Purdue coach Darrell Hazell is in his first season at the school. In October, he changed the defense from a 4-3 to a 3-4. Purdue has surrendered 114 points in the three games thereafter. Sketchy? Sure, it is. This is the first stage of a total overhaul and, of course, there's a "please excuse our mess" sign all over this. The Boilermakers play three true freshmen – Evan Panfil, Ra’Zahn Howard and Jake Replogle -- up front. Senior Bruce Gaston (6-2, 310) is a name you'll recognize. He's an end in this new 3-4, which gave Iowa fits against Wisconsin (3.44 yards a carry) last week. Gaston has 6.5 tackles for loss and three sacks.
The Boilers have allowed 170 yards-plus in six of eight games. Last week, Ohio State rushed for 345 on 41 attempts, an average of 8.4 yards a carry. Prior to the 3-4 switch, the Boilermakers had given up an average of 42.3 points and 443.3 total yards. Purdue might have a better chance to see if the 3-4 was worth the change in the next four weeks, when it faces three teams ranked sixth or lower in the Big Ten in total offense.
Purdue often morphs into a 3-3-5 look, using the two hybrid outside linebackers/safeties to cheat inside against the run and to keep the offense confused in the zone read game. Against the Hawkeyes, it won't be the zone read as much as the zone scheme blocking.
This segues nicely into the Hawkeyes, who sit ninth in the conference in total offense (385.6 yards a game). Iowa is coming off matchups against the conference's heavyweight defenses in three of the last four weeks, so the numbers are bruised (after going for 400-plus yards in four of the first five games, Iowa has been held to 305 or less in three of the last four).
This week, Kirk Ferentz, the O-line and running backs all acknowledged the running game needs to be better. In September, the Hawkeyes averaged 244.4 rushing yards a game and ranked No. 19 in the nation. Now, Iowa is at 180.1 and No. 56. Purdue knows the inside and outside zone rushing plays are coming. Can it stop them?
Purdue still has senior Ricardo Allen, who's been consistently one of the better corners in the Big Ten in his career. Two sophomores (safety Anthony Brown and corner Frankie Williams) line up in the secondary. Last week, the Boilers failed to put pressure on Ohio State quarterbacks and were carved. Buckeye quarterbacks hit 77.8 percent of their passes (28 of 36) with five TDs and one Allen interception.
Along with the 3-4, the Boilers have made a nickel back an element in the defense (with a cover 2 or cover 3). Purdue has played a lot of extra-defensive back formations the last few weeks, with corners Allen and Antonine Lewis at nickel. Freshman LeRoy Clark started at cornerback. Ohio State had success isolating a tight end on a safety. This week, Purdue should get safety Landon Feichter back after he suffered a broken leg Sept. 7. He led Purdue last season with four interceptions.
With a cheat toward the run, Purdue has been vulnerable against the pass. Can Iowa take advantage?
The Hawkeyes face a few key questions in the passing game. Quarterback Jake Rudock left last week's loss to Wisconsin in the third quarter with a sprained knee. This could limit Iowa's play-action game, which has been on and off. It worked well out of a three-tight end set. Last week, there wasn't much of a payoff, mostly because the running game wasn't particularly threatening.
The other question is what does Iowa do well right now on offense? The answer this week might simply be "Purdue defense," but really, this offense is starting to dangle on whatever cliff that the 2012 offense tumbled off. The passing game, however, isn't that far gone, yet. Iowa is 86th in the nation at 6.6 yards (the last three weeks, it's been 5.9). Last season, the Hawkeyes finished 116th in the nation with 5.8.
The pass-catching corps was unsteady last week with five drops. Junior wide receiver Damond Powell leads Iowa with 291 receiving yards on just 12 catches. Junior wide receiver Kevonte Martin-Manley leads the Hawkeyes with 34 receptions. That's an odd stat and speaks to the lack of explosiveness (Iowa is 94th nationally with 63 pass plays of 10-plus yards) that Iowa's passing game has struggled with the last two seasons.
First-year coach Darrell Hazell hired John Shoop as offensive coordinator. The offensive coordinator at North Carolina for the past five seasons, Shoop junked the Boilermakers' spread offense and installed a pro-style attack. The players clearly are enduring growing pains.
Purdue's problems start with the underwhelming performance of the offensive line, which includes two redshirt freshman and a sophomore. Purdue quarterbacks have had little time to throw, and holes have come few and far between for Purdue’s running backs. The Boilers average just 70.0 rushing yards a game, that's No. 123 in the nation (2.48 yards a carry) and have allowed 27 sacks. Purdue features a pair of undersized running backs in Akeem Hunt (5-9, 184) and Dalyn Dawkins (5-9, 175). They have yet to show every-down capabilities.
After allowing just one 100-yard plus rushing performance in the first five weeks, the Hawkeyes have been dinged for 200-plus rushing yards in each of the last three games. Against Ohio State, Northwestern and Wisconsin, the Hawkeyes have allowed 238.6 yards a game on 49.5 carries. The 40 carries number is meaningful. In games where opposing teams have rushed 40-plus times, the Hawkeyes are 8-19 since 2007.
Iowa has the better personnel here and the Hawkeyes are healthy up front, except for senior DE Dominic Alvis. Tackles Carl Davis and Louis Trinca-Pasat continue to be the pistons in the middle while ends Drew Ott and Mike Hardy. Hardy remains under the gun. He's started the last two games in Alvis' absence. Hardy was caught out of position on James White's 11-yard TD run in the fourth quarter last week. Otherwise, he's given what coaches have expected, using his 275 pounds to set an edge to the defense.
