Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Best wins of the Tiller Era #9: Wisconsin 2000

We return to the scene of our last game today in our countdown. The Purdue-Wisconsin rivalry had a series of very interesting twists between 1999 and 2004. In that time the Boilers and Badgers only played four times due to the Big Ten schedule rotation, but in those four games we had a series of incredibly entertaining games that often came down to the final play. In that four game stretch the visiting team also won each time. In 1999 Ron Dayne won the battle of Heisman trophy candidates by running for 222 yards and a pair of touchdowns as Wisconsin won 28-21 in West Lafayette. The teams did not play in the 2001 or 2002 seasons, while the 2003 game was recapped as game #10 on the countdown. Finally, we all know what happened in 2004, so it shouldn’t be spoken of here. The fourth game on that list, Purdue’s 30-24 win in Madison during the 2000 season ranks ninth on this countdown of best wins under Joe Tiller.

Date: October 21, 2000

Place: Camp Randall Stadium, Madison, Wisconsin

Incoming Purdue record: (5-2, 3-1 Big Ten, ranked 17th)

Incoming Wisconsin record: (4-3, 1-3 Big Ten)

This win was critical in our march to the Rose Bowl. As good as this Boilermaker team was we had severe issues when it came to winning away from Ross-Ade. Though we were undefeated at home to this point, we were only 1-2 on the road after what would become a critical victory at Northwestern the week before. The two losses are among the most heartbreaking of Drew Brees’ career. The Boilers had lost by two on a last second field goal at Notre Dame and by two at Penn State when Travis Dorsch missed a late field goal. Both games were the type that Purdue had no business losing, but the Penn State one is more excusable in that the Nittany Lions were playing very inspired football after Adam Taliafero’s injury. At Notre Dame we lost to a third string quarterback who would later become a tight end. Regardless, the loss had already put us down one in the Big Ten loss column, but we had made up for it by beating Northwestern and Michigan. At Notre Dame we lost to a third string quarterback who would later become a tight end in the only start of his career. That is the definition of an inexcusable loss.

Wisconsin was struggling a bit coming into this game. They had completed a 3-0 non-conference schedule with wins over Western Michigan, Oregon, and Cincinnati. The Oregon win was especially good, as the Ducks were at the top of a very good Pac-10 all season long and were a top 10 team that season. Once the Badgers got into Big Ten play, however, the loss of Heisman trophy winner Ron Dayne became more apparent. Wisconsin lost three straight games to Northwestern, Michigan, and Ohio State before finally breaking through against Michigan State the week before this game. Our win over them would prove to be their final loss of the season, as they rolled through Iowa, Minnesota, Indiana, and Hawaii before winning the Sun Bowl over UCLA to finish a respectable 9-4.

The Game:

I remember watching this game at my sister’s house with my brother-in-law. It came just nine days after my 21st birthday, so I was in a good mood. We did not get off to a good start, but neither did Wisconsin. This was a rare scoreless affair for us after one quarter, but Wisconsin struck first in the second when Jim Sorgi found Chris Chambers for a 28-yard touchdown strike very early in the second quarter. To that point Purdue had only had the ball for nine plays and amassed 31 yards, but that would end shortly.

Drew Brees then took over at the 23 yard line and drove the Boilers 77 yards in 12 plays in just under five minutes. A.T. Simpson, who was one of the more unheralded but very good receivers for Drew, scored from 30 yards out to tie things up with 9:37 left before the half. It only took a minute and eight seconds, however, for Wisconsin to regain control. Sorgi hit Chambers for gains of 11 and 31 yards before Michael Bennett rushed for five and 33 yards to finish the drive. The Purdue defense barely knew what hit it, and Wisconsin would take a 14-7 lead it would hold until the half as the teams traded punts the rest of the way.

It was clear that Purdue needed a spark, and as usual it was Brees that provided it. Purdue got the opening kickoff of the second half at the 20 after a touchback and the Boilers moved the ball on the ground as opposed to through the air. Montrell Lowe had a big 40 yard run during the drive, but it was Brees that capped it with a six yard touchdown run to tie things again at 14. Brees actually rushed for 20 yards on the drive to go with 45 from Lowe.

Wisconsin managed a lengthy drive that netted three points on a 35 yard field goal from Vitaly Pisetsky, but Purdue’s big-strike capability came through two plays later. In a preview of what would be the greatest pass in Purdue history, Brees found none other than Seth Morales for a 78-yard bomb down the middle of the field for a 21-17 Purdue lead with 5:40 left in the third quarter. Watching Drew Brees throw the deep ball is one of the things I remember most about his time in West Lafayette. We saw his pump fake passed on to Orton, as seen in the last article, but it truly was a thing of beauty. This pass, while not as high as the one from the Ohio State game, is almost of equal importance but it is sometimes forgotten because it occurred on the road. Also, the play to end this particular game was much more dramatic, which makes even more people forget Morales’ catch. The play also gave Drew the Big Ten record for passing yards over Iowa’s Chuck Long.

Once again the teams traded a few punts and Purdue was unable to do anything with an Akin Ayodele fumble recovery at the end of the third period near midfield. With 7:56 left in the game Purdue finally broke the scoring drought when Dorsch connected on a 44 yard field goal to make it 24-17. The kick came after a lengthy drive that saw Drew use his legs again, this time with a 25 yard run on the first play of the drive. All told Drew would finish with 74 yards rushing on 11 attempts to go with 274 passing, two touchdowns, and no interceptions. When you add all that to his rushing touchdown earlier, he didn’t have too bad of a day.

After Dorsch’s field goal the Boilers sent the defense out to close the deal. The defense blew it like Eric Gagne is blowing saves for the Brewers this season. Sorgi directed the Badgers on an 8 play 62 yard drive for a tying score. John Sigmund caught a five yard Sorgi pass on 4th and 1 to tie the game up with 3:50 to play. Neither team was able to generate a scoring drive in the final 3:50, as Purdue had two chances to Wisconsin’s one. We were headed to overtime for the first time in school history.

I am a big proponent of college overtime. I think it makes games incredibly interesting and I love how each side gets a chance. It is certainly better than the NFL, where the luck of a coin toss can determine the winner. In this game Purdue won the toss and elected to go on defense. While the defense struggled on Wisconsin’s final scoring drive, there was no such thing in the overtime. After Purdue stopped Wisconsin’s first two plays from the 25 things got worse for the Badgers. A false start backed them up five yards before Ayodele sacked Sorgi for a loss of 10 on a high snap. That gave the Badgers 4th and 25 at the 40. It was too far for them to do anything realistic except attempt a 58 yard field goal.

Attempting a kick that long always carries a risk of a block because the trajectory is normally very low. As Pisetsky lined up to kick most Purdue fans felt confident that he would miss on the insanely long attempt and only a field goal would be needed on Purdue’s possession. Travis Dorsch, however would not get his chance at redemption from the Penn State miss on this day. Craig Terrill busted through the line to block Pisetsky’s attempt with his chest, causing me to jump off the couch. Purdue’s fortunes would get even better as the bouncing ball went directly to a streaking Ashante Woodyard. Woodyard picked the ball up in stride, high stepped one last ditch tackler, and raced to the end zone for a Boilermaker touchdown in front of a completely stunned Badger crowd. Woodyard was barely touched until tackled by his own teammates in the end zone celebration. If not for that, he may have simply ran up the tunnel into the locker room while the crowd stood in silence.

After the Game:

My brother-in-law, for reasons unknown to this day, had decided to mow the lawn while listening to the rest of the game. After wildly celebrating inside the house I ran outside to exchange high-fives and general stupidity with him. This was a huge win for the Boilers. As big as the Michigan win had been a few weeks earlier, it was this win that set the stage for the unforgettable Ohio State game the following week. We had to come back at multiple times in this one. That is a lesson that would certainly come in handy against the Buckeyes. Seeing as how both the Michigan and Ohio State games were barely won like this one, we came dangerously close to not even qualifying for a bowl in this season. Instead, we had that rare killer instinct and turned it into one of the most memorable seasons in the history of the program.

As mentioned above, Wisconsin finished the season a respectable 9-4. They had also barely lost games to Michigan, Ohio State, and Northwestern, meaning they were an exceedingly dangerous team. We had not won in Madison since 1988, so the Badgers were shocked that Purdue of all people had come into their house and beat them. The very next semester I had a class where I was assigned a long-term Group project with Ashante Woodyard’s girlfriend. I remember meeting him when he came to pick up their daughter at the library and I thanked him personally for the return of that blocked kick.

