ryan Russell had more sacks than he did all of last season.


To that point, how has Danny Etling looked this spring? The decision to go with Etling last year pointed to a “the future is now” type of situation, but is the young quarterback ready to lead this team?

I think so. He just needs time to throw and I think he can do some pretty special things. The quarterback that impressed me most in the spring game, however, was true freshman David Blough. He reminds a lot of Purdue fans of another quarterback we recruited from Texas that was undersized, but was a diligent worker and ready to prove a point. Blough is a long way from being the next Drew Brees, but he has talked the talk so far and after graduating high school early to go through spring practice he showed enough to me that he can at least compete for the job.

For now, however, the job still belongs to Etling, and he will only show improvement as long as he is protected.


Greg Hudson’s defense had a tough season. But again, 8 starters return (though the loss of Bruce Gaston and Ricardo Allen has to hurt). How do you expect the defense to rebound?

I think the defense will be much better if it has an offense that can stay on the field for more than three plays. There were several games last season where the defense would be sound for a half, only to wilt in the second half because it was on the field far too much. Cincinnati, Iowa, Illinois, and Michigan State come to mind as games where Purdue looked great for a half but the offense did nothing to help out.

Help is on the way in linebackers Ja’Whaun Bentley and Gelen Robinson. Purdue desperately need linebackers that can make a difference. We haven’t had anything close to an all-Big Ten linebacker in over 10 years, but Bentley and Robinson have a lot of excitement around them. Robinson is the son of former basketball player Glenn Robinson and younger brother of the guy playing at Michigan. He is a two-time undefeated state wrestling champion and also a champion in the shot put, so he is an athlete with a mean streak that is expected to play from day 1. We desperately need that.


 What’s a realistic bar for the 2014 Purdue Boilermakers? How do fans feel about Darrell Hazell after one really ugly season?

I think we need at least four wins. Beating Western Michigan, Central Michigan, and Southern Illinois should happen. I also think we should beat someone like Illinois because the Illini have one Big Ten win in its last 22 games and that barely came over Purdue last season. I don’t think it is a stretch that Purdue can win that game.

Outside of that, I think we just want to see a competitive football team again. Purdue’s most complete game last year came against Notre Dame and for two years in a row it has competed against a much better Irish team. The Irish are the first “real” opponent of 2014, so another competitive game would be a big step forward.


The Purdue/Notre Dame series is taking a break until 2020 after this season. How do Purdue fans feel about this? A product of realignment, and the B1G’s nine-game conference schedule and ND’s ACC commitment? Or the end of the world and just another data-point that money is ruining college football? (I suppose it could be something in between, too…)

Personally, I think it is ridiculous that the series is ending. All the factors you mentioned are bringing an end to a series that last almost 70 years without a conference affiliation. It could have been saved too. From Purdue’s standpoint all we needed to do was shift the home date from odd-numbered years to even-numbered years would have kept us with seven home game per season. With Notre Dame already losing Michigan and Michigan State there was room to work there too, at least from what I see.

I am going to miss Notre Dame because it is a showcase game for our program every season. When it is at Purdue it is almost always a night game so ABC/ESPN can put the Irish in prime time. When it is at Notre Dame it is a nationally televised game. Now Purdue coaches can’t go in and say to a recruit they have a guaranteed national game every season, something that is a nice guarantee for as bad as we are right now.

I feel like both sides are at fault here and it easily could have been saved.


For more from Miller, check out Hammer & Rails and follow him on Twitter @HammerandRails.

Evaluating VanGorder’s scheme against the option

ANNAPOLIS, MD - SEPTEMBER 19:  Keenan Reynolds #19 of the Navy Midshipmen rushes for his fifth touchdown in the fourth quarter against the East Carolina Pirates during their 45-21 win on September 19, 2015 in Annapolis, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Notre Dame’s ability to slow down Georgia Tech’s vaunted option attack served as one of the high points to the Irish’s early season success. After spending a considerable amount of offseason energy towards attacking the option and learning more, watching the Irish hold the Yellow Jackets in check was a huge victory for Brian VanGorder, Bob Elliott and the rest of Notre Dame’s staff.

But it was only half the battle.

This weekend, Keenan Reynolds and Navy’s veteran offense come to town looking to wreak some havoc on a defense that’s struggled to slow it down. And after getting a look at some of the new tricks the Irish had in store for Paul Johnson, Ken Niumatalolo and his offensive coaches have likely started plotting their counterpunches days in advance.