Shoop's pro-style offense uses multiple backs and tight ends. It also called for a change at QB. Dual-threat quarterback Rob Henry was an effective spread QB, using his 4.4 speed. The new offense forced Henry to make throws he wasn't capable of making. Four and a half games into the season, the Purdue staff pulled the plug and put true freshman Danny Etling in as the starter.
Since, Purdue has run more four-wide, five-wide shotgun looks. Etling is a Terre Haute, Ind., native who grew up wanting to be the QB at Purdue. He has a strong arm and has shown leadership under fire. The numbers are mushy. Etling, who was offered by Iowa last winter, has a 46.9 completion percentage and just three TD passes to five interceptions. This is a "better days" move and that's what Hazell is pointing at right now.
Freshman corner Desmond King appears to be on the road to being a four-year starter. King replaced sophomore Jordan Lomax after he suffered a hamstring injury in week 1 and hasn't budged from the spot. Senior corner B.J. Lowery leads the Hawkeyes with 11 pass breakups, including three the last two games.
Etling has been sacked 19 times in 3 1/2 games, including six last week in a 56-0 loss to Ohio State in which he completed 13 of 29 for 89 yards (3 yards an attempt). Freshman wide receiver Deangelo Yancey leads the Boilers with 327 yards on 15 receptions. Iowa will probably play corners in man coverage. Purdue's receivers are young and not strong enough to separate.
Senior punter Cody Webster and Hunt are the standouts of the special teams. Webster, who averaged 42.3 yards per punt as a junior, is at 44.7 yards this season, leading the Big Ten. Webster has dropped 18 of his league-leading 49 punts inside his opponent’s 20-yard line with no touchbacks. He averaged 49.5 yards on his eight punts against Ohio State last week.
Hunt returned a kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown in Week 2 against Indiana State and is averaging 26.4 yards on 16 returns (sixth in the Big Ten). Raheem Mostert, third among active FBS kick returners with a 29.2-yard career average, has just seven returns this season. Kicker Paul Griggs has made just 5 of 10 field goals this season. Purdue's punt cover unit is No. 2 in the Big Ten (2.94 yards a return) and its kick coverage is No. 12 (27.3 yards per), that's last and one spot behind Iowa (25.3).
Martin-Manley still leads the Big Ten with 21.0 yards on 12 punt returns. He's returned three punts the last two weeks for 20 yards. Senior kicker Mike Meyer has made 5 of his last 6 attempts, including 3 of 3 last week.
Iowa has now gone three games without being fooled by a fake punt.
1) Bowl game I — Iowa can reach bowl eligibility with its sixth win today. This news was hardly given the red-carpet treatment this week in the Hayden Fry Football Complex. First, the 4-8 gut bomb Iowa dropped in 2012 is fresh in players' memories. As muddied as Purdue's numbers are this season, the Hawkeyes aren't in position to assume victory. They know this. Also, this program has won six games in its history. It won 11 games in 2009. Eleven wins are good, six wins is mediocre. Bowl eligibility would be treated with respect, but a victory at Purdue won't be a sign of turning any corners. The positive there, those wins could still be out there for the Hawkeyes this season against Michigan and at Nebraska.
2) Bowl game II — Purdue was ravaged by Ohio State last week, 56-0. Nebraska crushed the Boilers. Michigan State sat on their chest, 14-0. The Boilers have scored just one TD the last three games and haven't run a play in an opponent's red zone (inside the 20-yard line) since Sept. 28 against Northern Illinois. This program has been battered under its first-year coach. You could argue the Boilers are entering the "winnable" part of its schedule. There's no postseason bowl game for 1-7 Purdue, but the next four games have to look like bowls -- Iowa, at Penn State, Illinois and at Indiana. Win any and the payoff would be tremendous for a young program. And don't forget, it's Iowa-Purdue for the foreseeable future. Both teams will be in the Big Ten's west division beginning next season.
3) 40-watt bulb — If the weather is dreary, look out, Iowa. Ross-Ade Stadium is a big bowl that hasn't been full of Purdue fans this season. The Boilers have hosted Nebraska and Ohio State. "Hosted" means more like "were overrun by" Nebraska and Ohio State fans. If the weather is rough, the crowd will be small. The energy the stadium will project might lull the Hawkeyes into a coma. This happens. When Iowa lost at Indiana in 2006, the stands were maybe a quarter full at the beginning of the game. At the end, it was maybe half full of jubilant Hoosiers fans. No, stadium energy doesn't block or tackle, but, as we discovered with last week's "Pom-Pom Problem" at Kinnick Stadium (and don't forget the Brian Ferentz tweet on the topic), it carries a little weight.
The offense can establish a running game. Yes, Purdue's numbers here are abysmal, but Iowa's running game has been broken for four weeks. The problems against Michigan State, Ohio State and Wisconsin were legit. Those schools field among the best rush defenses in the country. Northwestern's rush defense is middle-of-the-road and it held the Hawkeyes to 136 yards. Iowa needs a push and it has to come from its best offensive asset, the offensive line.
If it can find a sustainable tempo and force the issue on either side of the line of scrimmage. If the Boilermakers stop Iowa's running game, that will build momentum. They will have beaten back Iowa's perceived strength. That kind of success feeds off itself. It won't help the offense block. That's going to be the mountain for Purdue. Iowa's defense has kept the Hawkeyes in games against some of the conference's best offenses. Purdue is going to have to be stout on defense and hope for something crazy on offense.
PREDICTION: Iowa 10, Purdue 3