NCF Nation: Reggie Pegram

Here's a look at three keys for Purdue during Tuesday's Little Caesars Pizza Bowl matchup against Western Michigan in Detroit.

1. Establish the run without Bolden: Boilers leading rusher Ralph Bolden is out (torn ACL), but the team has other backs capable of attacking a Western Michigan defense ranked 107th nationally against the run. Akeem Shavers will be Purdue's primary ball carrier, and Jared Crank and Reggie Pegram also should get some touches. Purdue needs to take the pressure off of its quarterbacks and consistently move the chains against the Broncos. One potential problem area is the red zone, where Western Michigan plays its best defense (sixth nationally at 70 percent scoring conversions). Purdue has scored touchdowns on 30 of its 47 red zone opportunities, so the Bolden-less backfield must cash in when opportunities arise.

2. Contain Jordan White: The Western Michigan senior receiver leads the nation in both receptions per game (10.58) and receiving yards per game (137.2). White will be a factor, and quarterback Alex Carder will get him the ball, but Purdue must prevent the Broncos star from taking over the game. Boilers sophomore cornerback Ricardo Allen has covered several other standout receivers this season -- Notre Dame's Michael Floyd, Iowa's Marvin McNutt and Illinois' A.J. Jenkins among them -- and will be assigned to White for most of the game. Allen's aggressive style could result in big plays for Purdue or for Western Michigan, but he's the type of corner you want against a talent like White.

3. Gain the edge on special teams: Purdue's season has been largely defined by special-teams plays, both the good and the bad. A blocked kick has both cost Purdue a chance at victory (against Rice) and preserved a chance for an eventual win (against Ohio State). The Boilers need strong performances from specialists Carson Wiggs and Cody Webster in kicker-friendly Ford Field, and they must avoid breakdowns against Western Michigan, which has been solid on both punt returns and kick returns this season. If Wiggs converts some lengthy field goals, Webster puts Western Michigan in tough field-position situations and Raheem Mostert breaks off a long return or two, Purdue will be in good shape in what should be a close game.

Purdue offense must adjust again

December, 15, 2011
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Gary Nord's Christmas wish list is pretty short.

It contains one item: A season without major injuries to Purdue's key offensive players.

"I'd love to have that," Nord, the Boilers' third-year offensive coordinator, told ESPN.com this week. "I'm beginning to think that may never happen. I'm beginning to get a bit paranoid."

Paranoid but not panicky.

Nord and the Boilers have received zero luck on the injury front the past two seasons. Nada. Zilch.

[+] EnlargePurdue's Akeem Shavers
Brian Spurlock/US PRESSWIREAkeem Shavers will see an increased role in Purdue's bowl game as the Boilermakers play without Ralph Bolden.
In 2010, Purdue played most or all of the season without its top quarterback, top running back and top wide receiver. Weeks before this season's opener against Middle Tennessee, projected starting quarterback Rob Henry tore his ACL during a noncontact play in practice. Quarterback Robert Marve, who has suffered two ACL tears since arriving at Purdue, wasn't ready for the opener because of lingering knee soreness. So Caleb TerBush, academically ineligible for the 2010 campaign, moved into the starting role.

While the injury bug didn't strike as hard during the season, two starting offensive linemen (Justin Kitchens and Peters Drey) went down. Then, in the regular-season finale, top running back Ralph Bolden suffered a torn ACL, his second at Purdue and his third since his senior year of high school.

Bolden's injury puts Nord and the Boilers in an all-too familiar position heading into the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl against Western Michigan on Dec. 27.

The silver lining: Nord and his staff know how to make adjustments.

"He was probably our fastest guy, so we've lost tremendous speed," Nord said of Bolden. "He was also our best blocking back and he caught the ball out of the backfield very well. When you lose your leading rusher, it's never a good thing. The only bright side is if we had to lose anyone, we have more depth at the running back position than any position on our football team."

While Bolden leads Purdue in both carries (148) and rush yards (674), several other backs have contributed. Akeem Shavers is tied with Bolden for the team lead in rushing touchdowns (6), and seven players have recorded 17 or more carries.

Nord said Shavers will move into Bolden's role. Reggie Pegram and Jared Crank both should see their carries load increase in the bowl game.

Like Bolden, the 5-11, 203-pound Shavers boasts good speed, can catch the ball out of the backfield and has improved his blocking.

