July 28, 2009

Time to silence the critics

CHICAGO - In about 10 days the Boilermakers will begin practice for the 2009 season, which is just over five weeks away from kicking off. And with the dawn of a new season comes new goals and in Purdue's case an opportunity to erase the bad memories left from the previous campaign.

To a man, the players are convinced last year's 4-8 season was a blip on the radar instead of the start of a string of losing seasons.

Wide receiver Keith Smith is convinced this year's Boilermaker squad has much better team chemistry than a year ago, which will equate to more victories come Saturday.

"It's not a team of individuals," Smith said. "We're all one. We came together early in January. We put on the table, everyone that wants to be on this team and wants to work hard and succeed stay. If you don't, leave. Everybody stayed.

"All we've done is work hard as a team all through spring and all through the summer to build the chemistry to be a winning football team."

Defensive tackle Mike Neal says it's all about that type of work ethic, something this year's Boilermakers excel in.

"I can honestly say because I've been around teams at Purdue in the past that I don't necessarily think we're more talented, but I think we work a lot harder than some of the teams have in the past," Neal said.

"Coach (Danny) Hope is all about hard work. He's put more into the program as far as stuff we do in between the time off and weight lifting and stuff like that to make us a better team.

"I think we'll be a better team because we work a lot harder than teams have in the past," Neal added.

Neal expects the average fan to notice the difference in this year's Purdue team compared to last year's on every snap.

"They'll notice we finish every play," he said. "You'll see offensive linemen sprinting 20 yards down the field after running backs make plays to try and get big blocks and open up more holes for them. It's something they (the coaches) wanted to improve on. They told the offensive line if the defense turns and runs, you better turn and run, too."

Hope is expecting Neal to have a banner season and emerge as one of the Big Ten's best defensive tackles. At the same time, Neal expects to prove the so-called critics wrong after they've forecasted the Boilermakers to finish near or at the bottom of the Big Ten.

"It's a motivational factor because you never want to be put that low," Neal said, "but Coach Hope said it best, no matter where you are (predicted to finish), you want to win games. So ultimately it doesn't matter where you're picked because you just want to win and you want to have a better season than last year.

"No doubt though I have a chip on my shoulder because I want to play better than last year."

Quarterback Joey Elliott fully understands why the prognosticators are so negative when it comes to Purdue's outlook this fall.

"If they asked me, I would say the same thing," Elliott admitted. "When the media is looking at us, they're looking at key wins (from last season) and who is coming back offensively and defensively.

"You can say our secondary is going to be solid, but everywhere else there are question marks.

"When you look at other Big Ten schools, you see four-year starters, All-Big Ten and we don't have any of those here at Purdue (right now)," he added. "Obviously we have a lot of players that should be and could be (all-conference). If they produce on Saturdays, I think at the end of the year all that will change."

Neal's definition of a better season is one that doesn't include the Boilermakers being spectators come bowl time.

"I believe we'll win more football games than we did last year," the senior said.

Smith added, "I feel like we'll have at least a winning season and I plan on going to a bowl game."

Elliott shied away from putting a specific win total on the '09 season.

"I don't want to make predictions, but I know that I've been around a lot of college football games and around a lot of close games and if you win a close game, you never know what's going to happen … that train can just keep on rolling," he said. "I think last year that hurt us … the Oregon game. If we won that game, you never know. The door would've been open in my mind- the confidence, the fan support, the players' work ethic in practice, the energy, just everything. It could've created more wins."

Who knows what an early-season win over say Oregon or Notre Dame could do for this year's Boilermakers? Remember it was the 1997 victory over the Irish that put Joe Tiller's program headed in the right direction and perhaps a big victory this September would do the same.

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