Boiler up: Purdue's offense gains steam

As soon as the offseason began, Purdue coaches told their players they would be making significant changes to the offense.

It wasn't a tough sell. Not after the Boilermakers averaged just 14.3 points per game in 2013, third worst among all FBS teams.

"I was like, 'Anything to not repeat last year,'" center Robert Kugler said. "They could have told me we were going to a crazy new gadget offense; if it was going to win games, I'd have been fine with it."

Radical change wasn't in the cards. But second-year head coach Darrell Hazell wisely adjusted his preferred style of play to better fit the talent on hand after that disastrous 2013 season. The result: The Boilers' offense is the most improved unit in the Big Ten.

Just check the stats. Purdue is averaging 28.2 points per game and has already scored 47 more points in eight games than it managed in all of 2013. Its rushing attack has produced 642 more yards and nine more touchdowns in eight games than it accumulated last season.

In the past three games alone, the Boilers have scored a total of 107 points. Their 45-31 loss to Michigan State earlier this month represented the most points allowed by the Spartans in conference since 2011.

All this from an offense that ranked near the bottom of the country in nearly every major statistical category in 2013. Hazell came to West Lafayette preaching the power running game. But that approach failed miserably with a roster recruited for the spread system under Danny Hope.

"We tried to be something that we weren't last year, which was power football, two tight ends, hammer it down people's throats," Kugler said. "We don't have the personnel for that."

Hazell admitted he stuck with that philosophy too long last season. This offseason, he and his staff set about trying to maximize the offense's best attributes, which included fast skill players like Raheem Mostert, Akeem Hunt and Danny Anthrop. Getting those guys out in space became the top priority. Against Michigan State and Minnesota, for example, the Boilers continually threw bubble screens and swing passes, hoping their speedsters could break tackles and spring a big gain.

"What we decided was that we really wanted to make the defense have to defend 53 yards of width on every single snap," offensive coordinator John Shoop said. "We could be running the ball up the gut, but we want to make sure to always have that threat out on the perimeter."

Shoop has a three-pronged mantra for this offense: pound away at the interior line of scrimmage, freeze the defensive ends with motions and shifts, and block the corners and safeties on the edges. None of it could work without the first part, and that's why Hazell points to his offensive line as the single biggest reason for the offense's development.

That group took its lumps last season, but now that experience is paying off. Three starters -- guards Jordan Roos and Jason King and right tackle J.J. Prince -- are sophomores, as is top backup Cameron Cermin. Left tackle David Hedelin is a junior college transfer who didn't become eligible until the fourth game of the season.

Kugler, a junior, is the graybeard leader of the group. Shoop said there was never a time this offseason when he didn't see Roos and King with Kugler, flanking him in the cafeteria or hallways in the same spots they would on the field.

"We don't always walk around like that, but whenever we saw [Shoop], we made a point of doing it," Kugler said, laughing. "But those two are my boys. I think our chemistry filters down into the whole line."

It's also no coincidence that the Boilermakers took off after Austin Appleby took over at quarterback. In his first start, Purdue beat Illinois 38-27 on the road while piling up 551 yards, including 349 on the ground. Appleby's numbers might not leap off the page, but he's brought a much-needed swagger to the offense while effectively distributing the ball.

"We talk a lot about energy, and Austin has tremendous energy in the huddle," Shoop said. "He makes pretty good decisions, and he's been able to find the eye of the hurricane, so to speak, in that pocket. He'll buy himself a half a second or so on third down to find a conversion. That really boosts our morale as a team."

Purdue still has much it can do better, and Shoop laments that the offense couldn't drive the field and score with chances to tie Michigan State or beat Minnesota. Learning how to finish, he said, is the next step. The challenge certainly doesn't get any easier this week at Nebraska.

But the Boilers are no longer pushovers, thanks mostly to their newfound scoring ability. As Hazell said, "We're completely different team structurally, confidence-wise and schematically." And change has done this program a world of good.