"I never really called the game any different when one was in versus the other one," Nord said. "A lot of times I didn’t know which one was in there because they'd roll in and out. If we didn't have Shavers, we would be a little more concerned."

Western Michigan struggles to defend the run (107th nationally), but has been stout in the red zone, tying for sixth nationally (70 percent scoring chances allowed). Bigger backs like Crank and Pegram could be key for Purdue in goal-line situations.

Nord plans to play both TerBush and Marve at quarterback, as he did for most of Big Ten play. While TerBush's ability to stay healthy has provided Purdue some much-needed continuity at quarterback, the offense, like the team, has been up and down.

"This is my third season here, and I've not had a guy started for us in spring that started for us in the fall," Nord said. "To give the offense a legit chance to be as productive as we would like to be, you need to have some continuity from the spring to the fall at quarterback spot.

"Hopefully, we can have that next spring."

Purdue runs away against Gophers

October, 8, 2011
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It's all over -- mercifully -- in West Lafayette, and for the second consecutive season, Purdue begins Big Ten play at 1-0.

Let's take a quick look at the first conference game of the day.

Purdue 45, Minnesota 17: Not surprisingly, the second half turned into a run fest for Purdue, which gave all of its reserve running backs carries and had some success. Akeem Hunt, Raheem Mostert and Reggie Pegram all got involved, and Mostert had a 25-yard touchdown run in the third quarter. Although it's tough to evaluate Purdue's offense against a flimsy Minnesota defense, the Boilers have the backs and the offensive line to run the ball consistently in Big Ten play. Purdue finished with 216 rush yards on 47 attempts.

Caleb TerBush hasn't been spectacular for Purdue, but he has been steady enough at quarterback to remain the starter. Coach Danny Hope wants to establish continuity at an injury-ravaged position, and TerBush's ability to stay healthy and hit on short passes makes him the best option going forward. Robert Marve gives Purdue another option, but TerBush should be the guy.

Although Purdue didn't have a turnover, the Boilers still are committing too many penalties (7) and major breakdowns (punt return allowed for TD). Eliminating these errors is critical if Hope's team wants to win more Big Ten games. It's also important for Purdue to start stretching the field more in the pass game.

Minnesota can't take away many positives from this one, but at least it reached the end zone for the first time in seven quarters when freshman Marcus Jones returned a punt 92 yards. The Gophers added a rushing touchdown in the fourth quarter, their first offensive touchdown since the fourth quarter of a Week 4 loss to FCS North Dakota State.

MarQueis Gray played the final three and a half quarters at quarterback for the Gophers, and while he's still a bit limited by his toe injury, he's healthy enough to play almost a full game. You have to assume Gray is Minnesota's top option going forward.

But quarterback is only one of many items on coach Jerry Kill's to-do list. He has a young team that lacks confidence in a lot of areas. Today marked a chance to boost morale, but Minnesota never gave itself much of a chance. Kill wants to build the program on concrete, not sand, but this team is clearly standing on shaky ground right now.
Beginning today, we're going to start ranking each position group in the Big Ten. These rankings will reflect the overall strength at each position, so depth matters as well as individual star power. Following each group ranking, we'll also give out our list of the top individual players at that position.

Let's start out with a look at the running back groups across the Big Ten.

[+] EnlargeMontee Ball and James White
AP Photo/Morry GashMontee Ball and James White did a lot of celebrating last season, as the duo combined for 32 TDs.
1. Wisconsin: No surprise at the top. Even with John Clay gone and Zach Brown transferring, the Badgers are loaded at tailback. They've still got junior Montee Ball, who finished four yards shy of 1,000 last season with 18 touchdowns, along with reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Year James White, who ran for 1,052 yards and 14 touchdowns. Throw in senior fullback Bradie Ewing and redshirt freshman Jeff Lewis, and the Badgers should be powerful on the ground yet again in 2011.

2. Michigan State: Other than Wisconsin, the Spartans have the best collection of experience and talent in the backfield. First-team All-Big Ten performer Edwin Baker ran for 1,201 yards and 13 scores last year. Le'Veon Bell, a 237-pound bruiser, complemented him as a true freshman with 605 yards and eight scores. Larry Caper is a capable veteran, and fifth-year senior Todd Anderson starts at fullback. The Spartans are deep and versatile in their rushing attack.

