NCF Nation: Ryan Russell

Purdue Boilermakers season preview

August, 19, 2014
Aug 19
10:30
AM ET

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Previewing the 2014 season for the Purdue Boilermakers.

2013 overall record: 1-11 (0-8 Big Ten)

Key returnees: Danny Etling, QB; Justin Sinz, TE; Ryan Russell, DE; Frankie Williams, DB; Raheem Mostert RB/KR.

Key losses: Ricardo Allen, CB; Bruce Gaston, DT; Greg Latta, DE; RT Justin Kitchens, RT; Kevin Pamphile, LT.

Instant impact newcomer:

Projected starters

Offense: QB: Danny Etling, So., 6-2, 221; RB: Raheem Mostert, Sr., 5-11, 190; WR: DeAngelo Yancey, So., 6-2, 218; WR: Cameron Posey, So., 6-1, 182; TE: Justin Sinz, Sr., 6-4, 235; WR: Danny Anthrop, Jr., 6-0, 191; LT: Jack De Boef, Sr., 6-7, 290; LG: Jason King, So., 6-4, 309; C: Robert Kugler, Jr., 6-3, 298; RG: Jordan Roos, So., 6-4, 312; RT: J.J. Prince, So., 6-6, 302.

Defense: DE: Ryan Russell, Sr., 6-5, 273; DT: Jake Replogle, So., 6-5, 269; NT: Ra'Zahn Howard, So., 6-3, 323; LB: Jimmy Herman, So., 6-4, 230; LB: Jalani Phillips, Sr., 6-4, 265; LB: Sean Robinson, 6-3, 239; LB: Joe Gilliam, Sr., 6-1, 230; CB: Antoine Lewis, Sr., 5-10, 186; S: Frankie Williams, 5-9, 189; S: Landon Feichter, Sr., 6-0, 192; CB: Anthony Brown, Jr., 5-11, 195.

[+] EnlargeDanny Etling
AP Photo/Doug McSchoolerDanny Etling threw for 1,690 yards and 10 touchdowns last season.
Specialists: P: Thomas Meadows, Jr., 6-0, 183; K: Paul Griggs, Jr., 6-1, 197.

Biggest question mark: Picking just one for a team coming off a train-wreck season like Purdue did a year ago is a challenge, because there is so much improvement to be made across the board. But if the Boilermakers are going to start threatening anybody in the Big Ten, they're going to have to find a consistent way to move the ball. Whether that means getting Mostert and his dangerous speed more involved for a rushing attack that gained just 805 yards collectively or trusting Etling's arm to air it out without turning the ball over so much doesn't make much difference. One way or the other, Purdue is going to need to score more than 15 points per game if it's going to climb out of the cellar.

Most important game: Oct. 4 at Illinois. Purdue is still a long way from even thinking about contending in the Big Ten as Darrell Hazell reshapes the program, but it can certainly show progress by climbing the ladder against the presumptive bottom half of the league. With a mostly manageable slate outside of the league, Purdue has a chance to post three wins in September to build some momentum and put a potential bowl bid in reach, but beating a team like the Illini on the road would likely be a necessity to keep that possibility alive.

Upset special: Nov. 22 against Northwestern. By late November, a team that already has plenty of experience elsewhere on the roster should have a quarterback with enough game reps to be considered a veteran. And if Etling is able to stretch defenses enough to open rushing lanes for a game-breaking weapon like Mostert, Purdue could make a late run to bowl eligibility by exposing a Northwestern defense that has question marks of its own to give Hazell another sign that his program is heading in the right direction.

Key stat: Purdue opened Big Ten play last season by getting outscored 158-17 during the first half of league play. That incredibly lopsided margin could have been worse if not for a surprisingly low-scoring loss to eventual conference champion Michigan State, which won only 14-0 at home against the Boilermakers.

What they're wearing: The Boilermakers will truly be representing the student body when they take the field on Sept. 27 against Iowa, debuting a helmet that will have pictures of students and season-ticket holders wearing team gear on the sticker. After the game, Purdue is planning to send out a digital copy of the "Motion P" logo with the approximately 1,000 photos the program is hoping to receive on it.

Team's top Twitter follows: Sophomore offensive lineman Jason King (@Jason72King) provides his view from the trenches and has been updating fans on training camp. Tight end Justin Sinz (@JSinz84) isn't afraid to weigh in on other sports, and recently informed his followers about his graduation. Defensive end Ryan Russell (@RKRelentless) is always good for some inspiration, and the official team account (@BoilerFootball) provides no shortage of behind-the-scenes footage.

They said it: "Obviously we didn't finish as well as we'd like to last year. There's a lot of things for improvement. But I think this is the time where you rip off the rearview mirror and you take a look at what's in front of you and all the things we need to do to be successful in this 2014 season." -- Purdue coach Darrell Hazell.

Stats & Information projection: 3.56 wins.

Wise guys over/under: 3.5 wins.

Big Ten blog projection: 4 wins. The rebuilding job is going to take time, and Purdue hasn't made up much ground on the rest of the conference quite yet. The Boilermakers should be able to put themselves in position to top that over/under from the wise guys thanks to a modest, manageable nonconference schedule -- excluding the matchup with Notre Dame in Indianapolis. It will come down to knocking off another program trying to find the way up in the Big Ten, a team like Illinois or in-state rival Indiana, if Purdue is going to get over the mark. If the program is truly taking a step forward this season, it should win one of those league games.
CHICAGO -- Purdue tailback Raheem Mostert nodded. He knew the stat.

The Boilermakers averaged just 14.9 points per game last season. Only four teams in the FBS fared worse. But Mostert just smiled Monday when asked about the offense's ceiling this season.

"Thirty-something points a game," Mostert said during Big Ten media days. "We feel really confident that we're going to score a bunch of points on opponents."

Easy follow-up question: Are you crazy?

"No, I'm not crazy at all," Mostert said with a laugh. "Just confident."

Despite a disastrous 2013 season, confidence was the theme of the day for the Boilermakers, as player after player talked about how Purdue was moving forward this season. Defensive end Ryan Russell even made mention of Big Ten title hopes, while linebacker Sean Robinson praised the freshmen along with sophomore quarterback Danny Etling.

