Purdue hoping to turn steady progress into wins
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Purdue running back Akeem Hunt, right, goes over Notre Dame linebacker Dan Fox on his way to a touchdown during the first half of Saturday's game in West Lafayette, Ind. The Boilermakers nearly upset Notre Dame.
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- Purdue defensive end Ryan Russell noticed the attitude adjustment during last week's practices.
Darrell Hazell sensed it as he patrolled the sideline Saturday night. His players no longer need the coach to provide inspirational speeches, they were just fine doing it on their own.
The baby Boilermakers are growing up. They've figured out what Hazell has been after these past several months -- an upbeat, confident team that is willing to match the intensity of opponents, map out solutions on the fly and do everything possible to succeed.
All they have to do now is keep it up.
"I think our guys are starting to understand the level that you need to compete at on each play. I think they handled some adversity much better," Hazell said Tuesday. "While saying that, I still say we're in the business of winning, and that's the bottom line. Don't let that ever go without saying. So we need to keep getting better. I think we are getting better."
It showed Saturday when the Boilermakers put together their best performance of this young season, nearly pulling off an upset of Notre Dame.
But Hazell and his team realize this is no time for moral victories.
Purdue (1-2) is in the midst of its toughest stretch of the season. The next stop is at No. 24 Wisconsin, the two-time defending Big Ten champs.
Russell and his teammates have a pretty good idea of what to expect this weekend. The Badgers (2-1) will run the ball, will get physical and can make opponents look silly as the Boilermakers know all too well. Wisconsin has won seven straight in this series, the last six by double digits and the last five coming by a combined score of 195-47.
What Hazell knows about Madison is that it's a loud, intimidating environment for anyone, especially a young team trying to find its way in the Big Ten.
The Boilermakers insist they're up to the challenge.
"Getting better every week, that's a big thing for us," Russell said. "The coaches don't know it because they haven't been here before, but that hasn't always been the case for us."
After scouring the tape of last week's game, Hazell noticed just how close the Boilermakers really were to making another key tackle or opening up a wider running lane or even making a big play down the field.
"What I told the team is that we're a foot off, a physical foot off," Hazell said. "I told our guys we have to find that foot, that 12 inches."
Hazell is calling on his players to read plays quicker, anticipate better and get into position faster.
Players have gotten the message after watching tape themselves.
"At first, you just want to kick yourself, you want to beat yourself up because you're so close," Russell explained, shaking his head. "To be that close and not make the play is just so frustrating."
But they can't afford to let those missed plays get them down, and certainly not after what the Boilermakers did Saturday night.
Quarterback Rob Henry threw for a season-high 256 yards and his first three touchdown passes of the season. Running back Akeem Hunt accounted for 94 yards rushing and receiving and scored his first offensive TD of the season. B.J. Knauf showed he could be a playmaker, and they did all that without starting tight end Gabe Holmes, who could miss the rest of the season with an injured wrist.
The defense blitzed all night and managed to keep Purdue in the lead -- or within reach of the Irish -- almost all night. Heck, the defense even produced a late turnover to give Purdue a chance to tie the score late.
Both were drastic changes from the first two games, when the offense struggled mightily to score points or even get plays off in time, and the defense spent too much time on the field.
"When they (Irish) scored on us, it was 17-17, I went to the bench just to give them a little juice. They didn't need my juice, they had their own juice," Hazell said. "They were all fired up. They said, `Coach, don't worry about it, we've got it.' That was a completely different football team than I saw the previous two weeks."
If the Boilermakers are going to turn things around this year, they'll have to keep playing with this way. The players say they will.
"It starts in practice, having that confidence and we definitely need that encouragement on our sideline," Russell said. "No one gave up last week, I really believe that in my heart, and I believe that's how we'll continue to be."
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