Kickoff: Purdue at Michigan State, noon, Saturday
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WEST LAFAYETTE -- Landon Feichter is back.
Purdue's senior safety is back practicing (for now, just individual drills) as the Boilers prepare for Saturday's game at Michigan State. A broken leg, it seems, can only keep the former Bishop Dwenger standout sidelined for so long.
If everything goes well, coach Darrell Hazell said, Feichter will return to the field for the Nov. 2 game against Ohio State.
“We need his leadership desperately right now in our locker room and back in our secondary,” Hazell said
Feichter hasn't played since the Sept. 7 Indiana State game, when he broke his leg. He played in that game with two busted-up hands from the season opener at Cincinnati. He's totaled eight tackles this season after leading Purdue with 80 last year.
In the meantime, Feichter is making a major impact as the Boilers (1-6 overall, 0-2 in the Big Ten) become ever more youthful in this season to forget.
“It's awesome to get him back,” Hazell said. “We need his leadership. He's the guy in the locker room at halftime who's speaking up now. He's jumping on guys and trying to fire them up.”
Purdue, a 24.5-point underdog to Michigan State (5-1, 2-0), needs all the fire it can get as it tries to build for the future. The Boilers dressed 34 freshmen among their 70 players for Saturday's 44-7 loss to Nebraska.
“They have to learn fast,” Hazell said. “We have a lot of freshmen and a lot are playing for us right now. We have to do a good job of getting them caught up as fast as we can, while making sure they don't make those young mistakes and hurt the team.”
Mistakes continue to come at a machine gun pace, and Hazell has had enough.
“We have to do the things that matter, and the things that matter to us are taking care of the ball, getting off the field on third down, converting more third downs and making more plays. We're not making enough plays on either side of the ball. That's really hurting us.”
It starts at quarterback with true freshman Danny Etling. The good news: He threw a 55-yard touchdown pass to true freshman Angelo Yancey in his college starting debut Saturday against Nebraska. The bad news: In six quarters Etling is 33-for-74 (44.6 percent) for 425 yards, three touchdowns and three interceptions.
With Etling running the show against Nebraska, Purdue totaled just 216 yards.
Oregon basically does that in a quarter.
Purdue has, by far, the Big Ten's worst offense, averaging just 15.3 points and 287.3 yards.
“It's frustrating,” Hazell said. “You put a lot of work into it. You want better results.
“But you know where you are as a program. You're working through things, and there's a lot to get better at. That's part of the growing process and our staff is working tirelessly to get those things fixed.”
Hazell's short-term solution: Shrink the offense.
“If you're doing a lot of things and you're just doing them OK, it doesn't help you. We've got to find three or four things we do well, whether it's inside zone or the power play or our three-step game or a midrange passing game. We have to narrow the package down -- not because of a knowledge thing, but it's more about execution for everybody on offense.”
Of course, defenses will feast on easy-to-read offenses, so narrowing needs some disguise.
“We're seeing a lot more man-to-man coverage on third downs, and we're seeing a lot more blitzes. We have to have answers for that because we're going to continue to see them.”
A solid running game would help, but Purdue isn't close to that. Against Nebraska it managed just 32 yards on 25 carries. Michigan State's defense is much better.
“Our running game needs to get ramped up,” Hazell said. “It's funny, you watch the tape and (the offensive linemen) are getting hats on hats, our guys are blocking guys, but the lanes are so small. So we've talked about doing things to create bigger lanes.”
Translation: Tweak the blocking to make bigger holes. The problem: Holes are hard to find against Michigan State.
“In terms of their defense, they're good,” Hazell said. “Their front is very structurally sound with nine guys up. Those safeties are downhill guys. They play 8 yards back and they scream downhill (toward the line of scrimmage) at the snap of the ball. We have to do a good job of neutralizing the safeties and push the ball on the outside.”
Michigan State, meanwhile, has found an offense, and if it can't match its defensive prowess, that doesn't mean it isn't effective. The Spartans have scored 26 and 42 points in their last two games. They found balance in beating IU last Saturday, rushing for 238 yards and passing for 235.
Given Purdue also has the Big Ten's worst defense, well, things are likely to get worse before they get better.
“We've got to get a lot better,” Hazell said. “We've got to find guys that are going to help this program down the stretch. Now that we're playing some of the younger players, they have to produce.
“I want to see us take care of the ball. That gives you a chance. I want to see us play better third-down defense. If we can do those two things, you'll like the direction we're going.”