That swagger came as a bit of a surprise considering Purdue's lone win last season came against FCS opponent Indiana State. The Boilermakers haven't beaten an FBS squad since Nov. 24, 2012, against Indiana. But players insisted those struggles are in the past.

"Last year, we didn't know what we were doing on offense. We didn't understand what was going on," Mostert said. "Now that we have that year and we've settled on what plays work, that's really going to help us in the long run -- understanding what we have to do and what our jobs have to do for us to score a lot of points."

The offense was admittedly young and inexperienced last season. Etling and his top target, DeAngelo Yancey, were true freshmen. And it didn't help that coach Darrell Hazell was trying to turn around a program in Year 1. But this season Purdue is hoping to take a step forward -- and Mostert isn't shy about aiming a little high.

"The confidence level is through the roof -- we're looking forward to scoring a lot of points," Mostert said. "We didn't have that last year."
Gerad Parker and his fellow Purdue assistants need no tutorial on what the state of Texas means to the Boilers' program.

They get a reminder every time they turn on the television every Sunday during the NFL season. Former Purdue coach Joe Tiller built his program largely on recruiting the Lone Star State, and the centerpiece of Tiller's efforts plays quarterback for the New Orleans Saints.

"We knew from what Coach Tiller was able to do here at Purdue," Parker, Purdue's recruiting coordinator and tight ends coach, recently told ESPN.com. "The players that came out of [Texas], the first one obviously being You Know Who in Mr. [Drew] Brees. Those guys did a good job in Texas."

[+] EnlargeDarrell Hazell
AP Photo/J.D. PooleyNew Purdue coach Darrell Hazell and his staff will be making recruiting talent out of Texas a priority.
Purdue's 2000 team that won the Big Ten and reached the Rose Bowl included 12 Texans on the roster, including Brees, first-team All-Big Ten linebacker Akin Ayodele, linebacker Landon Johnson and safety Ralph Turner. The Boilers currently have five Texans on the roster, including starting defensive end Ryan Russell.

Those numbers could increase under the new staff. Although head coach Darrell Hazell and several of his assistants have ties to the East Coast and, of course, to Ohio, Texas will be a priority for Purdue's recruiting in the coming years. Parker had two assistants each spend a week recruiting in Texas during the post-spring evaluation period.

Purdue's lone commitment so far for the 2014 -- wide receiver Trae Hart -- hails from Texas. The Boilers are pursuing other Texas prospects like quarterback David Blough, a Carrolton native recently selected for the Elite 11 finals. Blough learned he had made the finals when Brees tweeted about it.

"Texas is another state that has great football, great tradition, those kids grow up playing, they're well-coached" Parker said. "So we wanted to get back and put our feet in the ground and obviously get some kids from that area."

Purdue's previous coaching staff didn't hide its preference for Florida recruits, and there are 19 Floridians on the current roster and five in the incoming recruiting class. Although the team's recruiting map will spread out a little more under Hazell and his assistants, they aren't going to neglect the Sunshine State.

Three of Hazell's assistants -- offensive line coach Jim Bridge, defensive line coach Rubin Carter and secondary coach Jon Heacock -- all have recruited Florida for years and will continue to do so.

"We've got Florida still covered, there's no question about it," Parker said. "With the players we have currently, who are all pretty good players, we want to keep that tradition alive, and the only way you do that is continue to sign kids from that area."
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- Purdue's reputation for producing great quarterbacks is recognized throughout college football, as names like Brees, Griese, Herrmann, Dawson and Everett are linked to the program.

But there's another position where Purdue has put together a similar track record of excellence: defensive end. The Boilers' D-end tradition isn't as well-known as its quarterback heritage, but consider the names who have come through the program in the past two decades: Roosevelt Colvin, Chike Okeafor, Akin Ayodele, Shaun Phillips, Ray Edwards, Rob Ninkovich, Cliff Avril, Anthony Spencer and Ryan Kerrigan, the 2010 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and a unanimous All-American.

All nine players went on to the NFL, and several like Kerrigan and Spencer are in starring roles. Purdue has called itself the Cradle of Quarterbacks for years. It now also uses the label Den of Defensive Ends.

Boilers junior defensive end Ryan Russell needs no education on the subject.

[+] EnlargeRyan Russell
AP Photo/Damen Jackson via Triple Play New MediaRyan Russell hopes to be next in the long line of disruptive defensive linemen developed at Purdue.
"Very aware," Russell told ESPN.com. "A lot of those guys come back, Roosevelt Colvin, I had a chance to talk to Cliff Avril when we went to the Little Caesars [Pizza] Bowl in Detroit. I knew Ryan Kerrigan and he came back and talked to us.

"It's a big tradition, and I'm hoping definitely to uphold it."

After losing defensive tackle Kawann Short, a second-round pick in last month's NFL draft, Purdue is looking for the next star to emerge along a line that underperformed in 2012. The Boilers finished 78th nationally in both rush yards allowed (182.3 YPG) and sacks recorded (1.69 per game).

Along with veteran defensive tackle Bruce Gaston, Russell is viewed as a potential major contributor up front this fall. The 6-foot-5, 275-pound junior will enter his third season as a starter and his first under Purdue's new coaching staff. After recording 33 tackles and making 11 starts as a redshirt freshman in 2011, Russell had 37 tackles, including 8.5 for loss and four sacks, last season.

"He’s got a power-to-speed ratio that's good for him to be a factor," defensive coordinator Greg Hudson said. "He can play the run, but he's got that end build and speed where he can also affect the passer.

"He's got that prototype look and ability."

Russell might look the part, but like many of his teammates, he needs to get stronger. His speed and lower-body strength are in good shape, and he has fully recovered from knee and ankle injuries, but his upper body "isn’t really where I would like it to be."

After practicing alongside Kerrigan as a true freshman in 2010, Russell understands the gains he needs to make.

"Ryan Kerrigan was one of the strongest people I've ever met," Russell said, "so when that's the standard with the Big Ten, Purdue defensive linemen and defensive ends, we definitely and myself personally have a long way to go."

Kerrigan led the country in tackles for loss (26) in 2010, finished third in sacks (12.5) and tied for second in forced fumbles (5). Russell observed firsthand the relentless motor that drove the Boilers' star.

When one pass-rush move didn't work, Kerrigan would simply move to the next and the next until the whistle blew.