Ironcially, this was one of Brees’ worst games in terms of total yardage and completions against Wisconsin. Drew set the NCAA record for pass attempted two years earlier in Madison, but threw four interceptions in a loss. In the 28-21 loss at Ross-Ade in 1999 he had three more interceptions, including a backbreaker that was returned for a touchdown by Jamar Fletcher. Drew really grew up in this game. He didn’t light up the scoreboard, but he managed the game very well. That is why we were able to finally beat the Badgers under his watch. Even then, he wasn’t even involved with the winning play.
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Friday, April 25, 2008

Best wins of the Tiller Era #10: Wisconsin 2003

It’s been a busy week here at Off the Tracks with this being the fourth post in the heart of the offseason. At least it keeps me busy, plus I get to talk about college baseball just a little as the season begins to wrap up.

In relation to that, I urge you to go support the Boilers at home this weekend against Minnesota. Purdue has only been to the NCAA Tournament for baseball once, in 1987. Right now they are in the middle of one of the better seasons in school history and deserve your support. They have won every Big Ten series thus far, and a series win this weekend will put them in an excellent position to finish in the top two in the Big Ten. That may not seem like much, but a top 2 finish means a first round bye and they would only have to win three straight to get an automatic bid to the NCAA’s.

Now we move on to the first game in our top 10. This game tied with the Penn State 2004 game and one other game, but I ultimately put the Wisconsin game from 2003 here because of the way the Badgers finished the season. Both this and the #9 game on the countdown were critical road wins in the two biggest seasons under Tiller. The #9 game, however, came against a team that ultimately finished with a better record. Wisconsin only finished 7-6 in 2003, so that docks this game slightly. Still, it is definitely one of coach Tiller’s better wins.

Date: October 16, 2003

Place: Camp Randall Stadium, Madison, Wisconsin

Incoming Purdue record: (5-1, 2-0 Big Ten, ranked 13th)

Incoming Wisconsin record: (6-1, 3-0 Big Ten, ranked 14th)

I can’t remember where I watched this game on TV, but it was one of the more entertaining games I have ever had the pleasure of watching. I do remember it was the week before my then girlfriend, now wife moved to Indiana, and I needed a boost after her Florida Marlins tragically ended the Cubs run to the World Series. I had an opportunity to actually go to this game with some friends, but I turned it down and instead went a few weeks later when they decided to go to Ohio State. That was a bad decision.

One quick bad omen: College GameDay was there that day, a precursor to the unfortunate events of a year later.

Wisconsin was fresh off of an upset of previously undefeated Ohio State while we had turned things around nicely after being stunned in the season opener against Bowling Green. Wisconsin had suffered a similar type of loss for their only blemish to that point, losing at home to UNLV 23-5. Other than Ohio State, Wisconsin hadn’t played anyone of note in the conference yet. They had solid wins over West Virginia and Akron outside the conference.

We were on a similar track. After getting beaten by a pretty good Bowling Green team we went on the road and beat a ranked Wake Forest team in a game I almost included in this countdown as our best non-conference, non-Notre Dame win not in a bowl game. This was our first road game since that game, as we had defeated Arizona, Notre Dame, Illinois, and Penn State in four straight home contests. With Michigan coming up the next week, and our three toughest conference games all still to be played on the road, we needed to get this game to have a chance to win the Big Ten.

The Game:

You could tell it was Purdue’s day from the very first play from scrimmage when Jim Sorgi tried to go deep on our secondary but was intercepted by Jacques Reeves. Two minutes later Jerod Void was in the end zone to cap a 7 play, 59 yard drive and give us an early 7-0 lead. On Wisconsin’s next drive we would once again be the beneficiary of a turnover. Wisconsin had reached the Purdue 27 before Sorgi fumbled and it was recovered by Bernard Pollard. Sorgi’s play in the first 10 minutes was much like his play in the Colts’ season finale last season.

Getting the ball at our own 30 we proceeded to march 70 yards in 9 plays before Kyle Orton found Taylor Stubblefield for a 6-yard touchdown pass. It was less than 10 minutes into the game, but we were already up by 14. That would prove to be critical, as despite playing well all game it would be the last time we found the end zone.

Wisconsin got on the board with a 28 yard touchdown run from Anthony Davis a little more than two minutes later. Purdue then had a nice drive going before Orton was sacked and fumbled the ball away. Jeff Mack scooped up the fumble and took it back 55 yards for a touchdown early in the second quarter, but Wisconsin missed the extra point. The teams then traded punts before Purdue put together a long drive for a Ben Jones field goal with about four minutes left in the half. We actually had a 14 play drive for the points, but it only took up five minutes. It did, however, assure a 17-13 lead at the half.

Purdue got the ball to start the half and went on an even longer drive. We managed to dink and dunk our way down the field for 71 yards in an astonishing 18 plays, but couldn’t put it in the end zone after getting a first and goal from the two. Jones hit a 20-yard field goal to make it 20-13 and make sure we got something out of it. They were also the only points of the third quarter.

Most of the second half was a defensive struggle, as Wisconsin couldn’t get anything going until a field goal drive of its own at the start of the fourth quarter. Mike Allen hit a 25-yarder with 9:42 left to make it 20-16 Purdue. Purdue then answered right back with another drive for three more points. All this was set up on a 50 yard catch and run by John Standeford, but again we couldn’t get it in the end zone. Jones’ kick from 26 was good, and we led 23-16 with 8:15 left.

Our defense then managed a stop, and we got the ball back after Wisconsin fumbled it away with 5:40 to play. We now had a chance to run the clock out. What ensued was nothing short of a disaster. First we had a 10 yard holding penalty, then gave up a sack on first down. Suddenly we were facing 2nd and 26. Naturally, we were forced to punt without making Wisconsin use a timeout. Things went from bad to worse, as Jim Leonard weaved his way through our punt coverage to tie the game with a 63 yard punt return. We looked deflated and appeared to be on our way to overtime in our second straight trip to Madison.

This is where Purdue avoided being Purdue, something we managed a few times during that period of Joe’s tenure. We got the ball at Wisconsin’s 17 yard line with 2:48 left and played aggressive. We worked our way to the Wisconsin 39 before Orton went deep to Ray Williams. Williams caught the ball and went out of bounds at the 3, much to the approval of an onlooking Lee Corso at the goal line. After Brandon Jones ran the ball down to the one Wisconsin started using timeouts. We then let them by having Orton take a pair of knees to help run out the clock. We called a timeout with 8 seconds left, knowing the Badgers were out of timeouts, and called on Ben Jones one more time.

To this day I wish we had centered the ball, as an 18 yard field goal from an angle is a very tough kick to make, but it didn’t matter. Ben Jones split the uprights with three seconds left and set off a wild celebration. Once Wisconin got the ball they had to 92 yards in one play. The Hail Mary was incomplete and we had escaped with a 26-23 win when people said we wouldn't.

After the Game:

I still maintain that the 2003 team had more overall talent and was a better overall team than the Rose Bowl squad. We would finish 9-4 that year with two of the losses in overtime to Ohio State and Georgia. The Big Ten title hopes took a severe hit when we got thrashed, as usual, at Michigan the following week 31-3, but all told we were 11 points away from being a 12-1 team that season. Up until the Ohio State game we were in the running for an at large bid to the BCS, and had Ben Jones made the field goal in overtime we may have gotten it. As it was, playing Georgia in the Capitol one Bowl on new Year’s Day was a nice reward.

What supplements my argument some is that the Big Ten was very good in 2003. We were fresh off of having Iowa and Ohio State nearly meet for the national title after not having played during the 2002 season. The Hawkeyes, Michigan, Minnesota, and Ohio State all won at least 10 games, and both Michigan and Ohio State went to BCS bowls. Wisconsin fell on hard times after this loss, finishing 7-6 and only winning one more game the rest of the year. All told the Big Ten put eight of its 11 teams into bowl games that year, as even Northwestern got in on the fun at 6-6. Only Illinois, Penn State, and Indiana spent the holidays at home.

We also had another rarity in that we defeated three ranked teams, still a record, in one season. Wake Forest, Wisconsin, and Iowa were all ranked when we played, and all four losses were to teams that finished the season in the polls. We played one of the toughest schedules in school history that year, and considering traditional powers Notre Dame and Penn State were way down that is saying something.

Lost in this game are Kyle Orton’s stats. In one of his better games, especially since we almost exclusively used him as a game manager that season and relied on the defense, Kyle threw for 411 on 38 of 55 passes with a touchdown and no picks. 30 of those passes went to either Standeford or Stubblefield, as deadly of a receiving duo as we’ve ever had, for 314 yards. We also had just one turnover to Wisconsin’s four. When you consider those numbers we probably shouldn’t have needed a last second field goal to win, but a victory is a victory.