3. Ohio State: The Buckeyes might have earned a higher ranking if Dan Herron were eligible to play a full season. But with Herron (1,155 yards and 16 scores in '10) suspended for the first five games, Ohio State will need some youngsters to fill his shoes. The good news is that there are plenty of talented candidates. Jaamal Berry is the leading returning rusher outside of Herron, and he averaged 8.3 yards per carry in a limited role last season. Jordan Hall and Carlos Hyde will also battle for more playing time, while redshirt freshman Rod Smith could emerge as the No. 1 tailback after an impressive offseason. Zach Boren is back at fullback. Things may be in flux in Columbus, but you can almost always count on a good running game from the Buckeyes.

[+] EnlargeNebraska's Rex Burkhead
Eric Francis/Getty ImagesJunior Rex Burkhead averaged 5.5 yards per carry last season and scored seven TDs.
4. Nebraska: The Cornhuskers led the Big 12 in rushing last season with 247.6 yards per game on the ground, good for ninth in the FBS. Leading rusher Roy Helu Jr. is gone, but junior Rex Burkhead returns after a 951-yard campaign. He will occasionally line up at receiver or take snaps in the Wildcat. The Cornhuskers lack experience behind him but are expecting big contributions from incoming freshmen Aaron Green and Amer Abdullah. ESPN Recruiting ranked Green as the No. 11 player overall in the Class of 2011.

5. Penn State: Yes, the school's all-time leading rusher has moved on, as Evan Royster graduated. But the Nittany Lions still feel confident about their running game, which should be led by sophomore Silas Redd. He ran for 461 yards and 5.7 yards per carry as a true freshman, showing a physical style. Senior Stephfon Green will be asked to take on a larger role, and Brandon Beachum is back after missing last season with a knee injury. Joe Suhey and Michael Zordich are productive players at the fullback spot.

6. Purdue: The Boilermakers' stock in this chart could go up if Ralph Bolden successfully returns from injury. So far, so good for Bolden, who was a second-team All-Big Ten performer in 2009. Rob Henry led the team in rushing last year with 547 yards, but fullback Dan Dierking graduated. Junior college transfer Akeem Shavers got a lot of carries this spring and should contribute, and Reggie Pegram also is in the mix.

7. Iowa: Running back depth is a serious issue for Kirk Ferentz and the Hawkeyes. Adam Robinson, who would have been the leading returning running back in the Big Ten in terms of yards per game, was dismissed from the team following a December arrest. Marcus Coker could emerge as a superstar, however, after starting four of Iowa's final five games as a true freshman. He was the offensive MVP of the Insight Bowl with 219 rushing yards on 33 carries and has drawn comparisons to former Doak Walker Award winner Shonn Greene. There's virtually no proven experience behind him, though, and three-year starting fullback Brett Morse is no longer around.

8. Michigan: If only we could count Denard Robinson as a running back. Brady Hoke plans to cut down on Shoelace's carries, which means the Wolverines' tailbacks will get more of a chance to shine. The question is who will step up. Senior Michael Shaw and junior Vincent Smith split time as starters last season, while Stephen Hopkins and Michael Cox are in the mix for more carries. Can celebrated recruit Justice Hayes contribute right away?

9. Illinois: Mikel Leshoure's dash to the NFL left the Illini with uncertainty at running back. Senior Jason Ford, the most likely successor, sat out much of spring ball with a hurt knee, while Troy Pollard's promising spring was cut short by a concussion. Incoming freshman Donovonn Young will get a look this fall.

10. Northwestern: Like Nebraska and Michigan, Northwestern relied on its quarterback -- in this case Dan Persa-- for a heavy chunk of the rushing yards. Mike Trumpy came on late in the year as a freshman and solidified his starting spot with a strong spring. Sophomore Adonis Smith, senior Jacob Schmidt and junior Tyris Jones will fight for carries behind him.

11. Minnesota: There was healthy competition at tailback this spring with a mixture of veterans and fresh faces. DeLeon Eskridge led the team last year with 698 rushing yards, while Duane Bennett added 529. They're being pushed by redshirt freshmen Donnell Kirkwood and Lamonte Edwards. New coach Jerry Kill will look to improve on the Gophers' paltry 3.6 yards per carry average last season. This is a group that could make a major move up the rankings.

