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October 5, 2012Michigan has dominated Purdue in its 57-game series history, posting a .754 winning percentage. However, the Wolverines are just 3-3 in their last six trips to West Lafayette, and enter this weekend's game with considerable question marks still.
The analysts may be giving Purdue credit, and the Boilermakers themselves believe, but the fans aren't truly on board yet, packing Ross-Ade Stadium to only 72.8 percent capacity in last week's 51-41 victory over Marshall.
But that's the nature of the beast in West Lafayette, with the Gold and Black failing to compete for a Big Ten championship since placing second, one game back, with a 6-2 mark in 2003. Since then, Purdue has finished fifth (4-4), eighth (3-5), fourth (5-3), seventh (3-5), ninth (2-6), sixth (4-4), eighth (2-6) and sixth (4-4).
While it may seem like forever to Boilermaker fans since their team was truly a contender, Michigan fans have also been lamenting a seven-year stretch without a Big Ten title. In fact, since last claiming the conference crown in back-to-back years in 2003-04, U-M is just 30-26 in league games. So both fan bases are waiting, wondering if this will be the year for their teams.
That path to the Big Ten Championship game begins for both Purdue and Michigan on Saturday, each opening league action a week later than their conference counterparts. And it begins in earnest for both programs as both the Maize and Blue and Gold and Black are legitimate candidates to emerge from their respective divisions to play for the title Dec. 1 in Indianapolis. Some even believe tomorrow's contest could be a preview of one eight weeks from now.
"We're a good team," said Purdue coach Danny Hope, seemingly trying to convince the local journalists. "We have a very strong defensive front that could be great. Our secondary is talented and experienced; we have a very good defensive team that could be a great defensive team.
"Offensively, we're manufacturing some points. We're doing very well on third downs, in the red zone, with our rushing offense. Our quarterback is now getting back in sync. The better he plays and performs, and with the guys around him, we have a chance to be explosive offensively.
"We have to get better as a team, but I think from a personnel standpoint, and execution, we're certainly ready for Big Ten play."
Are the Wolverines? That's certainly been a question posed to head coach Brady Hoke and his players this week. U-M hasn't played since a 13-6 loss at Notre Dame Sept. 22. A game in which the offense finished with just 299 yards, with its six points representing the fewest by a Maize and Blue team since Michigan fell 14-3 to Ohio State in 2007.
At least publicly, the Wolverines said everything they needed to say the past few days, and they understand the conference slate is their chance to make something out of the 2012 campaign.
"As we've said before, the goal of this team is the Big Ten championship," redshirt junior left tackle Taylor Lewan said. "This team is really fired up about [Big Ten play]."
Two teams with high aspirations, capable of winning the Legends and Leaders Divisions. It's a new season, and it starts now.
Kickoff: 4:00 p.m.
Radio-TV: Big Ten Network will broadcast the game live. The game can be heard on the Michigan Sports Network (950 AM in the Detroit area, SiriusXM channel 201) with long-time partners Frank Beckmann and Jim Brandstatter, and sideline reporter Doug Karsch.
Coaches: Michigan: Brady Hoke (13-4, second season). Purdue: Danny Hope (19-22, fourth season).
By The Numbers
3 - Senior quarterback Denard Robinson's rank among active players in college football in both career total touchdowns (85) and career rushing yards (3,670); he also ranks second in career rushing touchdowns with 39.
4 - Tackles fifth-year senior Jordan Kovacs needs to become the 15th Wolverine ever, and the first defensive back, with 300 career stops; he currently ranks 16th all time with 296 tackles.
6 - Times in school history Purdue has scored 50 or more points in back-to-back games after it put up 54 against Eastern Michigan and 51 against Marshall in its past two contests.
11:13 - Robinson's touchdown to interception ratio in 13 career road games.
12-1 - Purdue's record the past four seasons when it rushes for 200 yards or more.
41-2 - U-M's record in Big Ten openers since the arrival of Bo Schembechler in 1969.
42 - Years since Michigan and Purdue met in each other's Big Ten opener (1970), with U-M prevailing 29-0.
TheWolverine.com Game Week Poll Results
After Notre Dame exits the schedule, beginning in 2015, should Michigan look to schedule the Fighting Irish in the future?
Yes - 31 percent
No - 69 percent
When Purdue has the Ball
From 1997-2008, under head coach Joe Tiller, the Boilermakers led the Big Ten in passing yards per game six times, averaging better than 300 yards in 1998 (374.5), 1999 (333.5), 2000 (205.5) and 2004 (307.2), but this isn't the same Purdue offense that excelled with the pass only.
Under Hope, the Gold and Black have been transitioning to a more balanced offense, and this year, they are one of only three teams in the Big Ten with 200 yards passing and 200 yards rushing per game, while their 165 rushing attempts account for 52.1 percent of Purdue's total offensive plays.
In senior Akeem Shavers and sophomore Akeem Hunt, the Boilermakers have two capable tailbacks that can both move the chains and break off the big play, as Shavers has averaged 4.1 yards per carry and has a long of 40 yards, and Hunt (with only 18 attempts) is averaging 9.4 yards per attempt with a long of 56 yards.
But before we go too nuts, and declare Purdue a run-first offense, we must acknowledge that the strength of their attack still comes via the air, where senior quarterback Caleb TerBush has three go-to wide receivers - junior O.J. Ross, senior Antavian Edison and junior Gary Bush - and junior tight end Gabe Holmes. The four have combined for 56 receptions, 726 yards and 10 touchdowns in just four games.