This is one of my favorite games because it is one of the rare times we have delivered on the road in the national spotlight. It was one of the most hyped games in the country that week, and we looked very good in pulling off the win. We seemed to do everything right in this one. Each time we were challenged we responded, and each time Wisconsin made a mistake we made them pay for it. It was very nice to see us as one of the most feared teams in the country, even for only a week.
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Thursday, April 24, 2008

Big Ten Bloggers' Roundtable: Spring Edition!

At the request of Black Shoe Diaries, the fearless leader of this merry band we call the Big Ten bloggers, we have a spring roundtable thanks the conclusion of spring football. We’ll get to Mike’s questions in a moment, but first I have to do some self-pimping.

Off the Tracks recently went national. Baseball America selected my question this week for its mailbag. I have mentioned here before how I feel Purdue baseball is one of the red-headed stepchildren of the athletic department, but the team currently sits comfortably in second place in the Big Ten with a 12-4 conference record after beating Ohio State in a series for the first time in 21 years. The Boilers probably won’t be going to the NCAA Tournament as an at large team with only a 21-17 overall record, but they are positioning themselves for a good seed in the Big Ten tourney. The tourney will most likely be played at Michigan, as the champion will host. Since Lambert Field doesn’t have lights I don’t think Purdue is even eligible to host unless they moved it Loeb Stadium. The Boilers do not have a series against the Wolverines, but if they can stay in the top 2 they will receive a first round bye and favorable schedule. That’s all you can ask for in post-season baseball. Considering we haven’t won a Big Ten baseball championship since 1909 I would say we are more than due.

The women’s softball team also continues what may be the best season in school history. The Boilers are 31-17 and stand at 6-6 in the Big Ten heading into a pair of games this weekend with #25 Iowa. That is good enough for a fourth place tie in the conference. Only six games remain in the season, two each against the “I” schools in the Big Ten. Five of those six are also at home, with four this weekend. Unlike baseball, the Big Ten is always a multiple bid conference when it comes to softball. A winning conference record and a decent showing in the Big Ten Tournament could mean a first ever NCAA berth for the program.

With that past, it is on to the questions.

1. I love spring. Flowers blooming. Birds chirping. Bones breaking. ACL’s tearing. List the injuries your team sustained and describe their impact on 2008.

This is where we cue the theme from MASH. Injuries were such an issue for the Boilers this spring that nearly half of the expected starters in the fall missed spring football. The worst injury that actually occurred in the spring was to offensive lineman Ryan Prater. Prater was expected to provide much needed depth at the tackle position, but hurt both his MCL and ACL and could be done for the season before it even starts. It also left us with only three healthy offensive tackles for the spring game.

The rest of the injuries are to players that should be back in the fall, but they are key guys that were unable to do much of anything this spring. Here is the list:

Greg Orton – WR
Desmond Tardy – WR
Torri Williams – Safety
Brandon Erwin – Safety
Sean Sester – OT
Zach Jones – OT
Zack Reckman – OG
Mike Chacksfield – OL
Mike Neal – DT
Brandon King -- Safety

Many of these guys will be starters or key reserves in the fall, and it certainly doesn’t help that two of the main areas of depth needed are safety and offensive line. Quite simply, we will not be very good unless we can get most of these guys back and healthy. The two biggest players we need back are Erwin and Williams. They were playing very well at safety last season, but when they went down our defense took a major hit. If we can get them healthy I feel our defense could be surprisingly good. I would even say at this point, with the questions at receiver, it could be the strength of the team, and will be better than people think.

2. Break down the major position battles going on with your offense.

Well, aside from Tardy and Orton, the wide receiver position is wide open. Orton is our most experienced returning receiver, but the number two man as far as returning catches is running back Kory Sheets who had 30 catches last season. Expect Orton to start on the outside with Tardy in the slot, but Brandon Whittington, Joe Whitest, Aaron Valentin, Waynelle Gravesande, Keith Smith, Byron Williams, and DeAundre Muhammad will all be competing for the other spots.

The offensive line is also wide open, especially considering that we didn’t have a single healthy starter back in the spring. Jordan Grimes and Robbie Powell have moved on due to graduation, and pretty much every position is up for grabs. Monster offensive tackle Ken Plue is projected to play as a true freshman, and the dude is a house at 6’7”, 365+. He will likely be the anchor of the line for years to come, but he is still a true freshman. He was able to enroll early and play in the spring, so that will help. Cory Benton is projected to be the new center, while Jared Zwilling is moving over from the defensive line for more depth. We won’t know the final line until the fall when everyone is healthy, but Plue probably had the best spring by default.

Finally, I wouldn’t really call it a battle, but Kory Sheets and Jaycen Taylor are fighting for the starting spot at running back. Both will play extensively, so it is not really a battle.

3. You knew this was coming. Break down the major position battles on defense.

The defense actually seems to be fairly set. We appear to have three linebackers that, while not all-world, should be pretty solid. Depth will be a concern in this area, so we cannot afford injuries to Kevin Green, Anthony Heygood, and Jason Werner. I was impressed with the play of Tyler Haston. Hopefully he can get some good minutes in the fall.

Our defensive line is very deep, as we will have a solid rotation of ends and tackles. There isn’t one “big name” like in past years, but the overall depth and talent as a unit should be quite good.

Once we get healthy, our secondary appears to be fairly set as well. What was youth two years ago now be one of the most experienced units on the entire team. David Pender will be the top corner, while King, Williams, Erwin, and McKinley are all pretty good safeties to build around. Since they couldn’t play we had a chance to develop plenty of depth in the spring.

4. Who are the unknown kids on your team that will be household names come December?

Keyon Brown had a breakout game at defensive end against Central Michigan in the Motor City Bowl. He could very easily be the next one in line as a great defensive end for us. We have had quite a line of succession from Roosevelt Colvin to Akin Ayodele to Shaun Phillips to Ray Edwards to Anthony Spencer to Cliff Avril. If Brown doesn’t step up, Ryan Kerrigan or one of our redshirt freshmen will.

Offensively I think Aaron Valentin could have a very good year for us. He had a very athletic one-handed catch in the spring game, and as a Juco guy he has a little more experience as a first year player. He could have a big year this year, with an even better 2009 in store.

5. How would you describe the general mood around your program? Are you gearing up the tailgate party for a conference title run or do you get the impression there are going to be a lot of empty seats in your stadium this year?

It is really hard to gauge at this point because of a number of factors. Personally, I think if we can get everyone healthy and avoid any more injuries during the season we have the ability to at least compete in every game except maybe Ohio State. Missing Illinois and Wisconsin means we have a favorable conference schedule. We get Penn State and Michigan at home, meaning if we’re ever going to beat them in the same season this will be the year. The only game where I feel we are completely overmatched is the game at Ohio State. Unfortunately, we may have the toughest overall non-conference slate in the conference. If you take away Northern Colorado we have two very difficult home games and a road game at Notre Dame that is always tough for us.

Another factor is that it is Tiller’s final season. We have a 5th year senior at quarterback who may be the best in the conference, so that will give us a shot in nearly every game. They guys certainly want to send Tiller out a winner, but how much will that be a factor? I know the rest of the Big Ten seems to be stepping back except Illinois, Ohio state, and Wisconsin. We therefore have an advantage by not playing two of those.

Minnesota will be better, but may still be a year away. If Indiana doesn’t get Kellen Lewis back they will struggle mightily. I know Michigan is Michigan, but I really don’t know how they are going to score points offensively with all they lost and the fact they are implementing a new scheme. Penn State needs to find a quarterback and just lost a great defensive player. I drank the Iowa Kool-aid the last two years and I won’t do it again. Michigan State is a mystery to me right now, and I think Northwestern will really surprise some people this year. To me, all these factors give me hope in the conference race.

I like that we have Danny Hope back to help our offensive line, particularly because he was so good earlier in his career as an assistant. If he can build our line and keep them solid we could have a surprising year.

Unfortunately, many fans don’t share my optimism. I am looking for a middle of the pack type of finish in the Big Ten. If we can get through the non-conference season undefeated, which is a possibility, we could have an even better year. I am setting my goal at 8-4 after last year’s 9-3 fell through. I will officially call losses to Notre Dame (after getting burned in 1998, 2000, and 2002 I refuse to predict victory in South Bend), Ohio State, a split of Penn State and Michigan, and a loss to either Michigan State or Iowa. I think we will also shock people from the beginning by upsetting Oregon at home in week two.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Best wins of the Tiller Era #11: Penn State 2004

Today we reach the first multiple-vote game in the countdown. After having four straight games that received a single vote, the next three games each received just two votes in the poll. Once again, I get to use my editor’s prerogative to choose the order in terms of importance. The common thread among the next three choices is that they were all road wins in very hostile venues. One could easily say they are the toughest three road wins of the Tiller Era, especially considering that among the games in the top eight, only one came in a true road venue. That game being the 2004 win at Notre Dame. Based on how poorly the Irish faired in 2004, the next three games were probably much harder for Purdue to come away with a victory, and the final margins in each game show that level of difficulty.

