Ricardo Allen is probable. Is that a good thing? The junior cornerback has a sprained ankle mild enough to have earned the “tweaked” label. He wants to play Saturday against Eastern Michigan. Coach Danny Hope talks optimistically that Allen will play.
And yet …
Allen is a shut-down corner, which is huge when facing good passing teams. That does not describe Eastern Michigan (0-2). Quarterback Alex Gillett is the leading rusher and passer. He has rushed for more than 2,000 career yards.
Eastern Michigan prefers to run but has been forced to pass. In the 37-26 loss to Ball State, Gillett was 15-for-34 for186 yards. In last Saturday's 31-14 loss to Eastern Illinois, he was 11-for-25 for 150 yards and three interceptions. He also was sacked three times.
Purdue stuffed Notre Dame's running game. If its defensive line plays to its potential, it will stuff Eastern Michigan's running attack. So Gilbert will pass and the secondary will get work.
But will Allen get the work, or will it fall to Frankie Williams and Normondo Harris?
Coach Danny Hope leans toward playing Allen, but not to practicing him hard.
“We're going to be careful with him,” Hope said. “He's had a million reps. A lot of the things that he has to do, he already knows how to do. Recognition and film study are his strong suits in a lot of ways. He's a football junkie, so he can get himself prepared without having to take every rep in practice.”
That means extra practice work for Williams and Harris, which Hope sees as a big advantage.
“It would help Frankie Williams get caught up, and we're significantly behind right now with the play of Normondo Harris. He was one of our top players last year, and can be again this year, but he injured his knee during the course of the summer. It was just a sprain, but it held him back some, so he's been limited in the amount of reps he's been about to take in the last four or five weeks. He's coming back healthy now.
“I'm optimistic we'll get Ricardo back and he'll be in a position to play, but we have some other good players who are knocking on the door.”
Allen is part of a defense that aims for dominance. It's not there yet. Notre Dame exposed some vulnerability against the pass last Saturday, but Purdue (1-1) is showing signs of progress. The defense has allowed just three points off six Boiler turnovers.
The reason, Hope said, starts with “confidence in each other and being sure about what they're doing. Those two things go a long ways when you have your backs to the wall.”
Confidence comes from new defensive coordinator Tim Tibesar and a talented unit led by All-America candidate Kawann Short at defensive tackle.
“Hats off to Coach Tibesar and the defensive staff that the players have not only bought into and believe in a system,” Hope said, “but they've also bought in and believe in the standards we adhere to on defense, whether it's making sure that you line up fast and right pursuant to the football, all the little things we preach on a daily basis.
“You can preach about it and maybe they'll listen and do it, or you can emphasize those things and they really buy into it. We have preached those things and the defensive coaching staff and the players have really bought into the standards.”
Those standards have put Purdue second in the Big Ten in sacks, with seven. The Boilers rank third in scoring defense, with 13.0 points allowed. They are fourth in rush defense and fourth in total defense.
“I think the fact we have a formidable enough defensive front to disrupt the line of scrimmage makes everyone else lined up behind them believe something good is going to happen,” Hope said.
And yet, Hope has seen enough Eastern Michigan film -- it brings back memories of the Rice team that upset the Boilers last year -- to worry about what could happen.
“They're a tough team. They have a very experienced quarterback, a guy who has started a lot of games, who really understands how to manage and operate his offense. He's kind of a wild-card type guy in some ways. He's fearless, an excellent runner. He'll drop back to pass, then see some lanes, tuck it and make yardage. He's taken a ton of hits, always bounces up. He's very tough.
“Defensively, we have to be very sure of our assignments. They can be very dangerous if we're not exactly sure of what we're supposed to do.”