On Saturday afternoon, Iowa and Purdue will do battle in a game that means absolutely nothing in the scheme of the Big Ten race. Purdue has politely excused itself from being taken seriously yet again after being positively waxed by Ohio State (23-7) and Michigan (48-21) in two contests that weren't even as close as the scores may indicate. Iowa, meanwhile, is 3-4, and that's really all that needs to be said. Nonetheless, it's fair to say that both teams absolutely, desperately need a win.
Iowa is trying regain a shred of dignity at .500 and build momentum after a 10-6 win against Illinois, and it will be much, much easier to salvage a 4-4 Big Ten and decent bowl bid with a win in West Lafayette. Lose, and the Hawkeyes will be fortunate to land at 6-6, likely on the outside looking in come December. After the six-year run of bowl bids from 2001-2006, it's safe to say fans and players alike will be awfully antsy if they're spending the entire month of December in Iowa, bitter both on the inside and out.
Then comes the case of Purdue. For as much as we trumpeted Purdue's virtues after their first five wins and decried their weaknesses after the last two losses, the fact remains that the Boilers have never really played a team of their skill level all year. Their five wins came against laughably poor competition, with the hardest level of competition likely coming from Notre Dame or Minnesota. Read that again. Sure, they lost to the conference's perennial Big Two, but those two teams are likely to combine to win a minimum of 14 games in the conference this season.
Iowa, then, will provide a decent but eminently beatable opponent for the first time this season, whereas Purdue is simply the fifth straight such opponent for Iowa. The Hawkeyes have gone 1-3 against such mediocre competition thus far. Gulp.
Then again, Purdue is not Wisconsin, Indiana, Penn State, or Illinois; while their overall level of talent is similar enough, the offense is radically different, and the game will, as always, come down to points on the margin and individual matchups. Who's got the edge?
WHEN IOWA HAS THE BALL
Iowa OL vs. Purdue DL
As mentioned earlier this week, the Julian Vandervelde Era is, if not coming to a complete close, certainly on hold. Much-maligned Dan Doering is seeing some playing time in the Cheese Fries King's stead, and Bryan Bulaga is about two series away from Wally Pipp-ing Travis Meade right back to the bench. Will this lead to more points for Iowa? Not as much as Purdue's defense will, but let's give some credit to the Iowa offensive line, which faced an Illinois defense that has been stout for the last season and a half. It sounds patently ridiculous, but Iowa's production of 4+ yard plays was likely as frequent as it's been all season, and that's a huge step forward. Will "huge step forward" = "good" tomorrow? Maybe. Probably not.
Iowa WR/TE vs. Purdue DB
So, who's Iowa's #1 right now? James Cleveland? DJK? Actually, with any luck, tomorrow it'll be Tony Moeaki! Yes, the Stormin' Mormon may return to the playing field after suffering 75 rounds from an AK-47 at point-blank range to his arm, an injury that team trainers originally feared would sideline the tight end for the season. If so, that's a huge boost to the team. Moeaki is without a doubt the most polished receiver Iowa could put on the field right now (unless, of course, Ed Hinkel clubs Colin Sandeman over the head with a frozen ham hock and takes his place. Nobody would really notice), and his blocking will be another huge benefit. Nonetheless, Iowa's passing game remains rather woeful, and they'll need a big game against a somewhat suspect Purdue secondary who's still got fish hooks sticking through their cheeks after Henne and Michigan's superior play action technique. It would be Iowa's against a "real" defense in 2007.
Iowa RB vs. Purdue LB
Albert Young looks, quite simply, incredibly pissed off on the field. Not in a 2004 Terrell Owens, "fuck you I'm not finshing this route, trade me already" kind of way, either--more like the 2005 Larry Johnson "If you try to tackle me, so help me God, I will fucking murder you with only my shoulder pads and my rage" way. The senior from New Jersey has been running with a reckless abandon not seen since 2005, and his ability to shed initial contact has been sorely missed. All talk of Damian Sims taking over half the carries is officially dead and buried, and Purdue's linebacking corps will need to actually stop the run that they spent so much effort trying (futilely) to commit to last week, even as passes sailed over their heads.
Iowa QB vs. Purdue D
Did you know Jake Christensen's passer rating is just 14.5 points lower than Curtis Painter's? C'est vrai. The Iowa lefty, for all his foibles, has still thrown 11 TD's to just two interceptions on the year, which sort of puts him in Brad Banks's territory. This statistical analysis is brought to you by lies, damned lies, and the Sean Keeler Foundation for Informational Misrepresentation.
As mentioned before, Purdue hasn't really faced a team like Iowa this year, so it's awfully hard to get a gauge on what to expect from their defense tomorrow. They smothered Eastern Illinois, but, uh, duh? They've looked positively mediocre the rest of the way, but before we start popping our black and gold Levitras, Iowa's offensive production this year is a few notches below anything resembling mediocre. The Hawkeyes will need to maintain their improvement on the road in the Big Ten, a condition that probably causes you (and me) quite a bit of trepidation.