12. Indiana: New Hoosiers coach Kevin Wilson has a challenge in figuring out this group. Three of the top candidates for the starting tailback job, Darius Willis, Antonio Banks and Xavier Whitaker, all suffered season-ending knee injuries in 2010 and missed spring practice. IU's leading rusher last season finished with just 352 yards. Nick Turner and Matt Perez got the bulk of the reps in the spring. Perhaps Wilson's high-tempo offense will improve the stats for Indiana ball carriers.

Nuggets from Purdue practice

August, 27, 2010
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I've had the chance to review the Big Ten Network's preview of Purdue, as Dave Revsine, Gerry DiNardo and Howard Griffith visited Boilermakers' practice last week.

Here are some quick notes and observations:
  • DiNardo raved about the changes head coach Danny Hope has brought to Purdue, particularly from a recruiting standpoint. Although he called the Boilers a "developmental team" through the first half of the year, he's really excited about the future. And the schedule works in Purdue's favor, as the team opens with a big game at Notre Dame before facing several manageable foes. "This schedule is their best friend," DiNardo said.
  • It was hard not to come away extremely impressed with quarterback Robert Marve. The Miami transfer has a big-time arm, and he showcased it on several throws. He fired a bullet to Antavian Edison in team drills and also threaded a pass to former quarterback Justin Siller. The BTN crew all talked about his good body language, and it's clear that Marve is having a great time so far at Purdue. "I love the spread offense," said Marve, who has cut his hair since Big Ten media days. "I love throwing the ball 40 times a game."
  • Marve ran the offense extremely well during team drills. It was interesting to see Purdue operate exclusively with a silent cadence, but there weren't many penalties. "Danny Hope talks about discipline a lot, and it’s evident that it’s worked," DiNardo said.
  • Now-ineligible quarterback Caleb TerBush was still practicing at the time of the BTN's visit, but DiNardo noted that he might not be the team's No. 2 quarterback. "Rob Henry got a lot of reps today," Griffith said. That's a good sign because Henry is now Marve's backup.
  • Offensive line, running back and defensive back are Purdue's three main areas of concern, and the line clearly stood out in this practice. Mammoth guard Ken Plue seems to be moving better at a svelte 333 pounds, and DiNardo listed tackle Nick Mondek, a converted defensive lineman, as his under-the-radar player this fall. "They’ve closed the gap more than any other position," DiNardo said. "This is the unit that's furthest along out of the three that needed to be rebuilt."
  • The defensive backs had their ups and downs, but the picture is beginning to take shape. Revsine noted that Albert Evans and Logan Link likely will enter the fall as the starting safeties, and freshman cornerback Ricardo Allen has made an immediate impression. Allen defended wideout Gary Bush well in one drill, and drew praise from both Griffith and head coach Danny Hope. Junior college transfer Mike Eargle also should see time at corner, and DiNardo likes Charlton Williams.
  • DiNardo was down on the running backs, and for good reason. Ralph Bolden will miss at least part of the season and possibly all of it, and Al-Terek McBurse practiced with his lower left leg wrapped. True freshman Reggie Pegram impressed the BTN crew, aside from a near fumble in team drills, and has taken advantage of increased opportunities. Pegram has nice size at 5-11, 222. "He would be the starter or [the backup] if McBurse was [healthy]," DiNardo said. It's also worth nothing that Purdue will incorporate the fullback more this year in the offense.
  • As expected, Keith Smith and the other wide receivers looked good. Smith is a superb route runner, Siller seems to be catching on well and Edison looked very impressive, hauling in a tipped pass during one drill and sitting down nicely in the zone in another. Edison should contribute at slot receiver. "No one's going to be able to double-cover anyone," Smith said.
  • DiNardo didn't feel the defensive line or linebackers were overly physical. Star end Ryan Kerrigan beat Mondek on several plays, and freshman tackle Bruce Gaston Jr. made a good impression on the BTN crew. "He’s a big, physical guy," DiNardo said. "He's just once example of how Danny Hope is changing the talent level on defense." Middle linebacker Dwayne Beckford stood out the most among that group.
  • Hope talked about the upgrade in team speed, saying that 18 players have 4.5 speed or better, as opposed to only about six when his staff first arrived. He expects to play quite a few freshmen as well as the juco arrivals. "We could have as many as 10 new faces on the field this year," he said.

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