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October 15, 2013

'Not where we want to be;' Tuesday notes

Darrell Hazell's first Purdue team is at the midway point in the season, and it's largely been a struggle through the first six games.

But Hazell addressed Tuesday areas he thinks are crucial to fix going forward. Namely, doing a better job of limiting turnovers, becoming more efficient on third down on both sides of the ball, punting better and making more plays.

They'd seem obvious areas, considering Purdue has stumbled to a 1-5 start by ranking 11th in the Big Ten in turnovers lost, 11th in third-down conversions, last in opponent's third-down conversions allowed and having produced only 12 plays of at least 20 yards on offense.

"Obviously, we're not where we want to be. We've got to get a whole lot better," Hazell said during his weekly press conference. "We have to get them fixed for us to be a good football team because our margin of error is not very big. That's where we are right now - our margin for error is not very big. So we have to be able to eliminate those mistakes to give ourselves a chance to be competitive in this stretch.

"Six games in, you just have to make sure you're playing better. There's so many little things you've got to do, you can't fill them all at one time. You've got to pick and choose the things you have to get better at. That's from the head coach on down, and that's where we have to start."

With a shift to playing more younger players in the second half of the season, Hazell said the team is simply looking for players who can help the program down the stretch. Those young players must produce, too, and he'd like to see that start with not turning the ball over - maybe difficult with a freshman QB - and getting the defense off the field on third downs.

They've been points of emphasis already and will continue to be, as the same mistakes are being made.

"Obviously it's frustrating. You put a lot of work into it and you want better results," Hazell said. "But you know where you are as a program, and you're working through those things. The whole goal as a program is you've got to try to continually get better at little things and there's a lot of things you've got to get better at. That's part of the growing process. Our staff is working tirelessly to get those things fixed, and that's what they'll do."

A big challenge
Michigan State has developed one of the nation's best rush defenses, using an aggressive front that brings its safeties into the box to help stuff the run game, especially on first and second down.

Purdue is the only team in the league that doesn't average at least 100 rushing yards per game.

But it'll need to at least try to create some kind of run game against the Spartans. Perhaps that'll come with a change in approach and personnel.

"Our running game needs to get ramped up a little bit," Hazell said. "You watch the tape and they're getting hats on hats. Our guys are blocking guys, but the lanes are so small. So we talked about doing some things with our splits and trying to create some bigger lanes. The guys are assignment sound."

Akeem Hunt likely will get the bulk of the carries still, but Hazell said the staff will take a look at redshirt freshman Robert Gregory, who could bring more physicality inside the tackles. Hazell said the staff will know by the end of the week whether Gregory will factor into the game plan.

Fans clamoring for more Raheem Mostert or Brandon Cottom to fill that physical need may be shortsighted - at least in Hazell's definition of what this team is looking for in a back that's going to get significant snaps.

"The problem is there's only so many footballs that can go around. You've got to figure out which guys can do the best and the most things - not only carrying the ball - but protection and getting into the release lanes and finding the check-downs, all those things," Hazell said. "You're trying to find one guy who can do it all and then some guys who can spell that guy."

Finding another
With back-to-back 100-yard receiving games by freshman DeAngelo Yancey, the Boilermakers appear to have an emerging go-to receiver.

But one isn't enough, especially with defenses expected to start shifting more attention in Yancey's direction.

Hazell said it's critical that Purdue find another receiver who can consistently produce, and that could be whoever learns to get open the most in man coverage. It's an approach Michigan State's cornerbacks, especially, will use on Saturday.

"It's all about patience and technique," Hazell said of how to get free against that coverage. "When you're playing against good defenders, you have to be able to have some patience at the line of scrimmage to create separation. You have to be able to get open late when the quarterback needs you, not getting open early because if he's not ready to throw you the ball, it doesn't do you any good. You have to be able to create separation against defenders."

There are several options. Shane Mikesky has started games this season; Cameron Posey is getting a lot of snaps in three-receiver packages; Dan Monteroso is expected to develop into a weapon; and Hazell said the staff is still "very high" on Danny Anthrop, who didn't get his first snap until the second half against Nebraska. B.J. Knauf will serve one more game of his two-game suspension before returning against Ohio State on Nov. 2.

