Oct. 8, 2010
By Skip Myslenski
NUsports.com Special Contributor
Never, in his time as the 'Cat coach, had Pat Fitzgerald played more than three true freshmen in a season. But this fall he has already rolled out running back Adonis Smith and defensive tackle Will Hampton and receivers Tony Jones and Venric Mark and Rashad Lawrence. "We're putting guys we think can help us win football games out on the field. Speed kills and all those guys can run. Even Will Hampton is a very athletic tackle," he explained when asked the obvious question of why.
"Like I said on Monday, we're playing for today, not tomorrow. If guys can walk and help us win, we're going to play them. I think that's encouraging for everybody in the program, to see if you can help our team, we're going to get you involved. . . I only play them if I think they can help us win. This group, the last two groups, they're pretty talented. So. Competition is sweet. I said it to the team on Monday and I've said it to the staff often. Competition makes good players great and great players special. We're in a good position from a competitive standpoint."
All in that quintet, with the exception of Hampton, were among the freshmen who spent their summer on campus, where they trained with the upperclassmen and strength-and-conditioning coaches. (Fitzgerald and his staff, under NCAA rules, cannot work with them during this period. But they did stay in touch through modern technology and he had them over to his house for a barbecue in late July, just before practice started.) "Obviously they get to know their teammates," he said, explaining the benefits accrued. "They get to know the lay of the land a little bit. They get to know our expectations. Hopefully they'll get in a little better shape because they're running with their teammates. Then the guys in the voluntary workouts go out there and do some stuff offensively and defensively, so they get a little bit ahead in the playbook. That's about it.
"I think it's a little overrated. If you go back over the years, I think we're about 50-50 with the guys who played as freshmen. Half have been here for the summer, half have not. So I don't know if there's a direct correlation, but it can definitely be an advantage."
Its starting quarterback is out for the season with a knee injury. Its leading receiver is out for the season with a knee injury. Its leading rusher from a season ago has yet to play this season after injuring his knee in the spring. Its emerging receiver is out for at least this week with a high ankle sprain. And its running back committee is variously nicked up and bruised.
That is the quick injury report on Purdue, which visits Ryan Field Saturday night. "There's a lot of similarities between what they're going through right now and what we went through a couple years ago when we lost (quarterback) C.J. (Bacher) and (running back) Tyrell (Sutton) in the same game," Fitzgerald said of the Boilermaker condition. "This kid named (Mike) Kafka came out and played pretty well on the road, we won a game on the road. And last year, obviously, we had some issues with Mike (who was injured against Penn State) and Danny (Persa) stepped in and we went out and beat (Iowa) the No. 4 team in the country on the road (the next week). So. We expect we'll get all their skilled guys that they have healthy that are outstanding players."
Not surprisingly, since he is a coach, Fitzgerald still fears the Boilermakers, no mattered their battered state. "You just pop in a tape, just like last week," he says. "They can run, they're very athletic, they came up with some good packages when the injuries happened to put young men that could really make a difference with the ball in their hands, they put them in the backfield, they ran some fly sweeps with them."
That, right there, is the salient fact that concerns him. With their injuries, the Boilermakers have shuffled their deck and edited their playbook and created an air of uncertainty about just what kind of offensive approach they will take. "There's going to be a big unknown," Fitzgerald says of that. "We're going to do a lot of adjusting on Saturday. We anticipate that. How're they going to use their new quarterback? How're they going to use their weapons? I heard Danny (Hope, the Purdue coach) talk last night about how they've got their full complement, how they feel great about their weapons. They can put them back in positions where they think they can hurt us. So there's going to be a lot of adjusting for our defense Saturday."
When asked which weapons he most noticed on tape, Fitzgerald mentioned O.J. Ross and Antavian Edison, a pair of receivers who have been shifted to the backfield, and redshirt freshman quarterback Rob Henry, who has taken over for injured starter Robert Marve. "He's been involved in every game plan," Fitzgerald said of Henry. "To watch the way he's gone out and run the ball, he's thrown it better each game, he's been in the system now two years, I think they'll play to his strengths. We expect to see more quarterback run. Still, at the end of the day, it comes down to the way we execute. Hopefully we'll show up and play a little better than we did last Saturday."
Can Henry hurt them with his legs the same way 'Cat quarterback Dan Persa uses his to hurt their opponents?
"Yeah, they're similar to Dan's. They're similar to the young man we saw at Vanderbilt. Yeah. There's no question that creates a problem and we'll have to plan accordingly."
Last Tuesday marked the 75th anniversary of the Big Ten's first night football game, which was played at (then) Dyche Stadium and matched the 'Cats against (yep) Purdue. The Daily Northwestern later reported: "Exactly fifty-two floodlights transformed the green gridiron of Dyche Stadium into a bright-as-day playground. . . During the intermission at the half, the juice was cut to permit Purdue's band to put on a unique stunt. Tiny lights, affixed to the persons of the band members, spelled 'Wildcat' and 'Purdue' as the visiting musicians went through intricate formations."
Will Fitzgerald make adjustments since Saturday's is a night game? "Maybe if it was our first night game," he said. "But this is our third of the year (after Vanderbilt and Rice), so we've got a pretty good routine. We'll move some of the things we typically do on Friday, like our special team's meetings, to Saturday. We'll get 'em up and get 'em moving. I'm happy to have a night game at home. Those night games on the road are tough. We got back in the wee hours of the next morning. So it'll be nice to have one at home."
And finally, on a lighter note, to answer Bill Shakespeare's question of "What's in a name?": The visitor's mascot will most certainly bound proudly about Ryan Field on Saturday night in his oversized head. But. Boilermakers was a term of derision when Wabash College, an effete liberal arts school, hung it on Purdue, a school to be scorned since it was devoted to the practical arts of engineering and agriculture. That happened after Purdue pounded Wabash in football in 1889, a time when Purdue players were also called cornfield sailors, blacksmiths, pumpkin shuckers, hayseeds, farmers and rail splitters. Rumor also has it that a Purdue football team of that era used eight boilermakers from the Monon Railroad for a season.
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