Ultimately, of the three choices for the #11 spot on this countdown the 20-13 Penn State win from 2004 was probably the least significant. So far it marks the only time in the Tiller Era that the Boilers have walked into a 100,000+ seat stadium and walked away with a victory. Barring an absolute miracle this year in the Horseshoe, it will likely remain so as well. The other two games were better wins over better teams in the two best seasons under Tiller.

Date: October 9, 2004

Place: Beaver Stadium, University Park, Pennsylvania

Incoming Purdue record: 4-0, 1-0 Big Ten (ranked 9th)

Incoming Penn State record: 2-3, 0-2 Big Ten

Purdue and Penn State have an interesting rivalry. Of the three programs with 100,000+ seat stadiums in the conference the Boilers have had the most success against the Nittany Lions. In almost every game under coach Tiller Purdue has been competitive against Penn State, but we have also blown several good chances to notch quality wins. In 1999 we had a really good chance to beat them at home when they were unbeaten and ranked second in the country, but missed field goals and a late fourth down stop prevented that. A late missed field goal in 2000 prevented another Boiler win in Happy Valley, while the Boilers dropped another close one last season. It is a fairly friendly rivalry, one of good football and good harmony between the fans. Some good friends of ours are Penn state fans and they actually came to the game with us in 2006 at Purdue. They were welcomed at our tailgate and even extended an invitation to see the Boilers play in Happy Valley some time. I also know a pair of friends from grade school that have undergraduate science degrees from Purdue and graduate degrees from Penn State.

The 2004 game had plenty of hype surrounding it. The Boilers were on a roll, having crushed Syracuse, Ball State, and Notre Dame in addition to a closer than it should have been win at Illinois. Kyle Orton had yet to throw an interception against 17 touchdown passes and was one of the early front-runners for the Heisman. The Penn State game was our third straight road contest, and it had been 24 years since we had won three straight away from Ross-Ade in one season. It had been longer still since we had started a season 5-0, as that streak dated back to 1945. There was also the buzz that a win would mean a potential visit by College GameDay to West Lafayette, an honor that was robbed from us during the 2000 season when we were leading the voting nationwide for the show to visit for the Michigan game. Penn State was down, but they are always a tough out at home, especially when a top 10 team comes to town. Purdue had a lot riding on this game, and for once we actually came through.

The Game:

Purdue never trailed, but Penn State made us earn this one. It was clear from the beginning that points would come at a premium, as Penn State’s defense came to play. Purdue played the field position game, turning a short punt and a good return by Taylor Stubblefield into three points when Ben Jones hit a 50-yard field goal midway through the first quarter. The fact that Jones connected twice from 45 yards or more was a huge reason we were able to win this one.

After a few more punts Purdue put together one of its best drives of the season for a touchdown and a 10-0 lead. The Boilers went 86 yards in 7 plays in a little more than three minutes. Charles Davis had a huge 55 yard catch and run on the drive to get us in scoring position and Brandon Jones capped the drive with a two yard run.

Penn State answered with a drive of its own. We helped them with a 15-yard personal foul penalty on the ensuing kickoff, and the Nittany Lions went 62 yards in six plays to cut it to 10-7. Ben Jones would then miss a 51 yard field goal and Penn State would tie it on a 38-yard field goal with 24 seconds left the half. Penn State had taken the momentum back and had the crowd behind them as they headed into the locker room.

Purdue got the ball to start the second half and responded with a longer drive for a touchdown. This time the Boilers went 80 yards in eight plays, but the last 40 yards were covered on a long pass to Stubblefield as he sneaked inside the pylon for a score. It took just four minutes for Purdue to take the lead for good, but it was far from over.

The Boilers’ next drive stalled, and Penn State put together a lengthy drive for what was looking like a tying touchdown after Penn State got a first and 10 at the 16. The Purdue defense held on 2nd and 1 from the 7 and forced and incomplete pass on third down. Penn State had to settle for a short field goal, and Purdue had gained a major victory. Unfortunately, on the very next drive Purdue had some things going before Calvin Lowry picked off Orton near midfield. It was Orton’s first pick of the season, which whipped the Penn State crowd into a frenzy since it came on the first play of the fourth quarter.

Penn State then drove all the way down to the Purdue six, but on fourth and five from the six Paterno elected to go for the go-ahead touchdown rather than settle for a field goal. Stanford Keglar stuffed Zack Mills at the three to give Purdue the ball back as Penn State left morepoints on the field.

The momentum was very short lived, as Orton was intercepted again two plays later. Fortunately, this interception came on a long bomb of a pass. Anwar Phillips intercepted Orton at the Purdue 42, but we had the ball on the one yard line anyway, so it was as good as punt. The Purdue defense rose to the occasion once again, as it forced a stop and Robbie Gould missed a 45-yard field goal with 8:22 left.

Once Purdue got the ball back we showed uncharacteristic poise in the face of a very loud home crowd. We managed to hold on to the ball for 11 plays and move 44 yards in more than five and a half minutes. Dorien Bryant had an absolutely huge 17 yard catch and run on 3rd and 14 to keep the drive alive near midfield. Jones then capped the drive with one of the most dramatic field goals of his career, a 46-yarder that made it 20-13 with just 2:48 left. At that point it looked like Purdue was facing overtime at worst, and with the struggles Penn State had in moving the ball a win seemed highly possible.

Penn State acquiesced to our wishes by throwing four straight incompletions after a great kickoff return, but Purdue couldn’t gain a first down and had to punt the ball back with a minute to play. Penn State got as far as midfield, but Anthony Morelli’s fourth down Hail Mary fell short as time expired and Purdue had the win.

After the Game:

At the time, this felt like a ground-breaking road win for Purdue. It was also the second such win in a row since we had walloped the Irish in South Bend a week before. It was the first time we had ever won in Happy Valley, and the first time since a shocking upset at Ohio State in 1988 that we had won at one of the biggest venues in the conference. The win propelled us to our highest ranking in decades, as we spent a week at #5. College GameDay did indeed come to town for the following Wisconsin game and we enjoyed a week of rare Heisman and National Title hype.

Personally, it was a glorious week, as my wife’s Hurricanes were also highly rated and we began to entertain thoughts of a potential national title match between the two. We weren’t even engaged yet, but we shared season tickets for the first time that season. It certainly looked like it was going to be a memorable season. All signs now pointed to a two game stretch against Wisconsin and Michigan. Both games were at home, and a win in both would all but seal the Big Ten championship. Ohio State loomed later on down the road, but we had survived the tough road tests. The remaining difficult games were all at home, and every Purdue fan dared to dream.

Of course, we all know what happened to that dream. It reached a pinnacle with a 10 point lead and just 8 minutes to play against the Badgers. Less than half an hour later it was all over. The Fumble happened, Ben Jones missed just his second clutch kick ever (the first coming the previous year at Ohio State), and a four game losing streak sent us from the national title to the Sun Bowl.

This win over Penn State seems so long ago now, but it was the last time we were able to get a big win anywhere. We have played three seasons since, and the rare plateau we reached after beating the Nittany Lions now seems so far away. I don’t know if we can even get back there, and I feel robbed and empty for only having it for one short week. There have been a few very brief teases, specifically the start of the disastrous 2005 season, but for the most part we have been nowhere near that place since.

Still, for one week we were the talk of the college football world. For one week we were nationally relevant and controlled out own destiny for greatness. Yes there are 120 major college football teams in the country, but you can almost instantly eliminate half of them from the national title discussion simply because of the conference they play in. Of the remaining half, only about 15-20 have a realistic shot each year of winning it all. Very rarely are the Boilers in that select group, so it was very nice to have it for one week.

We will always wonder what would have happened had Orton not fumbled against Wisconsin. It is refreshing to know that when I watch the highlights of this Penn State game it was the last time we had no knowledge of that fumble. That is why this game makes the list.
video video

Sunday, April 20, 2008

The futility of Spring football

There are both positives and negatives that can be taken away from Spring football. For football starved fans, it can be free entertainment on an otherwise dull Saturday afternoon in central Indiana. I don’t have a family truckster like Boilerdowd, nor a family to truck up to West Lafayette, but because we slept in too much and got up to late to make it to Cincinnati for an MLB game we decided to head to West Lafayette for the day. I may get in trouble with my readership for the spring game not being my priority destination for the weekend, but today is my wife’s birthday. She is a big baseball fan, so the prospect for seeing former Hurricane Ryan Braun play in Cincinnati was her first choice of weekend activity.

