When Nevada lined up to kick a game-tying field goal late in the fourth quarter last Saturday, you could feel the nerves, anxiety and pressure that had taken over Darrell Hazell and his players along the sideline. The “here we go again,” feeling that has visited West Lafayette far too frequently was standing at the gates of Ross-Ade Stadium.
It was no surprise, then, when the kick missed wide left — really, really wide left — we saw an energetic and animated reaction from Hazell and his players. He leaped into the air, pumped his fist and celebrated with his team. All of the frustration and disappointment mutated into excitement and relief. As one Purdue reporter said for the Journal and Courier, the Boilermakers had finally caught a break.
There may have been more that Hazell was celebrating than just a win, though. If you want to get caught up in the he-said-she-said rumor mill, that missed field goal may have saved the head coach his job.
No confirmation from a reputable source was ever made, but the speculation swirling around West Lafayette during Saturday’s game was this: if Purdue doesn’t handle its business against Nevada, new athletic director Mike Bobinski was going to send a message. Thanks to a 24-14 victory, we won’t know whether that was a founded statement or misguided gossip.
When Purdue trailed 14-3 in the first half, you could assume that Bobinski — who was selected to replace Morgan Burke as AD in August — was scrolling through the contacts in his phone, waiting to make a call. His secretary was typing the details of a meeting request that would be sent to Hazell’s inbox, marked as urgent.
Then came the missed field goal and an ensuing 51-yard TD pass from David Blough to Brycen Hopkins to give the Boilermakers a 10-point lead to clinch a must-win game.
No phone calls necessary. The details for Hazell’s early-morning meeting with Bobinski were deleted. At least for the time being.
Saturday’s win was a good thing for Purdue. It overcame an 11-point deficit in the first half, held the Wolf Pack scoreless in the final two quarters and closed out a game as if it were a weekly occurrence. Those were all promising signs.
But there were some not-so-pretty things, too. The Boilermakers committed four turnovers and the defense couldn’t get off the field on third down. They struggled inside the red zone and looked disinterested at times. Those issues are going to be magnified as B1G play starts for Hazell this weekend.
Despite what the scoreboard said on Saturday, the same issues that were relevant in 2013 are still around. It was apparent in the loss two week’s ago in a 38-20 loss to Cincinnati. Things were cleaner last weekend, but the errors were still obvious.
The win over Nevada propelled Purdue to 2-1 for the first time under Hazell. I guess you can say he survived a major test, but he just squeaked by.
Now, another pivotal stretch presents itself.
Upcoming games against Maryland and Illinois are immeasurably important. Right now, those appear to be the two most winnable B1G games on Purdue’s schedule and could get the Boilermakers to 4-1 before the more difficult portion of conference play begins. Currently, the Terrapins are a double-digit favorite at home.
The next two games could be the next evaluation point for Hazell. If Purdue drops both of those contests, the likelihood of a midseason change increases.
Hazell does have a $1.5 million buyout on his contract if he is terminated before Dec. 31. If Bobinski shows him the door after Jan. 1, the four-year coach would only be owed $500,000. That could be incentive to keep Hazell around for the full season even if Purdue endures another long year. Or maybe Bobinski wants to give his head coach the entire 12-game schedule to make his case.
Whether Hazell has the backing of his AD or not, Purdue isn’t going to beat Maryland or Illinois if it doesn’t clean up some major mistakes.
The Boilermakers have committed 10 turnovers through three games, the highest total in the B1G. They own the worst third-down defense in the country, allowing opponents to convert on more than 57 percent of attempts. If those trends continue, Purdue won’t only lose the next two games, it’ll go winless in conference play for the second time in four years.
After three long years, it almost seems like a foregone conclusion that Purdue will dump Hazell. Timing remains to be the question.
According to the swirling rumors, Hazell preserved his job temporarily last weekend. If he wants to guarantee he stays on board even longer, he’ll have to pass another test over the next two weeks of the season. He can’t depend on missed field goals for the rest of the season.
Hazell and the Boilermakers need to make changes quickly. If not, Bobinski will be making changes sooner rather than later.