Mikesky's 12 catches are second to Yancey's 14 among the most by receivers, and Posey has seven.

"(To) take the pressure off (Yancey), take the pressure off the quarterback, you need another receiver to step up," Hazell said. "We as a staff have to do a good job this week and in weeks to come of being able to cut those other guys loose by scheme because right now we're struggling beating man-to-man coverage, and that's an issue. So we have to do things schematically to make sure we cut those guys loose."

'Staggering' numbers
Purdue's defense has struggled to get off the field much of the season, with its third-down efficiency ranking last in the Big Ten.

But the trend was even more pronounced against Nebraska on Saturday, with the Cornhuskers converting 11 of their 21 third-down chances. Nebraska had particular success when attempting to pass, completing 8-of-12 attempts for 148 yards with a touchdown and an interception. All eight completions registered a first down.

"It's staggering," Hazell said of the numbers. "We were trying to get to (the QB) with a four-man pass rush and you couldn't get home with him, so he had time to sit back and find some open guys. But then when you brought blitz, he was able to cut it loose and was picking some guys. And the thing about it was that they were big chunks. It was third-and-seven and all the sudden they pick up 23. It was third-and-nine and they pick up 18. The big chunks were really hurting us.

"It wasn't so much the scheme as it was that we've got to get home (to the QB) when we have a four- or five-man rush, and we've got to stay a little bit tighter in coverage in some of those man-to-man matchups for a little bit longer."

Through six games, opponents are now getting a new set of downs on 47.8 percent of their third-down opportunities. Only four teams - Minnesota, Indiana and Northwestern are the others - allow greater than 40 percent, while five have a percentage of better than 29. Ohio State is the league's best, keeping opponents from converting nearly 75 percent of their chances.

Cornerback Frankie Williams says the Boilermakers need a little extra urgency in those situations and better execution, too.

"I wouldn't say they were so successful," he said the Huskers. "I would say we missed some of our assignments and we didn't get the ball out. We weren't as totally locked in. We just have to execute better and that comes with executing more and more in practice."

In and out

Safety Landon Feichter will practice Tuesday afternoon, his first action since breaking his lower right leg against Indiana State in the second week of the season.

The junior will likely participate in only individual drills, but it's a good first step in an anticipated return for the Ohio State game on Nov. 2.

"(It) is awesome to get him back. We just need his leadership," Hazell said. "He's the guy in the locker room at halftime who is speaking up right now. He's the guy that's jumping on guys and trying to fire them up. So we need his leadership desperately right now, back in our locker room and our secondary."

Meanwhile, defensive end Greg Latta will likely be limited during practice this week, as he continues to nurse a hamstring injury. The senior played on Saturday, after missing much of the preparation the previous two weeks, but left for the second half after tweaking the hamstring yet again.

Hazell thought the end would likely be able to play by Saturday.

Just off

In his first career start, Danny Etling completed only 40 percent of his passes, with many of his throws missing slightly high.

It contributed to his interception, when a ball glanced off the hands of Yancey. Hazell says Etling experienced some mechanical issues, mainly in his drop, that caused his passes to be erratic.

"He was back-pedaling instead of turning his shoulders and running," Hazell said. "He was floating to one side, which puts pressure on the tackle. So some of those things were mechanical flaws that as a young player, when you're not feeling as comfortable as you should be, you lose some of your mechanics."

In a little more than a game-and-a-half, Etling has completed only 33-of-74 passes (44.6 percent).

Cooling Cody

After a hot start to the season, punter Cody Webster has cooled the last two weeks.

In his 12 punts vs. Northern Illinois and Nebraska, the senior has booted an average of only 39.8, with two landing inside the 20-yard line. In the previous four games, he averaged 45.7 yards on his 23 punts, with nine dropping inside the 20.

"He's got to punt the ball better for us, he really does," Hazell said. "He's got to put the ball outside the hash where our cover guys are, and he's got to give us more hang time to get down the field."

Webster's overall average of 43.7 yards per punt still ranks him 26th in the country and second in the Big Ten.

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