From the very beginning, the offense looked out of sync. The plays that had been staples to the extremely-productive Boiler offense in previous weeks, weren't working. Power football wasn't working, roll-outs weren't fruitful and all of the momentum that had been created in the previous two games came to a screeching halt, especially in the second quarter of the Purdue v. Northern Illinois game. After being outscored 21-0 in this quarter, Purdue was down by 14 at the half...and the only score came via an impressive punt return by Valentin. But as no. 17 caught that punt and hauled it toward paydirt, there was a bit of foreshadowing. He barely caught the punt with his finger tips and didn't protect it after it was gathered.
The versatile Valentin later botched two punts and gave NIU the ball with a short field twice. Purdue's tired defense couldn't stop the flood gates from opening as Northern Illinois capitalized and blew the game open. Hope called the two dropped punts "difference-makers" in the game.
When asked why the offense couldn't get into rhythm, Danny Hope said simply, "We didn't have the ball." Purdue had the ball for less than half of the time that the Huskies held it (9:12 to 20:48)...and while that was OK versus Toledo because of the "home runs" by Ralph Bolden, the explosive play of Purdue's Sophomore RB wasn't there. Bolden ended the first half with 31 yards on 7 carries and 5 yards on 2 receptions.
We learned a lot about Bolden's lack of big play ability after the game. Bolden had been held out of practice for both Thursday and Friday due to a "flare up".
And Bolden wasn't the only player who wasn't 100%. In fact, Coach Hope said he felt like he "overtrained the team on Tuesday and Wednesday" after the team came out fresh to start the week in practice. But, that changed rapidly as Thursday and Friday the quality of the practices drastically changed.
"We felt like on Thursday and Friday, our guys looked tired. I kept trying to cut back. We lost some focus in our practices at a critical time in the week." He later said of the team's fatigue and overall condition, "It's my fault."
But just how bad was the condition of the team? Here's how bad- Royce Adams played both ways again. Freshman Josh Johnson was forced into action about a dozen times. Higgs and Beckford went from playing sparingly v. Oregon to being on the field for big chunks of the game.
On the other side of the ball, the offensive line that looked stout versus the Ducks seemed to be outclassed versus Northern Illinois' defense. One of the keys to the game was a 4th and less than a yard near mid-field in the third quarter in which Elliott couldn't sneak for the first down as the o-line's push simply didn't resemble what we'd seen in the prior two contests. Granted, the spot wasn't great, but it shouldn't have mattered. The Huskies looked stronger and faster for much of the game.
The issue of depth that was a concern to many within the program at the start of camp is already casing problems. While Hope admits the team was mentally and physically tired, we didn't see Halliburton, Dierking or McBurse at RB...and Taylor only carried the ball two times in relieve of the banged-up Bolden.
Similarly, as Elliott struggled to a meager 64 yards passing through three quarters, Caleb TerBush never even warmed up on the sideline. Just weeks ago, Hope had promised that we'd see TerBush regularly in the first few games, not just in mop-up duty. But with three games in the books, TerBush has yet to have taken one snap.
I asked Coach Hope how close he came to playing TerBush on Saturday. He responded, "I wasn't."
"I go out and watch both guys practice, and Joey does better in practice. I'm not one of those guys who believes in the 'gamer' thing, Caleb's gotta get better in practice. We felt our best chance all along was to go with Joey."
Elliott, while a fifth-year Senior, still makes Freshman mistakes. On a fourth and 4 on the NIU side of the field, he made an audible after seeing Valentin having man coverage on his left. Hope said of the call, "I didn't appreciate the check."
Elliott's day wasn't all negative though, he scrambled for a 58 yard (a career high) touchdown and almost got into rhythm in the early fourth quarter as he found Kyle Adams a few times during a drive...and for the first time in the day, Adams and Bolden both got some yardage after the catch- something that was a rarity in the first three quarters.
In spite of three sluggish quarters of play, Purdue had scratched its way back into the game and looked like they might tie it up in fourth. But after a failed ruling challenge, it was 4th and 1 from the 17 yard line, and NIU brought on the punt team. A direct snap to the up man yielded an 11-yard gain, and the game was all but iced. This play was a microcosm of the game. NIU's coaches were creative, their players executed the plan and Purdue simply looked a half-step slow and low on emotion.
Note the right side of Purdue's line is still in their three point stance in spite of the ball already being en route to NIU's upman, Anderson
Hope's thoughts on the loss were candid- "I hope it makes all of our football team and our coaches sick to their stomachs to lose a game in Ross-Ade Stadium. I don't care if it's a MAC school, a Pac (10) school, a WAC school or a Big Ten school." He also said, "I hope the Boilermaker nation is not made up of the faint-hearted or squemish." We'll find out.
He summed up Saturday well, and a bit like Yogi Berra, "We had a chance to win the game in the end, but didn't do enough in the beginning."
It gets no easier as the high-flying Fighting Irish come into Ross-Ade in 6 days for a primetime game.