While the spring game can be entertaining, the only true thing that comes out of it is the opportunity to practice and develop depth. Most spring game statistics should be taken with a grain of salt simply because they are incredibly skewed. The first team is often playing against the second team on the other side of the ball, and both sides are not playing at full speed in order to avoid any major injuries. In Purdue’s case, so many guys were out with injuries that will be there in the fall that an even less accurate assessment can be done.

Of course that doesn’t stop our friends in South Bend from going way overboard about Jimmy Montana. I guess completing 10 of 27 passes against a defensive unit that couldn’t stop the French army last season is certainly taking command of the starting quarterback position. This is especially so when the next studly recruit isn’t even there yet and Jimmy was probably competing against a waterboy and a peanut vendor. Keep throwing those game winning TD’s in events that aren’t even games, Jimmy. He could still become a quality quarterback for the Irish, but let’s all calm down a little bit before enshrining him in Canton. Conveniently omitted from the above article is Jimmy’s error in throwing a touchdown to the wrong team that led to an internal scuffle. Of course, if the Notre Dame defense can pick off the great Jimmy Montana and hold him to just 10 of 27 completions we may be seeing the second coming of the 1985 Bears. You stay classy, Irish, by getting in fights and earning unsportsmanlike conduct penalties. It’s okay because it is just the spring game and you’re “showing emotion”.

Sorry for the rant there, but I only list those links simply because they illustrate the absurdity of spring football. It is absolutely wonderful that teams can get in some extra practice and work on a few things instead of being dormant for 8 months, but in reality that it is all it is. Performing against your own guys in a spring game ultimately is not a good indicator of how well a team will perform in live competition simply because of the desire to avoid injury and the first team vs. second team issue. Still, there were some positives yesterday, but it the above conditions make it harder to see the negatives. Only the World League of American Football, t e XFL, and NFL Europa play meaningful games in the spring, and they are all dead.

At least it is an afternoon of entertainment and I got a visit to Harry’s and Lovshack out of it.

Positives from the Spring game:

Ken Plue – I was excited because I saw his size on paper, but after seeing him in person yesterday I was blown away. This dude is a freaking house! I cannot wait for Danny Hope, a proven offensive line coach after putting all five starters from the Rose Bowl line in the NFL at one point or another, has a chance to develop him. If Plue can play at all he is going to be the anchor of our offensive line for the next four years based on size alone. Since we’re so decimated by injuries right now spring practice will certainly be a plus for him since he enrolled early.

Jared Crank – He looked pretty good yesterday, and I would like to see us use him as a bit of a change of pace back. I know Halliburton is ahead of him on the depth chart, but if we can use Halliburton more we can use Crank more. At the very least it looks like we have five solid running backs with Dierking, Taylor, and Sheets in addition to these two. Hopefully we can use some two back sets as a surprise because no one expects us to.

Tight Ends – This is an area where we lost an awful lot because of one guy. We’re not going to replace a player like Dustin Keller right away. This area is also still a little open with Jordan Brewer still roaming the halls of Carmel High School. Colton McKey and Jerry Wasikowski had a couple of nice catches, and one of Wasikowski’s in particular, a deflection off of a defender, showed a lot of focus.

Wide Receiver depth – The blessing in disguise of having both Orton and Tardy out for the spring is that we got plenty of reps for receivers we will need to step up in the fall. Aaron Valentin’s catch in the fourth quarter was quite impressive, but I want to see it in a real game. Keith Smith ran some pretty good routes and appears to have finally found a home. I’d love to see Joe Whitest develop, and at the moment I would put him at the #5 receiver in a five receiver set. We should have a pretty good front line, and there will be chances for others like Gravesande, Muhammad, Whittington, Williams, and the incoming freshmen to contribute. How about T.J. Barbarette as well? The dude is only 5’6” and looks like he would struggle to make a high school team, but he’s tough as nails.

Linebacker depth – This is another area where we needed to have a good spring with the players available, and appears we did so. Green, Werner, and Heygood are serviceable starters, but for rotation and potential injury purposes we needed to have a couple more guys step up and show they can play at least a little. Haston’s instincts in pass coverage are good, but he needs more size. Mike Conway was all over the place, but his pick six came against a mere mortal and not Jimmy Montana, so it can be ignored. John Humphrey had a pretty good day as well, but I really wish we would bite the bullet and move Jeff Lindsay back to linebacker. We need the depth and he is a badass in my NCAA Football ’08 game.

Priorities for the summer:

Get healthy – I can file this one under the category of “well, duh”. Since you only have 22 starters and we were potentially missing 12 of them due to injury yesterday, it is pretty obvious that we need to get healthy. We’re not going to have a successful season unless we can get all of these guys back. The two biggest areas are getting both Erwin and Williams back because we really took a big step back defensively when we lost them in successive weeks last year. We could also use an offensive line, especially since blocking is just a little important in a passing game.

Work on Justin Siller’s mechanics – I like the kid’s athleticism, but his throwing motion sucks. Thank goodness we’re not rolling the dice with him full time this season. I like the idea of using him in spots, but his arm is simply not ready to run our style of offense. He gives us some great options with his feet. Yesterday he ran the option very well and instinctively knew when to kept he ball and when to pitch. Elliot is definitely the better thrower at the moment, but platooning Siller just a little this year could set the stage for a more regular platoon with Elliott and Siller in 2009. It will be a luxury next season to have a quarterback step in that has had at least two seasons to learn the system.

Get stronger – I liked what I saw from the defensive line yesterday. It looks like we’re going to have a pass rush from multiple angles, and hopefully our defensive tackles can be run stoppers while the linebackers develop. If our line can have a good year I think our defense could really surprise. We certainly have enough experience in the middle.

Develop receivers
– Painter is only going to be as good as the guys he is throwing the ball too. Hopefully he can find time over the next few months to work with as many guys as possible. I think it is a benefit that we don’t really have an established #1 guy, as our offense has always run better when we have had multiple targets. Remember, Seth Morales was the fourth option on the greatest play in Purdue history. Vinny Sutherland was always Brees’ top target, but Morales, Stratton, and Standeford all got plenty of looks. That could be us this year with Orton, Tardy, Valentin, and Adams. If the defense can’t key on just one guy (cough, Dorien Bryant, cough) we’re very dangerous.

Final Thoughts:

Again, I don’t think you can take too much from yesterday. Event eh good performances we did have came from guys who may barely play in the fall because of getting all the starters back. Playing Northern Colorado will tell us a lot more simply because we’ll have everyone back and we’ll be playing at game speed. Both sides of the ball are also handicapped a bit because in a spring game the have a very good idea about what is on the other side of the ball. At least when facing someone else, even a bad team like Northern Colorado, there is an element of surprise and reaction that isn’t there in a spring game.

We only have four more months until we find out.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Best wins of the Tiller Era #12: Indiana 2000

The final game that received just a single vote in our countdown was a bit of a surprise. Of the four choices that received a single vote this one, in my estimation, was clearly the best. I was actually surprised it didn’t receive more votes and crack the top 10. Though Off the Tracks is a benevolent dictatorship, there are roots in democracy. Therefore, we have the 12th game on our list and 4th game to be reviewed: The 2000 game against the Indiana Hoosiers.

In my previous entry on the 1997 Wisconsin game I mentioned how that specific game against the Badgers awakened my father’s dream of one day seeing the Boilers play the Rose Bowl. Since my dad is far from a big sports fan, it is pretty significant that he wanted to travel so far to see a football game. This is a guy that came to only a handful of my basketball and baseball games growing up, and I’m his only child. While that Wisconsin game awakened this long time dream, the 41-13 win over Indiana is what clinched it.

Date: November 18, 2000

Place: Ross-Ade Stadium West Lafayette, Indiana

Incoming Purdue record: 7-3, 5-2 Big Ten (ranked 17th)

Incoming Indiana record: 3-7, 2-5 Big Ten

As the game announcer said on the final play, we had waited a lifetime for this game. As much as we had accomplished that season, however, the atmosphere coming into this one almost didn’t happen. We had two thank you we needed to send out before this game to Anthony Thomas and the Iowa football team. A week after beating Ohio State in the famous Brees-to-Morales game we received an added bonus of Northwestern upsetting Michigan 54-51 in a game that Lake the Posts (a belated thank you, by the way, for the countdown idea) rated as 4th best in Northwestern history. I remember watching that game at Damon’s in Kokomo and seeing Thomas inexplicably drop the ball without being touched after he had already gained the game-clinching first down. Northwestern recovered, had a second life, and ended up winning the game. This was astounding, especially since Thomas was Michigan’s all-time leading rusher until Mike Hart passed him this year. Thomas simply dropped the ball, and without it Michigan would have been in yet another Rose Bowl with just one conference loss (to us).

