Even casual football fans understand the purpose of a punt. When a team is about to run out of downs, they choose to kick the ball to their opponents, giving up possession willingly in exchange for pushing the other team as far away from scoring as possible.
The funny thing about Saturday’s Purdue-Northern Illinois game? Every time the Huskies tried to give up possession willingly, Purdue wasn’t interested.
The Boilermakers got their three-game homestand off to a horrible start when senior Aaron Valentin fumbled two consecutive second-quarter punts, and the visiting Huskies capitalized by outscoring Purdue 21-0 in the quarter and holding on for a 28-21 win.
In addition to Valentin’s miscues, Purdue was called for running into the punter later in the game, making a total of three times the Boilers should have had possession and Northern Illinois kept the football instead.
The Huskies finished the contest with over 41 minutes of possession, compared to only 18:20 for the home team. As a result, Purdue never got its high-powered offense on track, trailing 28-7 at one point in the second half before rallying to make the final score interesting.
Despite the poor performance, the miscues, and the failure to stop the Huskies’ rushing attack (allowing 280 yards on the ground is unacceptable), the Boilermakers actually were within seven points and expecting to get the ball back for a possible game-tying drive in the final minutes.
Except for that whole punting thing.
This time, Northern Illinois decided not to kick the ball at all. Huskies coach Jerry Kill instead chose to “go for the kill” (pardon the pun) and ran an incredibly gutsy fake punt from his own 16 yard line with three and a half minutes to play.
After the fourth-down conversion, Northern Illinois went on to run another three minutes off the clock, leaving the Boilermakers with no realistic chance of scoring a miracle, last-second touchdown.
At this point in the column, I’d list the bright spots for the Old Gold and Black…but there really weren’t any against a team that came in 1-32-1 vs. the Big Ten all-time.
The only Purdue touchdown in the first 42 minutes came on a Valentin punt return (ah, the irony), but dropping the next two attempts sealed his fate (and forced coach Danny Hope to bring on a replacement). To be honest, Valentin even seemed to struggle catching the first kick before taking it to the house.
Suffice it to say that, despite the early touchdown, the punt return game was far from a bright spot.
Joey Elliott had an impressive 58-yard touchdown run to give the Boilermakers new life in the second half, but if the senior had hit a few more open receivers, Purdue wouldn’t have struggled to keep early drives alive. The Boilermakers finished a disappointing 5-14 on third down conversions.
Ralph Bolden averaged over five yards a carry, but never broke one of his trademark long runs and was reduced to decoy status once the Boilers dug themselves a three-touchdown hole.
Hard to blame the worn-down defense too much, since it seemed like they were on the field for the entire 60 minutes, but if they had been able to stop the run or slow down NIU on third downs (the Huskies converted 8 of 19), the outcome most likely would have been different.
Tackling remains one of Purdue’s greatest weaknesses. The Boilers struggled in this area against Toledo and Oregon as well, but Saturday’s disappointing performance was by far the worst Purdue has looked when it comes to wrapping up a ballcarrier.
So where do we go from here?
As things stand, Purdue’s season is at an early crossroads. The good vibes from an opening win over Toledo and a strong showing in Oregon are long gone, and the schedule doesn’t get any easier with longtime rival Notre Dame coming to town Saturday.
If Purdue can’t get past the Irish and drops its third straight game, a 2009 bowl bid becomes highly unlikely (as the Boilers would have to go 5-3 in conference play to reach the six-win plateau).
Fans that are calling for Joey Elliott’s replacement at quarterback (and I’ve heard from several of them) shouldn’t waste their breath. The Boilermakers don’t have a proven option behind the fifth-year senior, and Hope has no reason to bail on Elliott and turn to backup Caleb TerBush.
If TerBush was definitely the Boilers’ quarterback of the future, that argument could be made, but it’s transfer Robert Marve who sits squarely in the “heir apparent” spot and will likely start the 2010 season opener.
While the comparisons to predecessor Joe Tiller have to get old for first-year boss Danny Hope, Tiller jump-started his Purdue tenure and catapulted the program into the national spotlight with an early upset against Notre Dame. With Tiller in town to watch this weekend’s game, Hope and his Boilermakers could definitely make a statement with a similar victory Saturday night on ESPN.
They’d better figure out how to catch a punt first, though.
Week Four prediction: Notre Dame 34, Purdue 30
For more Big Ten football coverage from Bleacher Report writers Tim Cary, Kristofer Green, and Kevin Paul, visit www.FirstandBigTen.com.