WEST LAFAYETTE – It has to be Danny Etling, doesn't it? When you look past the numbers and the cheers, Purdue has to start building for the future.
Etling, a true freshman, is the quarterback future. Rob Henry, a hard-working, caring fifth-year senior, is not.
It's that simple.
Etling offered flashes during Saturday's demoralizing 55-24 loss to unbeaten Northern Illinois of why he was the first recruit coach Darrell Hazell visited when he got the Purdue job last winter. Etling showed good arm strength and vision. He moved well. He was poised under fire. He generated points.
After replacing Henry late in the first half, Etling went 19-for-39 for 241 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. He rushed for just nine yards, but did have an 18-yard run.
Henry was 5-for-16 for 130 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. He rushed for 26 yards.
Did Etling make mistakes? You bet he did. He is far from polished. He threw a pick-6, and then another interception. He wasn't nearly as accurate or efficient as he needs to be.
But that can only come by playing.
Etling recognizes the work-in-progress situation.
“I've got to play better. I went in and we were down by 20. We lost by (31), so I can't play like a freshman if whatever happens, happens.
“I had too many turnovers. I didn't play the best I should have played. I have to play better. I can't play like a freshman.”
And then Etling carried his self-evaluation a step further.
“I took too many sacks (three). That wasn't bad offensive line play, that was bad quarterback play. I was stepping into the sacks. The O-line was doing a phenomenal job. I can't do that to my offensive linemen.”
Nerves were a factor. Etling hadn't played since last year at Terre Haute South. The Huskies, who entered the game with a national-leading 14 sacks, came after him hard and fast because they knew he had to pass.
“My teammates calmed me down. We had more total yards (542 to 402), but it's that interception for a touchdown that is going to kill us. I can't do that in the future. It lets the team down. I have to bounce back from that. I think my teammates will help me out with that.”
On Saturday, Hazell wouldn't commit to a permanent quarterback change. The Boilers (1-4) have a bye week. They don't play again until Oct. 12 against Nebraska. There is lots of time for evaluation, preparation and practice.
Heaven knows, no matter who is the quarterbacks, the Boilers need to practice. Five turnovers and seven penalties are no way to build a program.
Hazell didn't want to make a quarterback change. He wants to win now, wants the seniors to succeed, wants to set a tone for the future.
On Saturday, with the offense self destructing, change had to come. You could argue that Hazell waited a possession or two longer than necessary. Henry's second-quarter interception in the Northern Illinois end zone forced the coach's hand.
“We had to do it,” Hazell said. “At that point we'd turned it over in the red zone. We needed to make a change. We needed to give ourselves an opportunity.
“We'll evaluate that situation as well.”
Why Etling instead of redshirt freshman Austin Appleby, who seemed to have the upper hand during August camp?
“It was based on practice and our evaluation as a coaching staff from practice,” Hazell said.
Etling's numbers need perspective. He played against a bad defense. For much of it, he played against backups of a bad defense that, because of the lopsided score, was in prevent mode.
Northern Illinois came in allowing 33.7 points, 173.3 rushing yards and 317.7 passing yards. Purdue did find some success. It finished with 153 rushing yards and 371 passing yards. Its 24 points were nine more than its season average entering the game.
“When you're behind you're going to throw a lot more,” Etling said. “That's where those yards come from.
“I have to play better. My teammates will help me out. They were really supportive.”
Northern Illinois, with quarterback Jordan Lynch doing his dual threat thing (throwing for 207 yards and three touchdowns, rushing for 35 yards and another TD), became the first Mid-American Conference team to beat two Big Ten squads in the season. The Huskies (4-0) also had a come-from-behind win at Iowa.
They begin MAC play next Saturday at Kent State. A Nov. 13
“We're 4-0,” coach Rod Carey said, “and after 24 hours, we're 0-0. We have a conference (title) to go get.”
Purdue has no conference title to get. It has a bye and then a Nebraska-Michigan State-bye-Ohio State gauntlet to face. It might not win a game until 2014.
But that is for later. For now, it has to be Etling.