We had a bye that week, and it was a bad thing. We followed it up with an ugly 31-10 loss in East Lansing to Michigan State that was nothing short of disastrous. Fortunately, lowly Iowa, Which was just 2-8 overall before the game, upset Northwestern 27-17 on senior day in Iowa City. Iowa had lost games that season to Western Michigan, Indiana, Iowa State, and Illinois, but came out of nowhere to shock the fellow Big Ten leader. As a result, Michigan, Ohio State, Purdue, and Northwestern were all tied atop the Big Ten standings with two losses instead of Northwestern being out in front all alone with one loss. Since the Boilers had already defeated the Buckeyes, Wolverines, and Wildcats head-to-head we were saved from our gaffe against Michigan State. Owning the tiebreakers made the equation simple before the Hoosiers came to town. No matter what anyone else did, all we had to do was beat the Hoosiers and we were going to Pasadena.

Going into the stadium that day you could feel it: there was no freaking way we were losing this game.

The Game:

Indiana had only beaten Cincinnati, Iowa, and Minnesota coming into this one, with Minnesota being the best win of the group. They also had Antwaan Randle El, one of the best players in school history and a guy who would give us fits a year later. The Hoosiers had been in a few games during the season to show they had some talent, but they were the unfortunate recipients of Michigan’s wrath the week after the Wolverines collapsed in West Lafayette. Michigan trounced the Hoosiers 58-0, but Indiana lost games to Illinois, Penn State, Kentucky, and North Carolina State by a touchdown or less. They were bad, but competitive. In a rivalry game, where they could ruin our dreams and little else, that made them dangerous.

Of course, they would have been dangerous in any other atmosphere. In Ross-Ade that day we could have probably played the 1985 Bears to a game. We had our third straight late home kickoff, and it was Drew Brees’ final game in West Lafayette. Brees was loved more than any Purdue athlete I have ever seen, and received the rare honor that day of every fan getting a towel with his name and number to salute his accomplishments. Not only did we have the incredibly rare opportunity to clinch the Rose Bowl, but we were also sending off one of the most celebrated alumni in school history. More than 65,000 Purdue fans were ready to bleed that day if it meant Purdue would win. We were NOT going to let them lose, and it may be the only time where I have felt a Purdue crowd be that determined.

Though it was Brees’ final game, Montrell Lowe stole the show. As was his style, Drew was more than happy to let someone else do the work and receive the glory as long as the team won. Indiana was completely unprepared for Lowe, who ran for 208 yards and four touchdowns on 38 carries. Many of his carries came on the same play, a simple handoff up the middle, but Indiana just couldn’t stop it. As a running back, it was probably the best individual day by any back under coach Tiller. Even more impressive is that Lowe did not have the size and dominant power that Mike Alstott had. He would score the first touchdown of the game on a 12 yard run about 10 minutes in and add three more in the second half as Purdue salted the game away.

Drew’s numbers were modest compared to what we were used to from him, but with the way Lowe was running we didn’t need him to throw for 450 yards and four touchdowns. Drew threw for 216 yards, ran for 85 more, and had both a touchdown passing and rushing. He was very efficient with just nine incomplete passes and one interception. His touchdown pass went to Tim Stratton, who would go on to win that season’s Mackey award as college football’s best tight end.

Indiana was able to hang around for most of the first half and only trailed 13-7 when Brees scored on a two yard run with about two minutes to go in the first half. The second half was all Montrell Lowe. Lowe scored two of his touchdowns in the third quarter and gave the Boilers a 34-7 lead. Indiana cobbled together a touchdown drive early in the fourth quarter, but Lowe clinched things with his final touchdown at the 9:50 mark. What followed was a 10 minute celebration as everyone anxiously watched the clock tick away.

Lost in this game was the performance of the Purdue defense. They had struggled for a good portion of the season and we often had to rely on the offense to simply outscore teams. Though Randle El cracked 100 yards rushing, he gained most of them by running for his life from a fierce pass rush. The secondary picked him off three times, two of them coming from Stu Schweigert as the freshman began his growth as a fan favorite. One of his picks was a memorable mistake, as he never took a knee in the end zone and non-chalantly flipped the ball to the turf before a teammate fell on what was a live ball. It was one of the very few on the field mistakes Stu had at Purdue. Indiana struggled all day to get anything going, and credit goes to the defense for making sure this one wasn’t even close.

After the game:

Where do I begin? With 6:50 left Drew Brees left the field for the final time as a Purdue Boilermaker to a standing ovation that will not soon be topped in West Lafayette. From my seat in the fifth row of the student section even the incredibly drunk girl slobbering all over herself couldn’t distract from my joy of the game. Basically, it was a four hour joy-session capped off with everyone mobbing the field for the third straight home game.

If you have never had the opportunity to storm a football field in joy I must say that you have missed out on something in life. Since I was in the fifth row it was our responsibility to make sure it happened. Against Michigan we were somewhat tentative, but it still happened. Ohio State was more spontaneous. This Indiana game was different. After Lowe’s final touchdown we didn’t care what else happed. We just counted down the minutes and seconds until we could be unleashed. Once Brady Doe caught the game’s final pass for a game-ending interception it was on. Everyone was pushing behind me and soon I was over the railing and running full-tilt to… well, I don’t really remember. It was a rare moment in life where everyone just wanted to run in unabashed joy with their hands in the air. Strangers hugged strangers, people were crying tears of joy, and no one wanted to leave. I never tried to get on the goal posts, but I remember being on the field when we were presented with the Big Ten trophy and the formal invitation to the Rose Bowl. Somewhere in that mass of humanity we also had the Bucket, decorated with Roses for just the third time in its history. The scoreboard said it best with a simple picture of the Rose Bowl and the words, “Look out California. Here come the Boilermakers!” The steam whistle was blown so many times I think it ran out of steam.

It was easily one of the top 10 happiest moments of my life.

Going back to my father for a moment; when I finally met up with my parents after the game I saw a smile that I rarely saw from him. He would indeed fulfill his promise, as he couldn’t even wait to drive back to Kokomo. He had me looking up flight and hotel information on the computer at my apartment as they were driving back to Kokomo. He had booked our trip that Monday and, sure enough, I found myself sitting in the north end zone directly behind the goal posts with foam hammer in hand as the Boilers took on Washington. To this day I don’t care that we lost the game and I spent a ton of money to go see it. The fact I was there was enough for me. How could I have missed the spontaneous cheer when Roy Johnson, as a surprise to many Purdue fans, took the mic and simply said, “I am an American” to begin the pre-game? Even though the Boilers lost, the Rose bowl was a celebration and a vindication for all the Purdue fans that had suffered through Akers and Colletto. We’ve had better overall teams (I personally think the 2003 team was Tiller’s best), but this was special. This was our moment to celebrate, and I don’t care that it took a 3-way tie in one of the Big Ten’s weakest years to get it. It was ours, and no one can take that away from us.

This Indiana game was more than just a typical Bucket Game. It was the game that allowed us to experience this dream of being in Pasadena. After going to this past season’s Bucket Game in Bloomington and seeing them celebrate a mere bowl bid reminded me of the 2000 game, and I actually envied them for a moment. It didn’t matter to them that they had barely squeezed into a low bowl they would eventually lose. For once they weren’t “Indiana”, and that is all that mattered. When we beat Indiana in 2000 to go to the Rose Bowl we weren’t just “Purdue”. We were champions.

(Sorry no video, Blogger was being gay)

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Best wins of the Tiller Era #13: Wisconsin 1997

I have been a Purdue season ticket holder for many years. I started going to games with my parents in 1988. I maintained season tickets with them until becoming a student in the fall of 1998. I got tickets all four years as a student and have gotten tickets each year since graduation. Because of commitments during my senior year of high school, however, I missed a pair of games during Tiller's first season in 1997. To the best of my knowledge, I have only missed a total of four home games since Joe Tiller became coach, but two of those were in the 1997 season. One of those games is the game I am reviewing today. The Wisconsin game from 1997 was the third game of four that received a single vote in my poll. It was significant because it was the game that made my father, an alumnus and season ticket holder for much longer than I, believe in Purdue football.