"Pass-rushing a lot of the time is a mentality, going 110 percent, outworking somebody all the time, every play," Russell said. "[Defensive line coach Rubin Carter] always says, 'If you're not going to make the play, they will.' So just always having that mentality that you’re going to get there is a big thing.

"Your get-off and your motor is the engine that runs the train."

Russell is taking well to the new staff, the faster practice pace and the new defensive scheme under Hudson. He has worked extensively with Carter, a former longtime NFL assistant, on using his hands more effectively to fend off offensive linemen.

Hudson, who last season had a front-row seat for one of the nation's best defensive lines as a Florida State defensive assistant, shapes his system around Russell and the other down linemen.

"We will do things to turn him loose," Hudson said. "We cater to the D-line. We're going to make sure they know what’s going on, there's no confusion and they're happy. And when the ball's snapped, we say, 'Take off, break off.'

"That's what we want them to do."

Russell continues to follow Kerrigan with the Washington Redskins, and he also studies the other Purdue greats he has met like Avril (Seattle Seahawks), Ninkovich (New England Patriots) and Spencer (Dallas Cowboys).

"You have a common ground," Russell said. "They started the same place you started, and what they're doing is the goal, so you’re trying to see what they're doing to get to the goal you all share."

Spring game recap: Purdue

April, 15, 2013
4/15/13
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Our look at a big Saturday around the Big Ten wraps up with Purdue's Black and Gold Game at Ross-Ade Stadium. The Boilers wrapped up their first spring session under new head coach Darrell Hazell with an 89-play scrimmage, and the Black team prevailed 14-0.

Check out coverage of the game here and here and here.

Star of the game: Running back Akeem Hunt. The junior cemented himself as Purdue's top running back during the first 14 spring practices and finished spring ball with a flourish, rushing for 134 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries. Linebacker Will Lucas (forced fumble, tackle for loss, pass breakup) and defensive end Ryan Russell (sack, forced fumble, pass breakup) also had good days.

How it went down: The Black team looked much stronger on paper entering the game, and although it only won by two touchdowns, its performance was pretty decisive. Sloppy play plagued both offenses for much of the game as there were five combined turnovers (three interceptions, two fumbles) plus another giveaway on special teams.

Ball security will continue to be a sticking point for Hazell, who put up a sign that reads: "The Ball is the Program" in Purdue's team meeting room.

"You can win a lot of football games if you don't turn it over, and one of the key components that leaves no doubt is the player who is hanging onto the football gets the football back to the official," Hazell said. "That's one of the things I was taking notes on. I think there were six situations when we didn't. I wanted to remind the guys that's very important. It may not seem like it. Over the course of the season, that's going to get you an extra two or three wins."

Hunt's big day on the ground is a good sign for an offense still looking for a quarterback to emerge. Senior Rob Henry completed 6 of 9 pass attempts for 75 yards and a touchdown but had three consecutive incomplete passes on a first-and-goal situation from the 4-yard line that resulted in no points after a missed field goal. Freshman early enrollee Danny Etling, who has emerged as the top challenger to Henry, completed 5 of 7 attempts for 54 yards with an interception.

Both Henry and Etling played for the Black squad, giving Austin Appleby an opportunity to improve his stock in the competition. But Appleby struggled for the Gold team, completing just 6 of 18 pass attempts for 52 yards with an interception and a lost fumble.

Henry comes out of the spring as Purdue's top quarterback, and though he has impressed Hazell with his play and his leadership, the senior is "definitely in the battle."

Hazell placed some restrictions on both the offense (formations) and the defense (number of blitzes), as he wanted to see both units in their base sets. Bright spots included tight end Gabe Holmes (four receptions, 74 yards), and defensive end Michael Rouse III (interception, two pass breakups).

"I really like the direction that we're heading," Hazell said. "We're working hard and we're understanding how to compete in some tough situations. Obviously, there's a lot of work to be done before we open up the season against Cincinnati, but we're understanding what it takes to be a better football team."

Purdue's spring game will air on the Big Ten Network tonight at 9 p.m. ET.

Heart of Dallas Bowl keys: Purdue

December, 30, 2012
12/30/12
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Three keys for Purdue in Tuesday's Heart of Dallas Bowl against Oklahoma State:

1. Dominate the trenches: Purdue's strength this season was supposed to be its defensive line, led by All-Big Ten defensive tackle Kawann Short. When Short and others dealt with injuries in the middle of the season, the Boilermakers got steamrolled in league play. Not coincidentally, the team won its final three games after those guys started to get healthy, and a month-long break should have the defensive line in its best shape since early September. The 315-pound Short can change a game when he's blowing up the middle of the line of scrimmage, and fellow tackle Bruce Gaston is an underrated force. Ryan Russell is a promising young pass-rusher who has also healed from some bumps and bruises. Purdue absolutely must disrupt the timing and rhythm of Oklahoma State's high-powered offense while keeping running back Joseph Randle in check. If they can do that, the Boilers will have a chance.

2. Run, run, run the ball: Akeem Shavers was the MVP of last year's Little Caesars Pizza Bowl with 149 rushing yards. While Oklahoma State's defense is much better than Western Michigan's was a year ago, Shavers ended this season with 225 rushing yards in his final two games. Ralph Bolden is also expected back following a late-season hamstring injury, and Akeem Hunt gives the team a home run hitter with his sprinter's speed. Purdue has to get its running game charged up to help out quarterback Robert Marve and, more importantly, keep the Cowboys' offense on the sidelines.

3. Stay clean: One of the reasons Danny Hope didn't make it to this bowl game is that the Boilers often played sloppily under their former head coach. Penalties, turnovers and special teams blunders always seemed to rear their heads at the wrong times. That can't happen in a game like this, in which Purdue is such a huge underdog. Marve gave the team a spark when he was thrust into the starting lineup, but he still has a tendency to force throws into coverage. He and the Boilers can't afford to give Oklahoma State extra possessions, and Purdue has to maximize opportunities in the kicking game to win the field-position battle. This team has enough talent to pull off the upset, especially against an Oklahoma State squad that might be overlooking this game. But the Boilermakers can only put themselves in that position if they first avoid beating themselves.

Purdue embraces underdog role

December, 27, 2012
12/27/12
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If any team can play the "nobody-believed-in-us" card this bowl season, it's Purdue.

