FORT WAYNE – Purdue and Western Michigan both finished 1-11 last season under first-year head coaches. Listen to Darrell Hazell and P.J. Fleck, though, and one might surmise that the Boilermakers and Broncos are gearing up for college football’s inaugural four-team playoff.
I think the fans are going to fall in love with this football team, Hazell said Tuesday. The talent level has risen. They’re going to play with more passion. They’ll be more physical. (Fans are) going to really enjoy watching us play this year.
Fleck, charismatic and outspoken, has drawn criticism from colleagues in the Mid-American Conference. It’s done little to change his brash style. At MAC media days in July, Fleck said 2014 could be the year of the Broncos.
You’re talking to the most optimistic person in America, he said. I think we could win a championship every year.
In reality, Purdue and Western Michigan are preparing for the opening game in a season many pundits are pegging as another rebuilding year. They’re arguably the two greenest teams in the country, with Purdue featuring 24 underclassmen on the two-deep and Western Michigan possibly starting 14 true freshmen.
After its worst season in two decades, Purdue isn’t entering 2014 with heads hung low. Sophomore quarterback Danny Etling – and a bevy of young playmakers – offers hope that he’ll be the next signal caller included in the pantheon of Boilermaker greats, where names such as Griese, Brees, Dawson and Herrmann live in Purdue lore.
Last season’s 11 losses lingered throughout the offseason for a defense that allowed 38 points and 460 yards per game. Both numbers ranked worse than 100th nationally. If Purdue returns to form – the Boilermakers made 12 bowl appearances from 1997 to 2012 – the defense must improve its dreadful 56.5 percent stoppage rate on third downs.
Our pursuit’s been a lot better at every position. We’re playing without brakes, defensive coordinator Greg Hudson said. If you’re not going to hit, you can’t go out there. It’s part of the deal.
Hazell sees a unit that looks like a distant cousin to last season’s porous group.
They’re running to the ball better, they’re more physical, more gap sound, he said. You go right down the list. We’re better in the back end. They’re playing so hungry right now. If they can continue to do that and we can put pressure on the quarterback, we’ll be a very, very good defense this year.
Every coach’s worst nightmare in fall camp is significant injuries. Big Ten counterpart Ohio State had its fears realized when star quarterback Braxton Miller suffered a torn labrum, ending his season before it even began. Hazell and Co. had a strategy to avoid major setbacks.
Coaches were instructed to limit pounding in drills, and the plan was executed with success. Hazell hopes the accomplishment is the first of many this fall.
The memory of 11 losses is beginning to fade in West Lafayette. I’m tired of talking about last year, Hazell said. This is a whole different football team.