A little background is in order for my dad. He is a 1975 graduate of the Purdue school of Pharmacy. He is far from being the sports fan that I am, but the one sport he has always carried a strong interest in is Purdue football. As a student, he suffered many losing seasons under Bob Demoss and Alex Agase (the later he nicknamed the Agase of Defeat). He has had season tickets since before I can remember. His reasoning, as he once put it, was, "We get to see a lot of good football, unfortunately none of it is Purdue. We get to see Michigan, Ohio State, Notre Dame, Penn State…" Since I was a kid he always promised that if Purdue ever went to the Rose Bowl, my mother and I would be going with him. Obviously, this never seemed like a realistic dream for many years.

At the beginning of each season my parents always miss a game or two, as they have a time-share in Breckenridge, Colorado at the beginning of September. During the 1997 season they missed both the Notre Dame and Ball State games because of this. Since I was able to attend that great Notre Dame game with my brother-in-law and his brother, I was continually talking about how Purdue was no longer the same old Purdue, and that my dad might have to actually fulfill his Rose Bowl promise. He hadn't attended a game before this Wisconsin game, so he didn't believe me. After this Wisconsin game he came up to me and said, "You know son, you just might be right about this team." The Wisconsin game in 1997 made my dad believe that he might actually see his Boilers play in Pasadena. Three years later, on New Year's Day of 2001 all three of us were in the Rose Bowl to watch the Boilers, and I have the Wisconsin game from 1997 to thank for re-igniting that dream.

Date: October 18, 1997

Place: Ross-Ade Stadium West Lafayette, Indiana

Incoming Purdue record: 4-1, 2-0 Big Ten

Incoming Wisconsin record: 6-1, 3-0 Big Ten (ranked 24th)

Since 1984 Purdue had not had a season with more than four wins before this day. Sure, we technically had a five win season under Jim Colletto thanks to a forfeit win over Michigan State, but a technicality is about the only way Colletto would have had a winning season. The truth is that we actually lost that Michigan State game, and the ineligible player used would not have made a difference. Our best start in that long 13 year period was a 4-1-1 start in 1994 with Mike Alstott leading the way. In typical Colletto fashion, however, we stumbled to a 4-5-2 finish. It should be noted, however, that a tie is as good as a win in the Big Ten, so we must have been 6-5.

Wisconsin was in the midst of another strong year. They had opened the season with a 34-0 loss to Syracuse in the defunct Kickoff Classic, but carried a six game winning streak into this game. They were also in the hunt for another Big Ten title, a goal they would reach in the following two seasons thanks to some guy named Ron Dayne. The Badgers had squeezed out one point wins over Indiana and Northwestern before dumping Illinois. They carried a #24 ranking into Ross-Ade that day, and quickly found out they would be the second straight ranked team to fall to the Boilers that season.

The Game:

Purdue made very short work of the Badgers, jumping out to a 28-3 lead and coasting the rest of the way. This win was more impressive than the Notre Dame game simply because Purdue imposed its will from start to finish. Many people still thought our 4-1 record was a fluke, especially with the Toledo loss still lingering. Wisconsin, however, was one of the best teams in the conference. Purdue took them behind the woodshed thanks to its fast start.

Edwin Watson made himself very familiar with the end zone on this day, scoring three times and racking up 82 yards on the ground. Willie Tillman got Purdue on the board first on a six-yard TD pass from Billy Dicken less than two minutes into the game. This followed a 42 yard scramble by Dicken and a 40 yard pass to Isaac Jones. A pair of defensive stops led to touchdown runs of 75 yards and 1 yard by Watson, as he was very efficient in doing all his work on just nine carries. Purdue led 21-0 after one quarter and never looked back.

Purdue had a very balanced attack on this day, lighting up what was a good Badger defense for 559 yards. 355 yards came through the air while another 2004 came on the ground. Back then, as is true now, it was very hard for Purdue to lose when it rushed for 200 yards or more as a team. It may have been even more true back then as we were much more pass-happy. Still, Kendall Matthews and Watson led a strong running attack that reminds me a lot of our current duo of Kory Sheets and Jaycen Taylor.

In my research for this game I found a very thorough review at this site. The stat that stands out to me is that we only had the ball for 3 minutes and 14 seconds combined on our three first quarter scoring drives. I remember that Purdue team having a great quick-strike ability, but it was especially evident in this game. On Watson's long run it was a simple handoff up the middle, but the line opened a gaping hole and Watson was gone untouched for 75 yards. Having seen Wisconsin's defense for many years it is clear that that was an atypical performance against the run, therfore credit must be given to our line for opening those holes.

Billy Dicken, who is one of the more underrated quarterbacks in my alma mater's storied history, threw for three touchdowns in the game. He added to Tillman's score in the second half by tossing a second quarter touchdown to Jones and a fourth quarter TD to Vinny Sutherland. The final TD gave Purdue a very comfortable 42-20 lead with little more than seven minutes left. At the time, Tiller was the master of the closing TD. If he felt we needed another late TD to break a team, we went out and got it. We saw it earlier that season in the win over Notre Dame when Tiller went for the late score to put us up two scores as opposed to sitting on a four point lead.

Of note for Wisconsin in this game was the performance of Ron Dayne. Dayne, who eventually became the NCAA Division 1 all-time leading rusher, had 141 yards on the ground with a touchdown. He suffered a first half knee injury in the first half, however, and was very limited in the second half, further hampering Wisconsin's efforts at a comeback.

After the game:

Wisconsin went on to have a marginally successful season, playing in the Outback bowl on New Year's Day but losing big to Georgia. The Badgers' Big Ten title hopes took a severe hit though, and losing the last two games of the regular season to Michigan and Penn State finished them off. Wisconsin closed at 8-5, 5-3 in the Big Ten, but lost several big games (sound familiar?). They would learn from their mistakesand bounce back to win consecutive Rose Bowls. So far they are the only Big Ten school to do so.

For Purdue the win meant legitimacy. The win over Notre Dame earlier in the year was nice, but could still have been considered a fluke. Beating the Badgers, especially in such dominating fashion, meant that Purdue was suddenly a contender right then and there for the Big Ten championship. The Boilers also got their first national ranking in a quite some time after this game.

Purdue would stay in the Big Ten race for another game and a half. The Boilers trounced Illinois 48-3 the following week in Champaign, but a dismal second half in Iowa City ended the 1997 dream of a Big Ten title. Purdue led the Hawkeyes 17-14 at the half before falling apart. A similar effort two weeks later against Penn State formally ended Purdue's dreams of Pasadena.

As I stated though, the win gave legitimacy for the program. Most importantly, it set things up for Purdue to go to its first bowl game in 13 years. That bid was clinched in the win over Illinois, and further solidified with a comeback win over Michigan State and trouncing of Indiana in Bloomington. The Boilers went on to finish 9-3 and win the Alamo bowl in a game that will appear later on the countdown. This was the rare season in that most of Purdue's wins came in such dominating fashion. Aside from the heroics against the Spartans, Purdue won every single game by at least 11 points. Many times Purdue went out and simply stomped its competition, which made the record and recovery from the previous seasons' 3-8 mark all the more shocking.

This win over Wisconsin announced to the rest of the Big Ten that Purdue would be a force in the conference. While we have been far from that dominant for many years, we have proven over the long haul to be a tough out in nearly every game. Since beating Wisconsin we have never had a season of less than five overall wins or three conference wins. That may not seem like much, but compared to all 120 Division 1-A teams nationally over the last 11 seasons it is actually quite good.

Finally, this win meant, at least for a short time, that Ross-Ade would be a very difficult place for opponents to play. We have never had a dominating home-field advantage, but from the beginning of the 1997 season through the closing of the 2000 season Purdue went 21-3 at the friendly confines of Ross-Ade Stadium This included two perfect 6-0 marks in 1998 and 2000. We even won the first three games of the 2001 season to push that mark to 24-3. These marks may seem quite modest for some teams, but trust me when I say this was literally earth shattering for long-time Purdue fans who probably hadn't seen 24 home wins in the past 15 years or more. The only three losses in that time came to Penn State in 1997 and 1999 (ranked in the top 10 each time) and Wisconsin in 1999 (the Big Ten champion featuring that year's Heisman winner).

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Friday, April 11, 2008

Best wins of the Tiller Era #14: Michigan State 2002

Some of you may have noticed there was a new article briefly up last night. Having returned from the vacation from hell I was greeted with the news that Scott Martin was leaving the Purdue basketball team for reasons not entirely known. Vacations are supposed to be relaxing. This one, however, was a nightmare. We were forced to change hotels and stay with a friend for four nights when our original hotel turned out to be a dive. Calling the place ghetto would be a compliment. Our rental car was hit by another car in a parking garage, but since we weren’t present at the time we may have to pay the deductible on our insurance. Finally, our flight was delayed more than 3 hours returning home, causing us to miss our connection in Detroit. These were the big things that went wrong, in addition to hundreds of little things. As a result, I was not in the best of moods when I sat down to write last night.