The Boilermakers are the biggest underdog in the 35 bowls, according to the oddsmakers, in their matchup against Oklahoma State in the Jan. 1 Heart of Dallas Bowl. It's the kind of thing players say they don't pay attention to, except that they do.

"I don't really look at that stuff," senior defensive tackle Kawann Short told ESPN.com. "But a lot of people around here have told me that the spread is highest in the bowls. So it's on us to go out there and make a statement. We feel like we can play with any team in the nation right now."

People are understandably low on the Boilermakers, who had to win their final three games just to finish 6-6. Even that wasn't enough to save the job of head coach Danny Hope, who was fired one day after the regular-season finale. Receivers coach Patrick Higgins is coaching the bowl game before turning the program over to Darrell Hazell.

Purdue also got blasted in some big games this year, losing 44-13 to Michigan, 38-14 to Wisconsin, 44-28 to Minnesota and 34-9 to Penn State. No wonder, then, that Oklahoma State is a big favorite with an offense that averages 44.7 points per game.

[+] EnlargeKawann Short
AP Photo/Michael ConroyKawann Short's versatility could make him too attractive for NFL teams to pass up in the draft's first round.
But there are a couple of reasons to maybe believe in the Boilers. They only lost by a field goal on the road to Notre Dame, now the nation's No. 1 team, in September. And they had undefeated Ohio State on the ropes in Columbus before the Buckeyes made a miracle comeback in the final minute and won in overtime. So this team has some experience rising to the occasion.

And Purdue has something going for it now that was absent during its five-game losing streak in the middle of the season: health on the defensive line. That unit was expected to be one of the best in the Big Ten but didn't play like it when several key members of the group were banged up in midseason.

"Kawann and Bruce Gaston are two of the best defensive tackles in the Big Ten; I'd still argue that," said defensive end Ryan Russell, who was a member of the walking wounded. "As a whole, the D-line prided ourselves on having lot of depth this year, and when those injuries happened, there wasn't as much depth. So I'm glad we finally got an opportunity to rest, heal up and show what we're really about."

Short, an all-Big Ten performer and potential first-round pick next April, dealt with a high ankle sprain in the middle of the year. By the Minnesota game, he said, he was "not even 80 percent." He battled through it though and said quarterback Robert Marve -- who played on a torn anterior cruciate ligament without undergoing surgery -- jokingly gave him a hard time whenever Short tried to complain about his ankle.

Short regained his effectiveness toward the end of the season, and with a month off to heal expects to be fully healthy for the bowl game. He was dominant against Notre Dame and is a difference-making force inside when right.

"I'm very excited that a lot of people are back and healthy," Short said. "We're going out there with a chip on our shoulder. Things didn't go our way this season, but right now I feel like we can bring a lot of stuff to the table."

Purdue's best chance of slowing down the Cowboys' spread offense -- which gained nearly 550 yards per game this season, fifth-best in the country -- is probably to disrupt its timing right at the line of scrimmage.

"You have to get lined up and know your assignments quick and fast," Russell said. "They definitely have a lot of weapons. It's about matching their pace and enforcing your will, instead of going with the flow and letting them do what they love to do."

And while Oklahoma State has a prolific offense, the Cowboys went just 7-5 and lost their last two games of the regular season. Purdue players don't quite see why they're being painted as giant underdogs to an opponent whose best victories came against Texas Tech and Iowa State.

"People are not respecting us very much," offensive lineman Trevor Foy said. "I'm looking forward to taking advantage of that, because I know they're going to look over us and we're going to come after them."

And if the Boilermakers do pull off the upset, they can correctly make the "nobody-believed-in-us" claim.

Purdue deals with transition game

December, 12, 2012
12/12/12
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Purdue interim coach Patrick Higgins has given his players some unusual assignments before they start their bowl practices.

Higgins has asked every member of the team to answer a few questions such as: What is the most important thing in your life? What things do you want to do before you die? What do you want on your tombstone? What's your favorite animal? Players had to answer in front of the whole team, as well as make some drawings.

"At first it seemed kind of kiddie," offensive lineman Trevor Foy told ESPN.com. "But when everyone is going up there, all the players and even the coaches, it's really cool."

[+] EnlargeTrevor Foy
AP Photo/David DurochikTrevor Foy (78) and the Boilermakers will play for Patrick Higgins before new head coach Darrell Hazell takes over.
This may seem like an odd time of year for such get-to-know-you tactics. But it might be just what the Boilermakers need after a tumultuous few weeks.

Head coach Danny Hope was fired on Nov. 25, one day after Purdue finished a 6-6 regular season. Higgins was named the interim coach for the team's Heart of Dallas Bowl game matchup against Oklahoma State. Higgins had been the Boilers' wide receivers coach, but he took over play-calling duties for the final three games when offensive coordinator Gary Nord was sidelined by a back injury. The school tabbed Darrell Hazell as its next head coach last week, but because Hazell will coach Kent State in its bowl game, he has only briefly met with his future players.

With all of that transition, a little team bonding seems like a good idea.

"Everyone handle stress differently, so it's great to come together on common ground and get to know each other a little better," defensive end Ryan Russell told ESPN.com. "We can't control what happened to the coaches, but this is about us and about the seniors. So it's great to put the focus back on the players a little bit when the media and everybody else has been taking it out of our hands."

Purdue has already shown the ability to rally together and block out the turmoil. The Boilers were 3-6 after losing to Penn State 34-9 at home on Nov. 3, their fifth straight loss. Rumors of Hope's firing were swirling, and except for a crushing overtime defeat at Ohio State, every loss had come by at least 16 points.

This hardly looked like a bowl team at that time. Yet it won its final three games, at Iowa, at Illinois and in the finale at home against rival Indiana, to clinch a postseason bid for the second straight year.

"It was all about us, the coaches and the players," Foy said. "You can't listen to the media and fans. We had to tune all that out and realize we're here for each other. That was basically the attitude we took, from the [Penn State] game on."

Russell said the players were hopeful that winning those final three games would save Hope's job. Those who had been recruited by Hope, like Russell and Foy, were hurt when it did not.

Now they'll gear up to play for Higgins, who hadn't interacted closely with many members of the team as receivers coach. But he earned respect by serving as offensive coordinator for those final three victories.