How did Notre Dame’s defense slow down Georgia Tech? Brian Kelly credited an aggressive game plan and continually changing looks. So while some were quick to wonder whether Notre Dame’s scheme changes were the biggest piece of the puzzle, it’s interesting to see how the Irish’s strategic decisions looked from the perspective of an option expert.

Over at “The Birddog” blog, Michael James utilizes his spread option expertise and takes a look at how the Irish defended Georgia Tech. His conclusion:

Did the Irish finally figure out the magic formula that will kill this gimmick high school offense for good?

Not exactly.

The Irish played a fairly standard 4-3 for a large chunk of the game. James thought Notre Dame’s move to a 3-5-3 was unique, though certainly not the first time anybody’s used that alignment.

But what stood out wasn’t necessarily the Xs and Os, but rather how much better Notre Dame’s personnel reacted to what they were facing.

Again, from the Birddog Blog:

The real story here, and what stood out to me when watching Notre Dame play Georgia Tech, was how much faster the Irish played compared to past years. I don’t mean that they are more athletic, although this is considered to be the best Notre Dame team in years. I mean that they reacted far more quickly to what they saw compared to what they’ve done in the past.

Usually, when a team plays a spread option offense, one of the biggest challenges that defensive coordinators talk about is replicating the offense’s speed and precision. It’s common to hear them say that it takes a series or two to adjust. That was most certainly not the case here.

James referenced our Media Day observations and seemed impressed by the decision to bring in walk-on Rob Regan to captain what’s now known as the SWAG team. And while VanGorder’s reputation as a mad scientist had many Irish fans wondering if the veteran coordinator cooked something up that hadn’t been seen, it was more a trait usually associated with Kelly that seems to have made the biggest difference.

“It wasn’t that the game plan was so amazing (although it was admittedly more complex and aggressive than we’ve seen out of other Notre Dame teams),” James wrote. “It was plain ol’ coachin’ ’em up.

“Notre Dame’s players were individually more prepared for what they’d see. Notre Dame is already extremely talented, but talented and prepared? You can’t adjust for that. That’s more challenging for Navy than any game plan.”

Irish prepared to take on the best Navy team in years


Brian Kelly opens every Tuesday press conference with compliments for an opponent. But this week, it was easy to see that his kind words for Navy were hardly lip service.

Ken Niumatalolo will bring his most veteran—and probably his most talented—group of Midshipmen into Notre Dame Stadium, looking to hand the Irish their first loss in the series since Kelly’s debut season in South Bend.

“Ken Niumatalolo has done an incredible job in developing his program and currently carrying an eight-game winning streak,” Kelly said. “I voted for them in USA Today Top 25 as a top-25 team. I think they’ve earned that. But their defense as well has developed. It’s played the kind of defense that I think a top 25 team plays.”

With nine months of option preparation, Notre Dame needs to feel confident about their efforts against Georgia Tech. Then again, the Midshipmen saw that game plan and likely have a few tricks in store.

As much as the Irish have focused their efforts on stopping Keenan Reynolds and the triple-option, Navy’s much-improved defense is still looking for a way to slow down a team that’s averaged a shade over 48 points a game against them the last four seasons.

Niumatalolo talked about that when asked about slowing down Will Fuller and Notre Dame’s skill players, an offense that’s averaged over 48 points a game during this four-game win streak.

“We’ve got to try our best to keep [Fuller] in front of us, that’s easier said than done,” Niumatalolo said. “We’ve got to play as close as we can without their guys running past us. I’ve been here a long time and we’re still trying to figure out how to do that.”


Navy heads to South Bend unbeaten, defeating former Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco‘s team just two Saturdays ago. And while Diaco raised a few eyebrows when he said Navy would be the team’s toughest test of the year (they already played a ranked Missouri team), the head of the UConn program couldn’t have been more effusive in his praise.

“I have been competing against Navy for some time and this is the best Navy team I have seen for, let’s say the last half-dozen years,” UConn coach Bob Diaco told the New Haven Register. “I could click on footage from three years ago and see a lion’s share of players who are playing right now in the game as freshmen and sophomores. They have a veteran group, a strong group, a talented group and they look like the stiffest competition among our first four opponents.”

As usual, there will be those who look at this game as the breather between Clemson and USC. That won’t be anybody inside The Gug. So as the Irish try to get back to their winning ways in front of a home crowd, a complete team effort is needed.

“I’ll take a win by one,” Kelly said Tuesday. “That would be fine with me.”