Boilers defenders expect better things ahead

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

A surface-level appraisal of Purdue's defense in 2008 likely would result in a thumbs-down review.

The Boilermakers ranked eighth in the Big Ten in total defense (358.1 yards per game), last in rushing defense (174.8 ypg) and tied for last in takeaways (20). Purdue allowed 42 points to a Michigan team that couldn't manage more than 29 in any of its other 11 games. There also was a second-half letdown at Notre Dame and a total meltdown at Northwestern.

But a closer examination of the Boilers' defense lends a more optimistic outlook for the future.

  • The mighty Oregon offense mustered just six first-half points against Purdue in a game the Boilers should have won on Sept. 13 at Ross-Ade Stadium. Purdue surrendered only one offensive touchdown in regulation before falling to the Ducks in overtime.

  • Penn State put up its second-lowest scoring total of the season in a 20-6 victory against Purdue on Oct. 4.

  • Purdue didn't allow an offensive touchdown in a 16-3 loss to Ohio State.

  • The Boilers lost five games in which they scored 22 points or fewer.

Remove the games against Notre Dame (loss), Northwestern (loss) and Michigan (win), and Purdue surrendered an average of only 19.2 points, which would have ranked 21st nationally.

So the Boilers aren't that far away.

"Though the numbers don't show that we played well, we did," safety Torri Williams said. "We were very competitive in pretty much all the games. Small mistakes cost us."

Eliminating those mistakes is the top priority for a defense that returns eight starters, including the entire secondary.

Purdue gets a makeover this spring as Danny Hope takes over as head coach and brings in two new coordinators (Gary Nord and Donn Landholm). The offense loses mainstays at the skill positions, but familiar faces abound on the other side of the ball.

"We can be a top tier defense in the Big Ten," defensive end Ryan Kerrigan said. "With all the pieces in place, almost every position on the field, we have experience coming back."

The defense might need to carry the load early on, as the offense breaks in new starters at quarterback, running back and wide receiver. Kerrigan and defensive tackle Mike Neal anchor the line after combining for 12.5 sacks and 21.5 tackles for loss in 2008, but the Boilers must make upgrades against the run and force opponents to attack their veteran secondary.

Purdue's defense was vulnerable in the middle of the field and allowed 47 drives inside its red zone. But the Boilers tightened up in the red zone, finishing fourth in the league (78.7 percent) and tied for the lead in opponents' possessions without points (10).

"You'd see a team have 400 something yards of total offense on us, but they'd only have 17 points," Kerrigan said. "We played well when other offenses got into the red zone. That's something we can build on for this year, to where we stop them before they get to the red zone, so they don't get three, they get nothing."