"That really made it easy for guys to accept him," Foy said. "Coach Higgins is real positive guy. He does a good job of keeping everybody together and focused."

In a few weeks, Hazell will take over the program. He introduced himself to the players before last week's introductory news conference but has been splitting his time between coaching Kent State and recruiting for Purdue. Russell said he researched what Hazell did at Kent State and watched that news conference and came away impressed.

"He's saying all the right things and you can definitely see the determination in his eyes," Russell said. "I'm ready to start a new era, and I'm going to help battle with him. With no head coach, you kind of feel like you failed. So to have someone step in and believe in you and say he wants to be captain of the ship, that's definitely a great feeling."

Having three head coaches and two offensive coordinators in a short amount of time has taken Purdue on an emotional ride. Maybe coming together and getting to know each other a little better can make that journey more enjoyable.
Hope or change?

That appears to be the decision for Purdue athletic director Morgan Burke, and evidence seems to be pointing to the latter. The Boilermakers have lost five straight games, four of them in blowout fashion, to drop head coach Danny Hope's career record to 19-27. One published report has said Burke has already put out back-channel feelers to potential replacements for Hope.

Asked about that on Tuesday's Big Ten coaches' teleconference, Hope said, "That's news to me." But he understands that the temperature is reaching boiling temperatures under his seat.

[+] EnlargeDanny Hope
Pat Lovell/US PresswireThe 2012 season hasn't gone as planned for Danny Hope's Boilermakers.
Hope said he will block out the criticisms and continue to concentrate on coaching the Boilers (3-6, 0-5 Big Ten), who can still go to a bowl game if they win their final three games, starting this week at Iowa.

"I'm not going to let a disgruntled fan or any one person take my spirit away or take away from what it is that we're here to do, and that's to coach football and have fun and to win," Hope said at his weekly news conference. "Obviously, the fans have a reason to be disappointed. We're very, very disappointed. But I don't let someone that demonstrates themselves in a small way set me back a whole lot, if you will. I certainly wouldn't let someone that has small character take my happiness away."

One big question remains: How did this happen? This was supposed to be Hope's best team in West Lafayette, and Purdue started off well, going 3-1 and playing Notre Dame to the wire on the road. Then things collapsed with blowout losses at home to Michigan and Wisconsin. The Boilers nearly upset Ohio State on the road but blew a late lead to lose in overtime. The last two games have brought double-digit losses to Minnesota and Penn State. Hope called it "surprising and baffling" but offered some reasons why the team has failed to perform."

"I think a lot of it has to do with where we're at from a physicality standpoint," he said. "We've had a lot of guys that have been banged up, and their level of performance has dropped off.

"I think Ryan Russell is a great defensive end, and I think when the season started off, he may have been one of the best defensive ends in the Big Ten potentially. ... He's had some injuries, and he has sucked it up and played injured on Saturdays, and we appreciate that effort, but he hasn't been as effective as he was earlier in the season. The same is true with Bruce Gaston and the same is true with Kawann Short and the same is true with Ricardo Allen, and O.J. Ross has been out of the equation and Raheem Mostert has been out of the equation, and those are our very best players."

Hope said some of the negativity also started to snowball for his team.

"You lose and you lose ugly, and then the fans turn on you in some ways and then doubt creeps in it a little bit," he said. "And maybe a guy doesn't play as well and then a few guys get injured and pretty soon you're not as good as you should be or as good as you were.

"It's hard to kind of hold all that together. And then the competition picks up and you get more guys injured and you lose some more and things become tough around you. "

But Hope isn't deflecting blame and says that "if we're not successful, then ... I'm the one that ought to be ripped. I'm the one that trained them."

Purdue fans are doing plenty of ripping on their head coach these days. It's up to Burke to decide whether Hope or change is the best course of action going forward.

Big Ten weekend rewind: Week 2

September, 10, 2012
9/10/12
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Just about everyone in the Big Ten would like to forget Week 2. But those who fail to study history are ... well, you know. Let's take a quick look back, before hoping the future brings better things.

Team of the week: Northwestern. Pretty easy call here as the Wildcats were the only Big Ten team to defeat a BCS automatic-qualifier opponent in Week 2, helping the league avoid an 0-7 record in those contests. Pat Fitzgerald's team was also only one of two conference teams to play such an opponent at home (Iowa was the other). Still, the 23-13 victory over Vanderbilt was impressive because of how the defense played and how Northwestern secured a lead to finish out a game. Also: the Big Ten beat the SEC! How is this not a bigger story? (Ahem.)

[+] EnlargeBo Pelini
Richard Mackson/US PresswireIt was a tough night for Bo Pelini's defense, as the Cornhuskers surrendered 653 yards to UCLA.
Game of the week: Nebraska's 36-30 loss to UCLA provided the most entertainment, though Huskers fans might not have enjoyed the ending much. The two teams staged a classic West Coast shootout in the first half, going into intermission tied at 27 before things settled down a bit. They combined for 1,092 total yards, with the Bruins gobbling up 653 of them on Nebraska's defense.

Biggest play(s): Purdue needed one third-down stop in the final two minutes to give itself a chance to beat Notre Dame but couldn't come up with it on two tries. The Irish surprisingly put Tommy Rees into the game for the final drive, and he completed a 10-yard pass on third-and-6 near midfield under heavy duress. It looked like the play clock might have expired before the snap, but the Boilers did not get the call. Then, on third-and-10 from the Purdue 41, Reese found Robby Toma for 21 yards to set up the game-winning field goal. Michigan's defensive stops against Air Force late and James Vandenberg's costly interception to end Iowa's last drive against Iowa State also were huge.

Best call: Fitzgerald has seemingly figured out just how to juggle a pair of differently talented quarterbacks. He brought Trevor Siemian to end the Syracuse game, and Siemian led the team on a game-winning drive. Siemian also guided the Cats to two scoring drives against Vanderbilt, while starter Kain Colter sealed the deal with a touchdown run on third and long. Somehow, Fitzgerald has pulled this off so far without causing a quarterback controversy.

