Kickoff: Western Michigan at Purdue, noon, Saturday
For more on college sports, follow Pete DiPrimio via Twitter at www.twitter.com/pdiprimio
Last year doesn't exist. Don't you get it? That 1-11 Purdue football disaster rocked by beyond-bad play is beyond gone.
Let it go, already.
The Boilers have.
Western Michigan comes to Ross-Ade Stadium on Saturday and Purdue seeks a new beginning. Coach Darrell Hazell starts his second season and it's time to hit the reboot button. This is, in many ways, his first season. Last year's rough transition from former coach Danny Hope to Hazell left the Boilers reeling from lack of execution.
Not this season. Hazell has made that clear. This is a bigger, stronger, faster, tougher-minded group much more in tune with what needs to be done. Defensive end Ryan Russell said Purdue is ready to put on a show.
In other words, bring on the Broncos.
“We know how far we've come,” Russell said. “We're ready to show the strides we've made. This will be different season. We still have high goals and expectations. We've changed, but that hasn't changed.”
And then Russell upped the ante.
“Our goals are to be Big Ten and national champs,” he said. “That's always the goal, but at the end of the day it needs to be a win. Anything short of a victory would be selling ourselves short.
“I want to see passion. We need to keep up the energy. We need guys flying around.”
What does Hazell want to see? In a word, “perfection,” or at least as close to that as a team can get in its season opener. In a sentence, well, there's this:
“You've got to play with great speed. You've got to play with great speed and execution. We have good team speed on both sides of the ball. You do those things and you're off and running.”
That's been the goal since Hazell's arrived after resurrecting the Kent State program. Last year's painful-to-watch play will give way to, well, fun.
“The talent level has risen,” Hazell said. “Our guys will play with more passion. They'll be more physical. Fans will enjoy watching us play.”
It starts with quarterback. Expect a new and improved Danny Etling. Last year's often brutal freshmen debut leaves him far more prepared to do the job he was recruited to do. Yes, he said, he's pumped about it -- within reason, of course.
“You want to be very calm, especially at the quarterback position,” he said. “Everyone else can be jumping around and getting amped up, but you've got to keep your cool. For the quarterback, it's a very mental game. You want to be excited, but you also want to keep it back, throw accurate passes, understand the defense and keep everyone in line.”
It's not all on Etling. Backup quarterback Austin Appleby has the same burden, although how much he'll play depends how the game goes.
“All the quarterbacks prepare the same way,” Etling said. “If you don't know the game plan inside and out, you shouldn't be with us. You have to make sure everybody understands what we're supposed to do. As the quarterback, you want to set the tone for work ethic. You set up meetings with the linemen, the receivers, the running backs. Make sure we're all on the same page. Show them, I'm getting my stuff done, we all have to get our stuff done.”
Purdue wants to make Western Michigan pay for its expected man coverage. One way is for Etling to complete deep passes, something that's been hit or miss in practice.
“You always want to be the most accurate you can be,” Etling said. “I pride myself on being an accurate quarterback. If you see a lot of man, you need to be accurate.”
Defensively the Boilers could be without veteran linebacker Sean Robinson, who has been bothered by an infected knee this week. Meanwhile, freshman linebacker Ja'Whan Bentley is set to start after an impressive month.
Etling knows all about that.
“I got an idea on nickel blitzes in practice when he was coming in untouched. He's good. He's fast. He was a great pickup.”
The same is true for fellow freshman Gelen Robinson, who has gotten work at linebacker and defensive end. While he likely won't start on Saturday, he will play.
Russell likes what both can do.
“Ja'Whan just turned 18 and he's one of the stronger guys on the team. He knows the game. He asks the right questions. He'll be instant impact.
“Gelen will be an impact guy. He's one of the more aggressive guys on defense. He brings toughness to the defense. He will smack you in the face, and want to do it all game.”
Western Michigan duplicated Purdue's 1-11 record last season. Coach P.J. Fleck, in his second season, landed the nation's No. 60 rated class, which means it ranks among the best freshman groups the Mid-American Conference has had in a long time.
Hazell isn't worried about that. He is focused on defense. Last year's defense was miserable, but as we already know, last year didn't happen. It's all about what could be.
“This is a different team,” Hazell said. “We're a much better defense right now than we were at any time last year. We're running to the ball better. We're more physical. We're more gap sound. We're better in the back end (the secondary). Ryan Russell has done an unbelievable job with leadership.
“We're playing so hungry right now. If we continue to do that, if we can pressure the quarterback, we'll be a very good defense.”