1. It's fairly early in the game, but what are the biggest impressions that Darrell Hazell has made on this Purdue squad? Will his experience coaching at Kent State give him an advantage against NIU?
It is funny you mention that because he has publicly said that Purdue's preparation for NIU will be based more on defensive coordinator Greg Hudson's plan when he was Florida State's linebacker's coach in the Orange Bowl. They seemed to have the most success against Lynch, but Purdue does not have the players that the Seminoles did on defense. Still, I like that we're going with a plan that was effective.
As for Hazell, people were very high on him all through the summer, but blowouts at Cincinnati and Wisconsin have caused some people to turn sour. Many Purdue fans are also Chicago Bears fans, and they remember offensive coordinator John Shoop from his time in Chicago. The offense has been just about the worst we have seen in West Lafayette in two decades. It can't sustain drives and quarterback Rob Henry, who is very much a read-option guy like Jordan Lynch, looks completely out of place.
I think the majority of the fans realize that Hazell has a long term plan in place, but we expected to be more competitive so far even if the won/loss record is pretty much what was predicted at this point.
2. How will Purdue look to be successful on offense against what seems to be a porous NIU defense? What do they need to do to turn it around?
At this point I don't know. Our offensive line has been atrocious and I am not encouraged when I saw that NIU has double-digit sacks through only three games. We expected a power run game because Brandon Cottom and Akeem Hunt were almost identical backs to Trayion Durham and Dri Archer at Kent State. Cottom has barely played and Hunt has had no room to run behind an awful line.
Henry has also been a concern. When he started game in 2010 we knew his accuracy would be an issue, but he was deadly on the read-option and is a very good runner. The new pro-style offense handcuffs his running ability and his accuracy has not improved even though he is making better decisions in terms of when to throw it away.
Purdue has to get its running game on track. The Boilers have played an extra game, but Lynch is out-rushing us. Hunt and true freshman Dalyn Dawkins look very promising and can be deadly in space, but the line is not opening holes for them. A prime example is the Indiana State game. Twice Purdue had a First and Goal from the 1 and failed to get a touchdown. They were also stuffed on a Fourth and 1. When an FCS stuffs a Big Ten team seven straight times in a 1-yard situation that is all on the offensive line.
3. How is the psychology of Purdue right now as this game is sandwiched between two B1G games and after that blowout in Madison? Will they be motivated?
I think they will be motivated because this is our homecoming and we desperately need a win for some positive momentum. Purdue has next week off, so a win would make the team and fans feel a lot better going into a bye week. We are also well aware that NIU is not your typical early season MAC fodder. They are a legitimate good team that should be in the top 25.
Beating NIU would be huge because suddenly the rest of the Big Ten slate does not look as daunting. Nebraska and Michigan State, our next two opponents, have severe enough issues that beating a team like NIU gives me confidence they could be wins. I say this mostly because I know NIU would have a very good chance of beating them. Also, with Iowa still on the schedule there would be some confidence we could beat them because of transitive value.
Mostly, this team just needs a win over anyone. Even in the Indiana State game the offense was a mess the entire game. Purdue has only looked good for about the first three quarters of the Notre Dame game. That was enough to get people excited, but we want to see more of that team.
4. Predictions for this one? What must the Boilermakers do in order to defeat the Huskies on Saturday?
The offense has to get on track against a struggling defense. We've already whiffed on this once when the offense scored only 13 points against an Indiana State team that gave up 73 the previous week to Indiana. Also, our own defense needs to play a full 60 minutes. It has been good in the first half of games, but has been pretty bad in the second half because it has worn down. This is partially because the offense is not giving them a break, but against Wisconsin there were a bunch of missed tackles and poor assignments.
The optimist in me says Purdue is going to start clicking at random and look like a different team because I believe coach Hazell has a solid long term plan that will pay off. Unfortunately, NIU is very good. They have a chance to become the first MAC team ever to defeat two Big Ten teams in the same season and they are the rare MAC favorite in a big Ten stadium. It is deserved too.