Worst call: There's no way the officials in the Oregon State-Wisconsin game should have overruled the call on the field that the Badgers recovered their own onside kick with 1:31 left. It was a beautifully executed play, as kicker Kyle French dribbled the ball forward and then performed a hook slide to secure it. Replay officials, however, overturned the call and said the ball did not go 10 yards. But the replays sure make it appear as though Oregon State's Tyrequek Zimmerman touched the ball before French did, making it a live ball. It's close, no doubt, but either way there was not indisputable evidence, so the call on the field should have stood. Those were Pac-12 replay officials, in case you were wondering. Karma is a funny thing, though. The Badgers should have gotten that call, but they didn't deserve to win after playing terribly most of the game.

Big Man on Campus (offense): Any time you account for more than 100 percent of your team's offense, you're ... wait, what? Michigan's Denard Robinson pulled off that feat by totaling 426 yards even though the Wolverines finished with only 422 against Air Force. Because kneel downs are considered a team run, Robinson had more yards than his entire team. He ran for 218 and threw for 208 and had four touchdowns. Special mention goes to Ohio State's Braxton Miller and Minnesota's MarQueis Gray, as it was a pretty good week for quarterbacks who can run.

Big Man on Campus (defense): Purdue's Kawann Short had a pair of sacks and four tackles against Notre Dame, but that doesn't tell the full story of his dominance. The Irish netted only 52 rushing yards on 36 attempts against the Boilers as Short plugged up the middle of the line, aided by Ryan Russell, Bruce Gaston and others up front. Penn State's Michael Mauti also turned in a gutsy effort in the loss at Virginia.

Big Man on Campus (special teams): Northwestern kicker Jeff Budzien was 3-for-3 on field goals against Vandy, drilling attempts from 40, 27 and 18 yards in the win.

Worst hangover: The collective hangover for the league is worse than a fraternity house after a raging kegger. Unless you're Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Northwestern or Ohio State, you weren't feeling too good about things on Sunday morning. Penn State received another gut punch, Wisconsin short-circuited, Purdue and Iowa came up short against rivals and Illinois didn't show up. Still, Nebraska probably feels the worst of all. This was a team boasting of playing for a national title in the preseason, and an opening week blowout of Southern Miss made it appear as though the Huskers had finally turned the corner. Except around that corner was an oncoming train. A Bo Pelini defense should not be as thoroughly shredded as it was against UCLA, and the offense reverted to some bad habits in the second half. It's not the end of the world for Big Red, but it does give cause for alarm.

Strangest moment: I guess we can excuse Penn State for not really understanding this whole names-on-the-back-of-jerseys things.

The Nittany Lions went through decades of player anonymity before Bill O'Brien decided to put names on the back of players this season. And it's clear this caught some people off guard, as Penn State's uniforms against Virginia suffered some wardrobe malfunction. Namely, the names were coming off the jerseys during the game. You could say Mauti left it all on the field, including a couple of letters. It has been that kind of year for the Lions so far.
Purdue is getting a little bit of a buzz as a sleeper team for 2012 after breaking through with a bowl game (and win) in 2011. The Boilermakers opened spring practice last week and went for a couple of days straight before taking off for spring break. I had a chance to catch up with Purdue head coach Danny Hope to talk about how things are going in his program and the areas of concentration this spring.

Did you sense any different attitude this offseason after getting to that bowl game last year?

[+] EnlargeDanny Hope
Andrew Weber/US PresswireCoach Danny Hope said the momentum from boilermakers' bowl win last season has carried over into the spring.
Danny Hope: I think we ended the season on a high note and with some momentum, and I think it carried over into the offseason. I think we're really hitting on all cylinders with our new director of sports performance, whom we hired last year about this time. It's the first time since I've been the head coach at Purdue that we're going into spring with a quarterback that's healthy that's played any football. Caleb TerBush wasn't penciled in as the No. 1 [quarterback], but he became No. 1 about a week before the opener. He had to get his feet wet and learn throughout the course of the season, but by the end of the season he was playing pretty good. That momentum carried right over into the bowl preparation and the win carried right into the weight training offseason and that carried into spring practices. And having experienced quarterbacks is important. It's the first time since I've been here we've been able to do something as simple as getting signals in early in spring. It's a little different tempo out there right now as a result. We've got some good players back and we've got some confidence as a football team.

You have quite a few experienced quarterbacks now, in fact. How are you splitting up the reps for them this spring?

DH: Well, Sean Robinson is playing on defense right now. It's hard to get four quarterbacks ready in spring ball, and he wasn't going to get as many reps as he needed to. So we're going to try him some at the linebacker position. That leaves TerBush and Robert Marve, who's finally healthy. I think Robert did some good things last year, but I think he's in position to take some big steps in his development because this is the first time since he's been here that he's been able to get a lot of reps without concern about an injury or an eligibility situation. Then Rob Henry is back. He's a little bit limited right now because he's coming off knee surgery, but I'm really pleased with where his recovery is, and most of the time when he's out there right now you can't tell much of a difference. But you have to limit his reps a little just because you don't want to overdo it and create a swelling issue. So the numbers are kind of taking care of themselves in some ways. We went into the spring with TerBush as No. 1 and all those other guys are competing.

Your leading rusher, Ralph Bolden, tore his ACL again, but you have two pretty good running backs in Akeem Shavers and Akeem Hunt. How do you feel about the depth at running back this spring?

DH: We had a real strong running attack last year. We were fifth in the Big Ten in rushing. The past couple of years, we've been able to establish a strong running game. I like the progress that we've made and having good running backs is a big part of that, and any more, having a couple of running backs you can play is a big part of it. We had a lot of different guys rush for us last year, probably 10 different guys who were utilized as ball carriers. We really like Akeem Shavers. He's a fast, physical back who finishes runs. Akeem Hunt is an excellent sprinter who's a member of our track team and was a state champion track performer in Georgia. So he's a class sprinter in a lot of ways for a football player.

We've also got a kid we redshirted last year in Doug Gentry, and he's a skilled player. We have Gavin Roberts, who has good size but was injured last year. He's a big back we can utilize in the backfield. Then we've got a couple fullbacks in Derek Jackson, who weighs about 240 pounds, and Kurt Freytag. So we've got some guys still in the stable even though Ralph is out. And we've utilized Antavian Edison and Raheem Mostert some as ball carriers out of their slot position, and both those guys are really skilled players. So we've got some athletes who can tote the mail, and we spread the wealth out around here.

Were you upset about the new kickoff rules because you have such a weapon at kick returner in Raheem Mostert?