The receivers, especially, though, are not physical, pro-style No. 1 types, and instead rely on their quickness and elusiveness, which fits perfectly into a Boilermaker scheme that has and will continue to rely heavily on jailbreak screens to its wideouts, with Holmes and other receivers creating the downfield blocks to neutralize a defense's cornerbacks and safeties. In fact, Purdue will go to this well early and often, and won't stop unless Michigan keeps the gains minimum.
This game, essentially, will be the first time the Maize and Blue secondary is tested. Senior cornerback J.T. Floyd, sophomore Raymon Taylor and junior nickel back Courtney Avery have to play with physicality, shedding their blocks and making tackles in space. They also need to leverage the football back inside so that U-M's linebackers have the opportunity to get to the football and make a lasting impression on Purdue's pass catchers.
Michigan is expected to open in a five-back defense, and will likely employ redshirt sophomore Jake Ryan as a rush end more than a SAM linebacker in an effort to make U-M's front six as versatile as possible, and as strong against the run because Purdue will turn to its running game when it knows there are only six in the box.
This game will also come down to the battle up front. The Wolverines' defensive line, arguably, bested the Fighting Irish offensive line two weeks ago and now faces a Purdue line that hasn't yet found the right combination. If Michigan can control the line of scrimmage, it can stifle the Boilermaker ground game, put pressure on TerBush and force the Gold and Black to become the pass-heavy team they're not interested in becoming.
When Michigan has the Ball
One step forward, two steps back? The Michigan offense is looking to shuck that reality and just take two or three steps forward without the miscues that plagued the Wolverines in losses to both Alabama and Notre Dame, particularly the inexplicably bad-timed interceptions that stymied momentum when U-M was on the brink of something.
Of course, Purdue has looked at the game film, especially of Michigan's ND loss, and is hoping to repeat the formula, intent on bringing pressure to hurry Denard Robinson's decision-making process with the hope he will do what gets him into trouble - throw the ball into coverages that are rife with possible disaster.
The Boilermakers aren't a great blitzing team, especially at the linebacker position, but what they possess is a front four, led by tackles Kawann Short and Bruce Gaston, that demand the full attention of the offensive line. In doing so, the line creates situations for its linebackers and defensive backs to come off the edge or up the middle with maybe only a running back standing between the defender and quarterback.
Michigan's offensive line has been solid in pass protection this year, doing an above-average job picking up blitzers, and redshirt junior tailback Fitzgerald Toussaint has been a plus as a last line of defense for Robinson. It will be up to Robinson to feel the pressure when it's coming and elude it, putting himself in position outside the tackle box to throw the ball away or tuck it and run. As a last resort, take the sack. Will he do that? It's the million-dollar question.
While Purdue does have a very good defensive line and two of the best cornerbacks in the Big Ten (just salivating as they wait for a Robinson errant throw), the defense is weak at linebacker, doesn't flow to the football smoothly and can be exploited on cut-back lanes. This is a game where misdirection and exploring the edges could greatly benefit the Wolverines. It's a game where Toussaint's natural wiggle and ability to spot a hole to his left when the play was supposed to go right will be assets.
As for Robinson and the passing attack, look for coordinator Al Borges to simplify the QB's reads a little bit. Instead of relying on the intermediate and deep patterns that are Borges' bread-and-butter, U-M could go to shorter stuff with one or two progressions instead of the three or four on most snaps. This should give Robinson a greater chance to be successful while forcing the linebackers to drop into coverage, freeing opportunities in the ground game.
Three Boilermaker Players to Watch
Senior receiver Antavian Edison: In just four games, the 5-11, 175-pound receiver is already having a season to remember, catching five touchdown passes among his 24 grabs (20.8 percent of his receptions have gone for scores). The Fort Meyers, Fla., native now has 13 career touchdowns, and has shown a propensity to make the big play when needed, hauling in a difficult 15-yard game-tying TD at Notre Dame late in the fourth quarter of week two.
Senior tailback Akeem Shavers:The 2011 Little Caesars Pizza Bowl MVP after rushing for career high 149 yards, the former junior-college transfer has taken over permanently for oft-injured tailback Ralph Bolden, starting all four contests while gaining a team-high 240 yards on 58 carries (4.1 yards per rush). The 5-11, 203-pound back has scored three touchdowns, and will rotate with sophomore speed back Akeem Hunt, but Shavers is the workhorse, earning a career-high 25 carries in last week's win over Marshall.
Junior cornerback Ricardo Allen: The 5-9, 186-pounder recorded a pick-six against Michigan, returning it 94 yards, in 2010 and a week later returned another interception for a score, this time against Michigan State. Last week, the big-play cornerback with 15 career passes defended, returned the fourth interception of his tenure, setting a school record. A terrific all-around player, Allen had 170 stops in three seasons, and isn't afraid to play the run.
Purdue is no chump, and with so much on the line for the Boilermakers as they begin a legitimate hunt for the Leaders Division berth, they will bring forth an intensity in this game that the Wolverines have to match. That shouldn't be a problem for them, though, not after waiting two weeks to avenge a loss to Notre Dame, and not with so many questioning whether this team can contend for the Legends Division title.
It won't be as easy as the win over Purdue a year ago, but Michigan will find a way thanks to improved play from Robinson and a defense that forces field goals in the red zone.
Score: Michigan 27, Purdue 20.
Against the Spread (-3): U-M will cover.
Over/Under (58): Under.
Michael Spath's record this year: Result: 3-1; Against the Spread 1-3; Over/Under 2-2.
The Week At TheWolverine.com