Purdue making strong push with better defense
Kawann Short and Caleb TerBush see the difference in Purdue's defense every day at practice.
Players are bigger, faster, more aggressive and certainly more confident.
It's game day when the real changes show up. For the first time in seemingly forever, the Cradle of Quarterbacks has a defense that is every bit as good - and perhaps better - than its high-scoring offense.
''It's just nice to talk about defense,'' coach Danny Hope said Tuesday. ''You look at most of the top teams in the country, and they all play good defense.''
Purdue has traditionally relied on airing it out to contend for Big Ten titles. This season's turnaround has been nothing short of remarkable.
In 2011, the Boilermakers allowed nearly 27 points and 400 yards per game to opponents. They finished No. 9 in the Big Ten in both categories, yet still managed to qualify for their first bowl game since 2007 thanks to TerBush's strong arm and an offense that came together just in time to make a late-season run.
This year, the roles have been reversed.
While the Boilermakers' offense has been up-and-down this season, because of instability at quarterback, the defense has held up.
Purdue opponents are averaging 14 points and 293 yards through the first three games, the second-best numbers of any team in the league. Only defending Legends Division champion Michigan State is ranked ahead of Purdue in those categories.
Short, one of the nation's top defensive tackles and a possible first-round draft pick in 2013, has played a major part in this revival with three sacks and two blocked kicks. Teammate Ryan Russell isn't far behind with two sacks. And the Boilermakers (2-1) head into Saturday's final non-conference game against Marshall with nine sacks - one fewer than they had in the first seven games last season.
''Everybody's in better position, knowing what we need to do. Everybody's played, we feel like everyone who comes off the bench can do a good job,'' Short said with a wide grin. ''That's what we were working on in camp - being more physical.''
Hope acknowledged that although he's been around some good defensive linemen and good defensive backs through the years, he's never had this many good linemen or defensive backs on one team.
Purdue still has plenty to prove.
While only one team (Notre Dame) has scored more than16 points against the Boilermakers, the wins have come against Eastern Kentucky and Eastern Michigan - two teams most expected them to beat handily. Pollsters have started to notice, too, as Purdue has started to pick up votes in the Top 25.
But the next month will be the biggest test yet.
First, Purdue faces Marshall (2-2) and the nation's No. 1 passing offense (383.5). The Thundering Herd leads the Bowl Subdivision in total offensive plays (371) and plays that have gained at least 10 yards (88). Those numbers mean big guys, like the 315-pound Short, must be ready to play fast and face a litany of quick passes - something the defense faces every time TerBush is running the show.
''They're always getting after it in practice,'' said TerBush, the second-year starter at quarterback. ''They're always running to the ball, and that's one of the biggest things that's changed. Coach always tells them to run to the ball and at the end of every play, you see them flying around.''
After Marshall, the Boilermakers host previously ranked Michigan and previously ranked Wisconsin before heading to No. 14 Ohio State.
Purdue be better suited to withstanding those challenges this year for another reason - cornerbacks Ricardo Allen and Josh Johnson.
The duo not only possesses the experience and speed Purdue has sometimes lacked, they've become better hand-to-hand combatants with opposing receivers. Purdue's first three opponents have managed just 184.3 yards passing per game through the air and one TD through the air.
But is this defense everything the Boilermakers think it can be? Purdue is about to find out.
''We shoot for perfection as a defense,'' Short said, ''because we know being satisfied won't cut it.''
Notes: Hope would not say how much more time quarterback Robert Marve may miss with a torn ACL, though Hope remains optimistic Marve will return this season. Marve has been doing light work at practice, but Hope does not expect the sixth-year senior to play against Marshall. ... Hope also said running back Ralph Bolden has been cleared for limited work and should return later this season. Bolden still has not been cleared to take hits after recovering from the ACL he tore in last year's regular-season finale. ... Although Notre Dame announced Tuesday it would drop its annual contest against Michigan, Hope said he has not yet been contacted by the Fighting Irish regarding the annual series with Purdue.