DH: Well, we all play by the same rules. You'll have to make decisions about bringing some out, so the return man is going to have to be a good decision-maker. From a kickoff standpoint it might change some things. You can kick them all deep and try to force the touchback if you want to, but you're going to be giving the opponent the ball at the 25. Or you can kick the ball high and deep and try to pin them down and do a great job covering. So there's going to be some game planning and schemes involved. I think it will all even out. ... I don't think it's going to shut down all kick returns, but I think there will be about 25 percent less, is my guess.

(Read full post)

We covered all the offensive position groups in our postseason rankings series here, here, here and here. Now it's time to turn our attention to the defensive side of the ball.

Defensive tackle was the strongest position in the league in 2011, so that makes this a competitive situation. There are some major changes from our preseason order as well. Remember this is about overall production, and depth matters along with star power. The top four on this list are really, really strong.

Here we go:

[+] EnlargeWilliam Gholston and Aaron Murray
J. Meric/Getty ImagesWilliam Gholston and the Spartans' defensive line helped key a Michigan State win over Georgia in the Outback Bowl.
1. Michigan State: The Spartans finished with the top total defense in the Big Ten and one of the best in the nation, and it all started with a dominant front. All-American tackle Jerel Worthy commanded extra attention inside and was joined by Kevin Pickelman and Anthony Rashad White as forces inside. William Gholston was brilliant at times, never more so than in the Outback Bowl win over Georgia. And freshman Marcus Rush turned in an outstanding season at the other defensive end spot. The Spartans had no weaknesses at this position in 2011.

2. Michigan: We projected the Wolverines would make a significant leap in '11, but the amount of improvement still surprised us. The combination of head coach Brady Hoke and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison, both defensive line coaches at heart, and valuable seniors Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen made this the backbone of Michigan's Sugar Bowl run. The Wolverines were especially tough in short-yardage situations because their defensive front was so stout.

3. Penn State: Big Ten defensive player of the year Devon Still wrecked just about everybody's game plan with a huge senior campaign. Jordan Hill had a solid, underrated year next to him inside. Jack Crawford stayed healthy and contributed 6.5 sacks, while Eric Latimore and Sean Stanley combined for another 7.5 quarterback takedowns.

4. Illinois: Defensive end Whitney Mercilus was a consensus first-team All-American who led the nation in sacks and forced fumbles. Nobody saw that coming. He had good company along the line as well, with guys like Akeem Spence inside and Michael Buchanan at the other end spot. The Illini may have faltered down the stretch as a team, but the D-line stayed strong throughout the year.

5. Wisconsin: The Badgers didn't have many household names on the defensive line, and certainly no one stood out like J.J. Watt the year before. But Bret Bielema relied on a solid group of veterans that helped the team finish third in the league in total defense and fifth in sacks. Patrick Butrym, Louis Nzegwu, Brendan Kelly and Ethan Hemer were part of a group that played better than the sum of its parts.

6. Ohio State: The Buckeyes had one of the best defensive players in the league in John Simon, who had 16 tackles for loss and seven sacks in a breakout season. Tackle Johnathan Hankins emerged as a disrupter at 335 pounds. But Ohio State didn't get its usual production elsewhere on the line, got beat up as the season went along and lacked depth, which is one reason why Urban Meyer went out and signed so many pass rushers in his first recruiting class.

7. Nebraska: The biggest disappointment from the preseason, as the Huskers tumbled from their No. 1 ranking last summer. Jared Crick's season-ending injury hurt the production, but he was not putting up huge numbers before he tore his pectoral muscle. Cameron Meredith, Baker Steinkuhler and Eric Martin had some nice moments, but Nebraska wasn't nearly as fierce up front as we thought it might be.

8. Purdue: Kawann Short turned in his best season, with 17 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks from his interior spot, while Bruce Gaston and Gerald Gooden provided solid support. But the Boilermakers' pass rush off the edge lacked explosiveness until freshman Ryan Russell started to come on late in the season. Everyone except Gooden returns, and with a new position coach Purdue hopes this unit can go from decent to great in 2012.

9. Iowa: Another disappointing crew, as the Hawkeyes proved it's not easy to replace three draft picks off the defensive line and simply reload. Mike Daniels and Broderick Binns were the senior anchors, but Iowa's pass rush was sluggish until late in the season. And there wasn't a whole lot of depth behind them. This group loses three starters and will be extremely young in 2012.

10. Northwestern: We ranked the Wildcats 10th in the preseason as well, but we still expected better things out of this group. Northwestern generated very little pressure on opposing quarterbacks and ranked last in the Big Ten in sacks. Vince Browne, a projected all-conference pick in the summer, had a subpar season with only 3.5 tackles for loss after putting up 15.5 in 2010. It's clear this group needs to get better for Northwestern to take the next step.

11. Minnesota: The Gophers weren't as terrible on the defensive front as they were in 2010, when they finished last in the nation with only nine sacks. In fact, they more than doubled that total with 19 last season. Still, it was a mostly anonymous crew that gave quarterbacks too much time to carve up the secondary in the passing game. Jerry Kill still needs to find more playmakers at this position.

12. Indiana: The Hoosiers had problems all over the defense, and the line was no exception. Adam Replogle and Larry Black gave the unit some veteran leadership in the middle, but Indiana resorted to playing a lot of kids at the defensive end spots. The results were about what you'd expect.


The Little Caesars Bowl delivered plenty of twists and turns, including two successful onside kicks, a flea flicker for a touchdown, a two-point conversion on a fake extra point and a kickoff return for a touchdown. And then they played the second half.

Purdue won in its first bowl appearance since 2007, when it also beat a MAC team (Central Michigan) in Detroit in what was then called the Motor City Bowl.

How the game was won: If all you knew about this game was that Purdue forced six turnovers, returned a kick for a touchdown, recovered a pair of onside kicks and got three fourth-down stops, you'd probably assume the Boilermakers blew out Western Michigan. But Purdue made plenty of mistakes of its own and had to hold on late to secure the victory. The game was decided by A) the kicking game, which the Boilers used to great effect with a 99-yard touchdown return by Raheem Mostert and two first-half onside kick gambles by Danny Hope that led to points; and B) the running game, as Purdue piled up over 260 yards on the ground to dominate the time of possession.