WHEN PURDUE HAS THE BALL
Purdue OL vs. Iowa DL
The Purdue offensive line is, like Joe Tiller's bowel movements, semi-solid but unremarkable. They struggled mightily against the pressure of Michigan and Ohio State, and Iowa's defensive line is of comparable quality to those two teams. Painter presents a wonderful opportunity for Iowa's DL to pin their ears back and rattle Painter.
It's entirely possible, of course, that Tiller may have noticed the effect of pressure and plans to call more delayed screens. Luckily, in contrast to kamikaze rushers like Iwebema and King, Mattison and Kroul are among the savviest linemen in the league, and could easily blow up those types of plays before they start.
Purdue WR/TE vs. Iowa DB
This is, of course, a critical matchup. Iowa's defensive backs have been surprisingly capable this season, rarely missing a tackle and generally looking light years ahead of last season's iteration. They struggled against Penn State and Indiana, but if the front seven can pressure Painter into the same mistakes that Michigan forced, there should be some picks for the taking. Painter and Purdue only average about six and a half yards per attempt and 10 per completion, so Iowa DB's shouldn't be spending too much time chasing fly routes. Minimizing the effects of underneath routes is a long-time Norm Parker special, but then again, Anthony Morelli torched the Hawkeyes. Which corps will show up tomorrow?
Purdue RB vs. Iowa LB
Purdue has a tailback, which is cute, because they really only plan on using them when they see the opposing defensive line getting bored and half-assing their gap assignments. Kory Sheets will probably see 10-15 carries next weekend, all of which will be a welcome relief to an Iowa defense that would probably much rather tackle a guy in front of them than chase after some scrawny motherfucker running an out and up.
On Iowa's side of the ball, welcome relief may come in the form of Mike Klinkenborg, who returned to practice on Tuesday and has reportedly not suffered from any setbacks during his recovery from a concussion. In light of Alex Kanellis's far-too-premature retirement last month, this is wonderful news. The All-Big 10 linebacker will be counted on to blitz, play short-center field in zone, and man up on Sheets. Not all simultaneously, of course.
Purdue QB vs. Iowa D
Sex Painter. He's illegal in seven conferences. Yep, he's made from bits of real paint, so you know he's good. They say 63.2 percent of the time, he completes the pass every time.
Undoubtedly, the entire game hinges on the arm of Curtis Painter. He's been alternately great and terrible this year, and his worst performance of the year was just last week in Ann Arbor as he completed 17 of 28 passes, but only for a paltry 114 yards, no touchdowns, and two interceptions. He was benched in the second half for Joey Elliott, who led the Boilers to two late touchdowns against Michigan's cheerleaders and a set of traffic cones.
Painter's troubles came largely at the hands of a heavy Michigan pass rush, as the Wolverines often sent a heavy blitz after the skittish quarterback. Will Iowa continue to eschew the Cover 2 shell to put some pressure on their opponents' heavy offensive tendencies, or does Norm Parker have faith in the defensive line to disrupt the Purdue offense's timing? Iowa's defensive execution will be critical.
Daniel Murray did not miss a field goal last week, which was wonderful.
Ryan Donahue had moments of brilliance, but late in the 4th, he had a dreadful shank from Illinois territory that gave the Illini the ball on their 29 and a spark of momentum that nearly propelled them to the end zone.
Meanwhile, Purdue's kicker, Chris Summers, is 8/10 on field goals this season. He's automatic inside 40, but his long is only 44. I'm going to go ahead and assume that means that he can't hit from 45, and Purdue will be forced to punt from Iowa's 30 if the situation arises. If that's false, then fuck you, I don't care.
Kirk Ferentz regained some standing in the fans' mind with last week's victory, as he struggled to maintain his composure on the sidelines, then lit into those dickcheese reporters the following Monday. Strong men also cry, Mr. Nariskiy! Strong men... also cry! It was a revelatory moment, as Iowa fans realized that for all our grousing about the recent struggles both on and off the field, nobody was more affected than the usually stoic head coach.
Joe Tiller, on the other hand, knows who has diabeetis.
Krispy Kremes and lazy jokes for everyone! If Iowa runs zone, Purdue probably wins at home, 24-13. If Iowa tries to break Curtis Painter and gives Mike Klinkenborg a 2x4 with a nail in it to do so, Iowa really fucks up West Lafayette's world and probably wins by a similar score. Look, I don't have a fucking clue who's going to win, and neither do you. Purdue's favored by a touchdown, but Iowa will likely keep it close for the length of the game. I'd say it'll be 17-13 late, and whoever's A) ahead at that point and B) scores last will determine how the game shakes out. It could be another magical 2002 game again, but Purdue's a little more likely to win.