Is this game, six weeks into the season, already a must-win?
Given the clusterfudge the Big Ten has devolved into, that's the common perception among Wisconsin and Purdue fans. The two teams meet Saturday afternoon at Ross-Ade Stadium in West Lafeytte, Ind., and a win would give the Badgers a two-game lead on the Boilermakers, their closest competition in the Leaders Division. That, of course, sidesteps Ohio State and Penn State, the two leading but ineligible programs in the division.
A loss, though? Scary territory. Wisconsin would fall to 4-3 and 1-2 in Big Ten play, muddying the conference picture and keeping the Badgers way too close to everyone else for comfort.
To break down the game, we chatted with our friends at Hammer and Rails, SB Nation's terrific Purdue blog. The Boilermakers are also going through some sort of quarterback limbo and as Travis Miller tells us, their defense is far from inspiring after allowing 44 points to Michigan. Saturday is also Purdue's Black and Gold Homecoming game, magnifying the allure of this one that much more.
1. B5Q: To start, how are Purdue fans feeling about the season thus far? What's gone right or wrong, and how do you expect it all to translate into Saturday's game?
Travis: Purdue fans are extremely upset that the trend of completely not showing up in big games continued on Saturday. I thought maybe it had ended with the way we played at Notre Dame. Then Saturday happened. It's not so much that we got beat, but that we looked completely and utterly unprepared. You could tell on the game's third played, when Akeem Shavers got stuffed on a 3rd and one by a great defensive play, that it was almost like the whole team rolled up and quit.
As fans, we don't understand how Robert Marve can look better even with a torn ACL than Caleb TerBush, but this is still TerBush's team as starter. We don't understand why we don't run more slants with three speedy receivers and insist on screens and draws. We don't understand how Denard Robinson can be held in check for two straight years, then we act like we've never seen a read play before.
Honestly, I have no idea what to expect on Saturday now. The talent, to me, is clearly there to beat Wisconsin. I can see us winning the game, or I can see us being completely unprepared again and getting blown out like last year.
2. B5Q: How has Purdue's offense functioned so far this season? I see the Boilermakers have scored at least 40 points in all but two games (last week against Michigan and Week 2 against Notre Dame).
Travis: When we decide to run the ball it is effective, but this week we never even tried to establish it after first few plays. Once we fell behind by double digits we reverted to screens to the edges again and didn't even try to get two of our best playmakers, Akeem Hunt and Raheem Mostert, involved.
Purdue's offense is best when Akeem Hunt and Akeem Shavers are running well and the passing is actually downfield. We need to utilize our tight ends more and not be afraid to go over the middle. Gary Bush and Antavian Edison are great in space, but we're not even trying to get them the ball in space. Forget even throwing downfield.
3. B5Q: And the defense? Purdue ranks ninth in the Big Ten with 25.4 points allowed per game.
Travis: The defense played very well in the first three weeks and even has three defensive scores. I kind of threw out the Marshall game because they gained a bunch of yards once we got a big lead and they threw the ball 68 times. Anyone is going to put up big passing numbers by throwing 68 times.
It was disheartening to give up so much to Michigan though. Denard ran wild and the few times we did force a third and long not only was there no pressure, but receivers were running wide open over the middle of the field. It is like this coaching staff has a psychological blind spot to not cover the middle of the field on third down. The longer the third down the more wide open someone is.
4. B5Q: Wisconsin has been remarkably difficult to predict this year. Given that and what you've seen from Purdue, what kind of game are you expecting on Saturday? A shootout, a blowout or maybe something in between?
Travis: As I said, I honestly have no idea. Danny Hope always has one game where the team plays above what it has played compared to other results. In 2009 it was Ohio State. In 2010 it was Northwestern on the road in a night game. Last year it was Ohio State again. What will it be this year?
I have to admit that I don't like what history has shown us. Simply put, Wisconsin has rolled over us time and again just from a sheer physical standpoint. Last year we got steamrolled by a big offensive line and Montee Ball. That can't happen again this year if we're to have a chance.
5. B5Q: As quickly as you can, how do you breakdown the advantages between these teams on offense, defense, special teams, coaching staff and intangibles?
Travis: Well, your offensive line has always been a major positive. In recent games against Purdue Wisconsin has been able to run for what it wants, when it wants to. If Purdue plays Marve I think we have the advantage there even with the bad knee, but they've inexplicably announced TerBush as the starter much to the dismay of our fans. I think our secondary is a major positive, but it is useless if the running game can't be stopped.
6. B5Q: Will Purdue fans be friendly to any Wisconsin faithful that make the trip out to West Lafayette?
Travis: I believe so. I don't think there is a lot of bad blood when anyone except Notre Dame comes to West Lafayette. We're even kind to IU football fans, mostly because we pity them.
7. B5Q: Do you have a prediction?
Travis: I have a bad feeling that Purdue is going to get rolled again. I hope I am wrong, but if we have another no-show in what is honestly the biggest game under Hope because of the Divisional situation there will be a lot of calls for his ouster.