Turning point: Western Michigan got the ball back with 2:16 left and had a chance to win the game with its potent offense. But Purdue freshman defensive lineman Ryan Russell stripped the ball from quarterback Alex Carder, and teammate Bruce Gaston recovered to bring on the Boilers' victory formation unit. Carder threw for 413 yards but also tossed four interceptions and fumbled twice.

Player of the game: Though he came out on the losing end, Western Michigan receiver Jordan White showed why he led the country in catches and receiving yards this season. He finished with 13 catches for 249 yards and a touchdown despite the extra attention Purdue paid to him.

Player of the game II: Missing leading rusher Ralph Bolden, who tore his ACL in the season finale, Purdue needed someone to step forward in the running game. That someone turned out to be Akeem Shavers, who ran 22 times for 148 yards, nearly doubling his previous career high.

Unsung hero: Purdue suspended third-leading receiver O.J. Ross for the bowl game. No problem, as Gary Bush picked up the slack. The sophomore chipped in with six catches for a career-high 90 yards, including a 33-yard touchdown.

Spirit of giving: On two separate occasions, Purdue handed a turnover right back to Western Michigan. Both involved Gerald Gooden and Josh Schaffer. Schaffer, a receiver, stripped and recovered the ball from Gooden after one of the Boilers defensive end's two interceptions. Late in the fourth quarter, Gooden forced a Carder fumble that Russell picked up, but Schaffer hustled down the field again to knock the ball away and put the Broncos back in business.

What it means: Purdue, which beat Indiana in the regular-season finale, won back-to-back games for the first time all year. The Boilermakers had to win this game in order to build some momentum under Hope, who was rewarded with a two-year contract extension last week but still needs to convince fans and alumni he's the man to move the program forward. A loss would have opened up new questions about Hope, but instead Purdue showed creativity and daring -- if not always great attention to detail -- in its game plan. With Ohio State ineligible for the Big Ten title game, Illinois and Penn State both in transition and Wisconsin needing to replace important players and coaches on the offensive side, the Boilermakers just might be a sleeper in the Leaders Division in 2012. Western Michigan's mantra leading up to this game was "Make history." But the Broncos fell to 0-5 all time in bowl games and must regroup to try again without the top receiver in school history.

Record performance: With his big game Tuesday night, White broke MAC records for both single-season and career receiving yards.
Jerry Kill has talked repeatedly about building a foundation at Minnesota on concrete, not sand.

The first-year coach better hope rock bottom is made out of concrete. Because that's where the Gophers are living after the first half at Purdue, which leads 31-3.

We thought the Gophers had hit rock bottom last week in Ann Arbor, when Michigan whipped them 58-0 in the Jug game. But no. This is rock bottom. Has to be.

No disrespect to Purdue, which is making plays on both sides of the ball and capitalizing on most of Minnesota's many errors. Purdue's defense has smothered Minnesota, getting terrific line play from Kawann Short, Ryan Russell and others, as well as a pick-six from star CB Ricardo Allen.

That said, the Gophers are the worst major-conference team in America. It's amazing to think they opened the season with a near upset at USC. Feels like years ago. Time will tell where Minnesota ranks among the worst teams in Big Ten history. The Gophers aren't there yet -- not close -- but they have to get this turned around.

Freshman Max Shortell started his second consecutive game at quarterback but quickly exited. Junior MarQueis Gray, who missed the Michigan debacle with a toe injury, entered the game and had his first pass attempt picked by Allen and returned to the end zone.

Minnesota's first-half offensive numbers: three turnovers, three points, six first downs, 6-of-13 passing, 35 rush yards on 16 carries. Ugh.

Purdue's offense has looked decent, and coordinator Gary Nord made a great call against a Minnesota blitz as Robert Marve hit O.J. Ross on a bubble screen for an easy 12-yard touchdown. Marve stepped in for Caleb TerBush, who completed 9 of 14 passes. The Boilers' rushing attack hasn't been great, although Akeem Shavers is providing a bit of a spark.

One area Purdue must cut down is penalties. The Big Ten's most penalized team already has been flagged five times. It will cost Purdue later in the season.

Spring game recap: Purdue

April, 11, 2011
4/11/11
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Purdue wrapped up spring practice Saturday with the Black and Gold Game, the first spring game in the Big Ten this year. The Gold team prevailed 14-3 behind touchdown receptions by Justin Siller and Normando Harris.

Let's take a closer look at the game.

Game coverage: Here and here and here.

Quotable: "We're not going to have great talent sitting on the sideline. Rob Henry is a great talent. Robert Marve is a great talent and Caleb TerBush is a great talent. We're going to find a way for all three of those guys to help us win, regardless of how it shakes down on the depth chart." -- coach Danny Hope on his quarterbacks

Highlights
  • Top quarterback Rob Henry had a decent day for the Gold squad, completing 8 of 12 passes for 76 yards with a touchdown and an interception, and adding 27 rush yards. Caleb TerBush called signals for both teams and completed 16 of 27 passes for 172 yards with a score and an interception. Receiver Antavian Edison capped a strong spring with five receptions and two rushes for 26 yards.
  • Purdue's defense was the more dominant unit for much of the scrimmage. Linebacker Antwon Higgs and safeties Logan Link and Jarrett Dieudonne all recorded interceptions, and the teams combined for seven "sacks," including two apiece by defensive ends Robert Maci and Ryan Russell (Black team).
  • It's rare when a kicker steals the show at a spring game, but Carson Wiggs isn't your typical specialist. The bionic-legged Wiggs, who kicked the nation's longest field goal (59 yards) last season, put on a display just before halftime. He kicked five field goals, including a 67-yarder that would have been good from 75. Wiggs also connected from 57, 52, 47 and 42 yards and missed from 62. That's called range, people.
  • Purdue on Friday announced six team captains for 2011: Henry, Wiggs, defensive tackle Kawann Short, offensive tackle Dennis Kelly and linebackers Joe Holland and Chris Carlino. The most significant selection is Henry, just a sophomore. Although Purdue's quarterback race isn't over as Robert Marve will rejoin the mix this summer, Henry separated himself this spring and clearly has the support of his teammates. It'll be an interesting decision for Hope, who has a lot invested in Marve but has repeatedly praised Henry's progress.

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