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Purdue freshmen locked in despite struggles

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Kickoff: Iowa at Purdue, noon, Saturday
RADIO: 1380-AM
TV: BTN

Online: For more on college sports, follow Pete DiPrimio via Twitter at www.twitter.com/pdiprimio

Schedule lightens down the stretch

Thursday, November 7, 2013 - 12:01 am

Enough is enough, Purdue freshman defensive end Evan Panfil said. Losing stinks. The weekly poundings must end.

Saturday against Iowa would be a good time to start.

“We have a lot of good players,” Panfil said. “A lot of guys come from winning high school programs, and they're frustrated with this.”

They should be. Purdue has lost six straight and is 1-7 overall, 0-4 in the Big Ten. The Boilers have scored just seven points in their last three games. They haven't had a first-down snap in the red zone since the Sept. 28 loss to Northern Illinois.

First-year coach Darrell Hazell wants to win now, but he won't back away from looking long term. Nine true freshmen have played this season, including Panfil. Eight have started. Eighteen freshmen played.

Early on the plan was to redshirt Panfil. He was a 6-foot-5, 240-pounder with a strong Boilermaker legacy. He had a grandfather, uncle and cousin who had played at Purdue. He needed to grow into the position. Redshirting seemed the best option.

But as losses mounted and injuries occurred, Panfil and two other freshmen defensive linemen — Jake Replogle and Ra'Zahn Howard — had improved enough to get a chance. They've played the last three games against stout competition: Nebraska, Michigan State and Ohio State.

Panfil has three tackles, including one for loss.

To accelerate the improvement, all three have worked extra after practice.

“We do something extra to make ourselves better,” Panfil said. “It's not that we have to, but we want to. We see the potential in what we could be in the next few years. We want to maximize that potential and be the best we can be. That's what's driving us right now.”

Panfil said all the freshmen are locked in on turning the program around.

“We like to talk about what we're going to do to change it," he said. "It's reassuring after some of these losses to hear guys are still committed to the cause. The freshmen really want to get it going.”

So do all the Boilers. The good news: A brutal schedule softens. Their final four opponents — Iowa, Penn State, Illinois and Indiana — are 5-12 in Big Ten play and 16-17 overall. Their first eight opponents were 51-9.

Iowa is 5-4 overall and 2-3 in the Big Ten.

“We can compete,” Hazell said.

To get that point across, he met with the seniors Sunday night, just more than 24 hours after the 56-0 debacle against Ohio State.

“I said, 'What are you guys seeing? What are you guys feeling?' They're still upbeat. They understand what our schedule looks like going forward. Our seniors have (24) days left in the program. They're going to put everything they have into trying to be successful on their way out. We've talked to the team about that, as well. We understand where we are.”

They also understand what they want to accomplish in these last four games.

“The two things I want to see,” Hazell said, "are energy and execution. That's how I'll measure the progress of our last four games.”

Progress can start by stopping the turnovers. Purdue's 17 turnovers — which have resulted in 59 points for opponents — are tied for the second most in the Big Ten. Four interceptions have been returned for touchdowns.

Better pass protection would help. At one point Saturday against Ohio State, Purdue had seven offensive linemen to protect freshman quarterback Danny Etling. It didn't work. Etling still got sacked. He's been sacked 16 times in the last three games. Some of it involves Etling not throwing the ball away. Some of it involves struggling offensive line play. Beyond developing current players, Hazell said Purdue hopes to sign four or five offensive linemen in the next recruiting class.

For now, the goal is simple: execute better, stop the turnovers, win.

“We don't change the grand plan,” Hazell said. “Obviously you've got to see where you need to improve and make those improvements, but the structure, the scheme, the vision — that doesn't change. If you start to waver, then you have some issues.

“We're going to work hard and find those solutions to the problems we are having. If we can fix them, we'll fix them, and then we'll attack Iowa and the rest of our opponents.”