Mark Twain said there are “lies, damned lies and statistics,” but even he might not argue against the numbers clinging to the Purdue football team like barnacles on a sunken ship.
The Big Ten publishes 33 categories for team statistics each week. Purdue ranks last in 11 of them. The Boilermakers are 11th in six other categories and 10th in four others.
Purdue (1-6) has lost five consecutive games, including league games to Wisconsin, Nebraska, and Michigan State by a combined score of 99-17, and is off to its worst start under first-year coach Darrell Hazell since going 1-10 in 1993.
Now the Boilermakers are a 31-point underdog heading into a home game on Saturday against a No. 4 Ohio State team that stretched its winning streak to 20 games last week by piling up 686 yards of offense in a 63-14 victory over Penn State.
The negative statistics aren’t affecting the Boilermakers’ mindset before meeting the Buckeyes.
“I’m very pleased with how this football team is working and preparing,” said Hazell, an Ohio State assistant from 2004 to ’10.
“We’re obviously not where we want to be in win-loss progress, but I’m not disgruntled with how the football team is preparing and staying together. A lot of teams might go in different directions at this point and time, but this team has not done that.”
The Boilermakers, however, made notable changes in personnel and scheme during their first bye week Oct. 5. They were 1-4 then after a 55-24 loss to Northern Illinois that was the largest losing margin for a Big Ten program against a Mid-American Conference team.
At that point, Hazell replaced fifth-year senior Rob Henry at quarterback with true freshman Danny Etling. He also changed the defense from a 4-3 to a 3-4 to get more size on the field by inserting true freshman linemen Evan Panfil, Ra’Zahn Howard and Jake Replogle.
“We’re trying to make strides this year and win football games this year,” Hazell said. “We’re not looking toward 2014.”
Those changes didn’t produce immediate results. Purdue responded by losing 44-7 at home to Nebraska and followed it with a 14-0 loss at Michigan State before limping into a second bye last week.
The Boilermakers had more punting yards (306) than offensive yards (216) against Nebraska. They managed just 32 rushing yards on 25 carries and didn’t cross the 50-yard line until the middle of the fourth quarter, when the Cornhuskers committed a pass-interference penalty.
The loss at Michigan State, however, offered glimpses of hope, especially on defense. Purdue limited the Spartans to 294 yards, one red-zone trip and one offensive touchdown — on a trick play late in the fourth quarter.
“You look for small victories when you go through a season like this, and a lot of people can’t see those outside the program,” said Hazell, who left Kent State to replace Danny Hope, who was fired by Purdue after a 22-27 record in four seasons.
Purdue has been hurt by a difficult schedule — the six losses are to teams with a combined 36-9 record — and inexperience. The Boilermakers have 34 freshmen among the 70 players on their travel roster. Nine true freshmen have played.
Offense has been the biggest problem for Purdue. The Boilermakers didn’t reach the red zone, much less the end zone, against Michigan State, have committed nine turnovers in the past three games and have totaled 300 yards only once this season.
Purdue is last in the Big Ten in total offense (278.6 yards per game), scoring offense (13.1 points), rushing offense (76.1 yards), first downs, pass efficiency, third-down conversions and red zone offense.
Still, Hazell said recent practices have been spirited.
“It’s been a tough stretch for our guys, but I’m proud of how they’ve come to work,” Hazell said. “There is going to be a breakthrough moment.”