Little has gone right for the Purdue Boilermakers the past two weeks. After outplaying Oregon in the always intimidating Autzen Stadium, Purdue inexplicably lost to Northern Illinois, giving the Big Ten another black-eye courtesy of the MAC. New coach Danny Hope has brought a new attitude to West Lafayette that hasn’t been seen in last years of the Joe Tiller era, but the team is still in the midst of a program defining transition.
Travis Miller runs the Purdue fan site Hammer & Rails, one of the better named sports blogs out there, and an off shoot of his popular Purdue football blog Off the Tracks. Travis was kind enough to take some time and answer a few questions I had on the Boilermakers, and to see if they were taking away sharp objects from the guy in charge of banging the World’s Largest Drum yet.
Inside the Irish: Where do Purdue fans stand right now after two soul-crushing losses?
Hammer & Rails: It is hard to say where we stand right now. Last week at this time, we were sky high because we had played a great game at Oregon, only to beat ourselves. We were encouraged that we went into one of the most hostile venues in college football, fought off giving the home team 17 points on turnovers, and still had a chance to win. Unlike last year’s Oregon loss, I felt we had played a better game and had a better attitude coming out of it.
Then Saturday happened. Not only did was lose to a mid-level MAC team, they dominated us in all phases of the game. There was no excuse for it and no one expected it. We had absolutely no energy at all. Right now, I don’t know what Purdue fans expect. I know we can compete with anyone on our schedule, but it is clear that if we lose our focus things can get ugly in a hurry. Personally, I still think this season can be salvaged, but a win this weekend is absolutely necessary. Everyone expected us to be 2-2 after the Notre Dame game anyway, so beating the Irish erases the Northern Illinois loss in my mind.
ITI: What’s the recipe for a Purdue victory this weekend?
H&R: We have to stop beating ourselves. Our own mistakes killed any chance at regaining the momentum against NIU. At Oregon, we gave up 17 points on two defensive TD’s and an interception deep in our own territory that led to a field goal. By simply cutting down on our own mistakes I think we can compete with Notre Dame.
We also need to regain the edge we had in the first two games. Everyone on offense looked about a step too slow against Northern Illinois. We cannot afford to have that again against Notre Dame because the talent difference between the Irish and Huskies is huge. Finally, we have to tackle better. The return of our top cornerback, Brandon King, should help there.
ITI: The Irish defense has been anything but impressive. Who will haunt us this year? Who will be the next Kory Sheets or Desmond Tardy?
H&R: I think at receiver it will be Keith Smith. He is the big target we have not had since Dustin keller was playing for us. He had an off game against NIU, but was very good against Toledo and Oregon. Then there is Ralph Bolden. Much was made of NIU “holding” him to just 64 yards after an explosive first two games. In truth, we did not have the ball enough to give him more touches. He still averaged over 5 yards per carry and had a couple of nice catches on our final drive as we scrambled to tie the game. Last week we fell into the same trap we did last year in South bend. We fell behind and panicked even though there was plenty of time left. We went away from what was working, the running game, even though it would have allowed us to rest our defense and move the ball while wearing down the team with less depth. If we stay committed to the running game this week I like our chances.
ITI: With Joe Tiller gone, Purdue’s identity is still being determined. What do you make of Danny Hope? How do you look back on the Joe Tiller era?
H&R: I like Danny Hope’s fiery attitude. Near the end, Tiller just did not seem to have any kind of fire and the entire team was complacent. I think coach Hope has this team thinking it can compete with anyone in the country. The one positive I can take from last week as that we kept fighting. We were down 28-7 at home and most of those late Tiller teams would have folded. Despite every mistake, we kept fighting. If we had stopped the fact punt or had NIU simply punted at that point, I was absolutely confident we were going to go down and tie the game. Even though we got pushed around all day long, the offense was finally moving and probably would have scored to tie if we had just one more minute.
As far as the entire Tiller Era, I haven’t made up my mind about it. It was obviously one of the most successful eras in school history, and was especially welcome since it came after 12 straight losing seasons. I think in the end Tiller’s greatest success ended up being his greatest failure. Before he came, we did not have more than four wins in one season since 1984 (I don’t count the 1992 season where a loss to Michigan State is no officially a win via forfeit, making us 5-4-2). He immediately made us believe that Purdue’s program could be successful. Unfortunately, we never sustained that success and made the jump to being a consistent championship contender. It is unfortunate, but we are still under the specter of The Fumble.
We were ready to make that jump when we were ranked #5 in 2004 with Wisconsin and College GameDay in town. We blew a 10 point lead in the final eight minutes, the final six coming on Kyle Orton’s infamous fumble that was returned for a touchdown. We were inches from rising even higher, but since then we have not been able to recover, going 28-32 since that game. It sucks, but that Fumble was Tiller’s final epitaph because it ultimately comes back to him for us not recovering.
ITI: How does a Purdue fan look at the Notre Dame rivalry?
H&R: I view it as our biggest football rivalry, and it has gotten here because of what Joe Tiller. It was his modest success, going 5-7 against the Irish after a 12 game losing streak in the series, that elevated the rivalry above Indiana. At the same, Purdue dominated Indiana much like Notre Dame dominated Purdue for years. I don’t think it is even so big as it is to us if not for the fact Tiller’s first win came in a shocking upset in 1997.
I know Notre Dame will never take the rivalry as seriously as we do, but beating Notre Dame, even a historically awful team like in 2007, is still a name win for Purdue. For one day we have the entire country looking at us. I think some people still view any win we get over the Irish is an upset no matter how good we are. It is that perception that adds to the rivalry because it comes off as disrespect toward our program. Those people cannot believe it is possible Purdue could compete with the vaunted Irish. These people ignore the history in the series where Purdue has numerous wins over Notre Dame, more than any other program in the country save USC and Michigan State.
ITI: Are you excited for the Robert Marve era? Are you worried about the headaches, or just looking forward to the potential?
H&R: I don’t think there is any guarantee he will be the starting quarterback in 2010. Since my wife is a Miami alum, I watched his freshman year at the U and was not impressed. When the recruiting frenzy for him was reaching its peak I actually wrote that I did not want him. I have since changed my mind, but I want him to earn the job. We are also going to have a scramble for the starting quarterback job next year. Marve will be competing with current backup Caleb TerBush, current true freshman Rob Henry that is very similar to Marve in style, incoming true freshman Sean Robinson who is having a very impressive senior season, and possibly Justin Siller who could return from a one year university suspension.
If Marve has his head on straight I think he is the best of those candidates. He is the most polished, but a torn ACL has prevented him from even practicing so far. This hurts his chances because he does not get that year of practice to learn the system. Marve, Henry, Siller, and Robinson are also mobile quarterbacks that can escape the pocket, so it will be hard to distinguish between them. Siller has an edge in that he was likely going to start this year before his suspension. Henry and TerBush can each practice right now and get better in the system. Robinson is a bit of a wild card in that he is still in high school.
Ultimately though, Marve did not come to Purdue to sit the bench. I would say it is his job to lose, with either TerBush or Henry as his top backup. I have no idea where Siller would come in if he came back.
Here’s wishing Hammer & Rails and Purdue best of luck when the Big Ten season starts. Check out their site for some great ND coverage this week.