What came out was a very vengeful and mean spirited article that called Scott Martin on the carpet. I basically attacked Scott for leaving Purdue for what I deemed were stupid reasons, even if those weren’t the real reasons for his departure. Some loyal Boilermaker fans called me out in this regard on the Purdue board, and they were right.

That is not the type of writer I want to be here. When I saw I was losing the respect of several readers that I had worked so hard to gain I decided to take the article down. It was not right of me to attack a 19-year-old kid who is probably very confused about his own life at the moment just because I had a bad week. For that, I apologize. If there are members of the Martin family that happened to see the article in question (it was only up for about 2 hours), I also apologize to you as well. I wish Scott nothing but the best in whatever he decides to do. Should he change his mind and return to Purdue, I also welcome him with open arms. If not, I thank him for his contributions this past season.

With that out of the way we can move on to our second installment of the Best wins of the Tiller Era. As mentioned in the first installment, four different games garnered just one vote. This allowed me to choose the order of games 12-15. While the Indiana game in 2004 was just a good old-fashioned butt kicking, it really had very little riding on it. Game #14, the Michigan State game from 2002, was the complete opposite.

Date: November 16, 2002

Place: Spartan Stadium, East Lansing, Michigan

Incoming Purdue record: 4-6, 2-4 Big Ten

Incoming Michigan State record: 4-6, 2-4 Big Ten

Many remember the 2002 season one of the most agonizing ones in school history. The Boilers led the conference in both total offense and total defense, but struggled in every close game. All six losses came by a touchdown or less, and each seemed to come in a different fashion. A shocking non-conference loss against Wake Forest came as a result of Montrell Lowe fumbles and atrocious kicking by Berin Lacevic. In South Bend, Purdue held the Irish to just 3 points offensively, but allowed three turnovers to be returned for scores. At Illinois on my birthday the Boilers rallied from down 24-0 to lead 31-24 with 8 seconds remaining, but gave up a 4th down touchdown that should have never happened. I was at the game and the play was in front of me. The Illinois player’s knee was down before he broke the plane. John Standford’s Hail Mary catch then broke the plane just as much, but Purdue got hosed again before losing in overtime. There were also close losses to Michigan (2 points) and Iowa (3 points) before Holy Buckeye occurred a week before this very game.

When the Boilers traveled to East Lansing that cold, blustery day we couldn’t even settle on a starting quarterback. It was an elimination game, as the winner would still have a chance at a bowl game while the loser was done. I settled in on my couch to watch as the woman who would eventually become my wife was with me for her first ever Purdue game on TV (she had attended Holy Buckeye the week before on one of our first dates).

The Game:

Nothing was easy for Purdue in 2002, and this game was no different. Six lead changes and one tie had me alternately dancing in celebration or cursing at my TV. A blocked extra point early in the second half would prove to be key as both teams started to chase points with two-point conversions way too early. All told Michigan State passed up three points on either blocked PAT’s or missed 2-pointers, and that was the difference in a 45-42 loss.

To say Purdue was inconsistent is putting it mildly. Less than two minutes in Michigan State was on the board with a 49-yard field goal. Two minutes after that Joey Harris gave us a lead on a 25 yard touchdown run. Despite the score and the way things started, defense would play a role in this one. DeMario Suggs and Thomas Wright each had long interceptions they returned for touchdowns as Brandon Kirsch, the day’s starter, threw four interceptions. He made up for it by rushing for 125 yards and a score, but in the end it was a miserable day for Brandon.

David Richard gave Michigan State a 10-7 lead after one period before Suggs’ pick six made it 17-7 with 9:05 left. Purdue responded by scoring the final 17 points of the first half. Standford answered a minute and a half after Suggs’ score with a 41 yard touchdown catch. The Boilers then tied it at 17 on the rarest play of all: a made field goal by Lacevic. Kirsch scored his touchdown from 6 yards out 38 seconds after Berin’s field goal thanks to an Antwaun Rogers interception. That gave Purdue a 24-17 lead at the half.

The second half was even more wild. Brent Grover recovered a fumble deep in Purdue territory to stop Michigan State’s first drive, but the Boilers quickly had to punt. Michigan State then went 38 yards in 6 plays, the last 16 on a Damon Dowdell to Charles Rogers touchdown pass. The extra point, however, was blocked, setting up strategy for the rest of the half as Purdue led 31-30. The extra point may not have been blocked had the Spartans not been flagged 15 yards for celebrating the touchdown.

Purdue answered with a 77 yard touchdown drive, but Michigan State then needed just 1 play to respond itself with a 65-yard bomb to Rogers. This meant Purdue led just 31-30 going into the fourth quarter. The lead was short lived, as Wright picked off Kirsch and returned it 65 yards for a touchdown on the first play of the fourth quarter. Purdue was on its heals and it appeared we would have only ourselves to blame for yet another close loss.

It was then that two of the craziest plays in Purdue football history saved the season and Purdue’s bowl streak. Both came from the old Joe Tiller, showing the gumption to go for it on fourth down. Having already converted on 4th down twice in the game, Tiller went for it on 4th and 4 from the MSU 33 with 11:22 left in the game. I guess he figured that Lacevic was going to miss any field goal anyway, so why not go for it? As seen in one of the two plays below, Kirsch scrambled away from the rush and found Anthony Chambers for a touchdown that surely had me running around the living room whooping it up. A throat slash by Chambers to celebrate meant our own 15 yard celebration penalty, and Lacevic didn’t disappoint by missing the PAT. Perhaps he wanted to make up for not getting to miss the field goal.

Michigan State answered with a 10 play, 75 yard drive to take a 42-37 lead on a David Richard touchdown run. Their two-point attempt also appeared to be good, but a holding call brought it back. The second attempt was no good, and Purdue was able to get the ball at its own 34 with 7:32 left. Most Purdue fans remember the play that ended this drive, but credit must be given to our offensive line for getting us into position for Orton’s heroics.

It’s frustrating to know this has happened before with the current staff, but Purdue went conservative and actually ground out the clock while driving for the winning score. Brandon Jones and Joey Harris kept the ball and clock moving with runs down to the 42, while Kirsch nearly gave us all heart attacks by fumbling on 1st down from the 42. He recovered his own drop at the 40, however, and threw incompletions on the next two plays. On the second throw Kirsch was hit and knocked out of the game, meaning Kyle Orton, who had stood on the cold sidelines all day doing very little, had to come in on 4th and 8 with 3:25 left and save the season. The Michigan State crowd was in a frenzy, and Orton was not as mobile as Kirsch had been all day.

Purdue held back five to block, but just before the snap you can see Orton audible for his second slot receiver, I believe it is Brandon Jones, to move over and pick up the blitz. Jones did a great job of at least delaying two guys, giving Orton just enough time to find Standeford in single coverage down the sideline for a 40 yard TD that was every bit as clutch as Brees to Morales, maybe more so. Taylor Stubblefield caught the two-point conversion and the defense held on for the win. Standeford would finish with 136 yards on five catches with 2 TD’s

After the game for Purdue:

Perhaps the most important result from this game is that Purdue found itself a starting quarterback for the remainder of the 2002 season, as well as the next two seasons in Kyle Orton. This allowed Orton to be an early Heisman candidate in 2004, and has him in the NFL today. Kirsch started the next game against Indiana, but struggled before Orton came in to have a great day. Kirsch would not start ahead of Orton again until injuries forced him into action against Northwestern and Iowa in 2004.

The win also allowed Purdue to finish the season by regaining the bucket in a 34-10 romp over Indiana the following week. The Boilers were rejuvenated and Brandon Jones had perhaps his finest day as a Boiler with 131 yards and two touchdowns against the Hoosiers. Purdue would make it three in a row with a Sun Bowl victory over Washington to have its best finish to a season in the past eight years.

In the grand scheme of things, beating Michigan State accomplished very little. It did, however give Purdue enough confidence to crawl into a bowl and win it. It also set things up very well for 2003. That Boilermaker team may have been the best overall team that Tiller ahs had at Purdue. I would argue it was better than the 2000 Rose Bowl squad simply because it was more balanced on both sides of the ball. The defense was the best of the Tiller Era and gained a lot of confidence from the stop at the end of this Michigan State game. That 2003 team was a handful of plays from a 12-1 overall, and much of that can probably be owed to the resiliency shown in this game.
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