WEST LAFAYETTE -- Maybe Purdue has, at last, found the bottom.
Maybe the Boilers, in coach Darrell Hazell's first season, can finally start the long climb back to football mediocrity.
Yes, mediocrity is an improvement.
In the aftermath of the Northern Illinois debacle, Purdue (1-4) has a bye week to regroup, refocus, refresh.
Or, at least, not get blown out.
That, too, would be an improvement.
“This is a great time for a bye week,” Hazell says. “We need to look at our team from A to Z -- all of the personnel. We need to make some great improvements and get healthy. We need to come back, and the big thing right now, above all else, is to stay close.”
Losing fractures team chemistry. It sours moods, generates anger and fosters frustration that makes bad situations worse.
In truth, it's likely to get worse before it gets better.
Lack of talent is a problem, although it's more than that. Maybe the coaches aren't maximizing the talent. That has to change, and it will. Hazell won at Kent State, where nobody wins. He'll win at Purdue. Perhaps not every player has bought into his system. They have to be weeded out.
In the meantime, a critical fan base turned off by the Danny Hope years, grumbles anew.
“We are going to hear negativity from those outside,” Hazell says, “and rightfully so. We need to stay together, love each other and make strides forward.”
Making strides is one thing, but is the talent and resolve there to salvage the season?
After five games and four bad performances (the Notre Dame game was fool's gold better), it seems unlikely, but that's not the locker room message.
“We have to play harder and communicate better,” cornerback Ricardo Allen says. “No matter what the coaches call, we have to play harder. It's about who has the best technique and who plays the best.”
Or, as defensive lineman Bruce Gaston says, “We have to execute better. We have to do our assignments to the T. That's how we're supposed to do it. It doesn't matter the caliber of the quarterback. If we do our assignment, we'll be OK.”
What is the bye week mindset?
“We've got to get healthy,” Allen says. “We're going to get better. We're going to evaluate ourselves. We'll look into the mirror and find out what we can do to get better as players.
“Players play and coaches coach. We have to play better. See what we can to do give ourselves a chance to win.”
A quarterback change from fifth-year senior Rob Henry to true freshman Danny Etling might help, but it won't address the defensive issues. Purdue has given up 96 points in the last two games. Against Northern Illinois it braced for dual-threat quarterback Jordan Lynch, who averaged 23 rushes a game.
Not on Saturday. Lynch opened by hitting 14 of his first 15 pass attempts to set a tone that led to 55 points, the most an opponent has ever scored at Ross-Ade Stadium.
Lynch is not the last dangerous quarterback Purdue will face. Nebraska has dual-threat Taylor Martinez; Penn State has freshman sensation Christian Hackenberg; Illinois has Big Ten passing leader Nathan Scheelhaase; and Indiana has rapidly-improving Nate Sudfeld.
And then there's Ohio State's Braxton Miller, a Heisman Trophy candidate despite missing two games with a knee injury.
Purdue has seven Big Ten games in the next nine weeks. Once upon a time, that meant facing the nation's best, but the conference is not what it once was. Ohio State is a national contender. Everybody else is, well, challenged. Michigan State has no offense. Indiana and Illinois have suspect defenses. Penn State lacks depth because of NCAA scholarship sanctions. Iowa is solid, but certainly not dominant.
Michigan and Northwestern are top-25 teams, but they do not play the Boilers this season.
A better Purdue team would have a chance for a strong finish, but the focus isn't on that.
“Everything is a concern right now,” Hazell says.
When you're at the bottom, it's expected.