INDIANAPOLIS – Purdue coach Darrell Hazell is trying to motivate his team with some tough love.
On the one hand, he's asking players to calm down and relax. On the other, he isn't happy with the way the Boilermakers have blocked or tackled.
Anxious fans are worried the season is heading south and some are calling for a quarterback change. Hazell's critiques are getting increasingly sharper and the frustration is showing.
"I felt honestly we took a little bit of a step back this past Saturday," Hazell said Tuesday. "It's a process. We're going to continue to work hard through the process. That's the only way you get out of where we are right now."
The reeling Boilermakers desperately need something to go right.
So far, nothing really has.
They followed a blowout loss at Cincinnati with a narrow victory against an Indiana State team missing its top player. Then came an inspiring game against Notre Dame that still resulted in a loss, followed by last weekend's disastrous performance at Wisconsin.
Now, one week after saying Purdue was just a "foot" away from making enough plays to beat the Irish, Hazell reassessed his thoughts after losing in Madison.
Wisconsin ran 48 times for 388 yards, an average of 8.1 per carry, threw for more yards than Purdue despite having fewer attempts and completions, and held the ball for more than 35 minutes. The Boilermakers, meanwhile, averaged 2.1 yards per carry, finished with 180 yards in total offense, allowed four sacks and made only two red-zone trips.
"Our fundamentals of tackling and blocking were to be desired on Saturday. So we've got to do a better job of coaching those, and do a better job of making sure that we're doing a better job of tackling and blocking," Hazell said. "That's where it all starts."
Next up on Purdue's unforgiving schedule is Mid-American Conference favorite Northern Illinois and dynamic quarterback Jordan Lynch.
The good news is that the Boilermakers know what to expect.
Last fall, Hazell led Kent State into the MAC title game against Lynch and the Huskies — a game Lynch wound up winning.
A month later, Florida State's defense figured out how to shut down the Northern Illinois offense in a 31-10 Orange Bowl victory. Purdue's new defensive coordinator, Greg Hudson, was part of the Seminoles' staff at the time.
The bad news is that Purdue (1-3, 0-1 Big Ten) faces a dual-threat quarterback eager to make a Heisman Trophy statement.
"He's just so tough when he runs," Hazell said. "He's going to run the ball 20 times, 25 times on Saturday. We're going to have to do a good job of tackling him, because he's a very strong guy and he breaks a lot of tackles."
Purdue's defense, at least, should be at full strength.
Starting cornerbacks Ricardo Allen and Frankie Williams, who both left Saturday's game with undisclosed injuries, are listed as probable this week. So is backup safety Anthony Brown, who also was injured against the Badgers.
But injured right guard Jordan Roos is expected to miss this week's game with an undisclosed injury, yet another problem for an offensive line that is already thin and hasn't played well. The poor blocking is one of the reasons senior quarterback Rob Henry has completed only 56.3 percent of his passes, averages 175.5 yard per game and has thrown more interceptions (four) than touchdowns (three).
"It's hard to be in that position," Hazell said. "There was a play I stopped for the staff on Sunday and said 'Would you guys like to be a quarterback in that situation?' You've got guys up the field pretty quickly, the receivers were all covered. He didn't have an uncovered guy. I said 'I don't know what quarterback would like that situation right there.'"
Especially with October and November looking even tougher than what the Boilermakers have faced over the past month.
Hazell insists Purdue can get all this fixed in time.
"One of the things we need to be able to do is relax a little bit," Hazell said. "We get into those situations on a big stage in a close football game and all of a sudden we get locked up a little bit and we don't allow ourselves to perform the way we're able to perform."