Starks finds redemption just sitting there
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- The ultimate lost-and-found item was left at the 40-yard line in Ross-Ade Stadium last night.
Purdue quarterback Kyle Orton left the Heisman Trophy, the Big Ten title and the Boilermakers' national championship aspirations laying there, in the cataclysmic form of a fumbled football.
Wisconsin cornerback Scott Starks found it. Twice flagged for pass interference penalties that helped put his team in a desperate 17-14 deficit with 2:49 remaining, redemption sat there for the swiping. The precious pigskin wasn't bouncing, wasn't rolling, wasn't doing anything other than waiting for someone's hands to squeeze it.
Starks did as the ball instructed, and started running. A stunning 40-yard dash later, the senior from St. Louis was standing in the end zone and the Big Ten had been turned upside down.
Jump around, Wisconsin. You somehow beat the Boilers 20-17, and now own the inside track to Pasadena -- at least.
"Wow," said Badgers coach Barry Alvarez, using the operative postgame word in his team's locker room. "I've been in this racket a long time and I don't know if I've ever been in a game like that."
On a classically blustery, chilly Big Ten Saturday, this game overflowed with plot twists and turns.
Wisconsin led 7-0 at half after its defensive line, led by ferocious end Erasmus James, dominated the hyped matchup with Purdue's pyrotechnic offense. Then a controversial chop block by Purdue tight end Charles Davis felled James with a sprained ankle -- the second game-ending injury for a Badgers starting defensive end, after Jonathan Welsh went down in the first half -- and everything changed.
"I'm not happy about the way it happened," Wisconsin defensive coordinator Brett Bielema said. "I saw some people celebrating (after James' injury). That I didn't think was a good thing."
Asked whether he saw Purdue players celebrating, Bielema said, "I saw people celebrating. That's tough to deal with."
With James out, the Boilers suddenly could breathe offensively. Orton led them to 17 straight points for a 10-point lead with 8 minutes to play. With surprising quickness, Wisconsin quarterback John Stocco led the Badgers back down for a TD to make it 17-14 with 5½ minutes left to play -- but getting the ball back from Purdue figured to be the hard part.
A short Orton pass and two Orton runs got Purdue a first down and whittled the clock to 2:49. Then, on third-and-two after two runs by Jerod Void, Boilers offensive coordinator Jim Chaney made the call that will live in West Lafayette infamy.
He dialed up a bootleg by Orton. Alvarez thought it was a good call.
"He moved the sticks a lot with his feet today," Alvarez said.
Orton's feet didn't fail him now, but his hands did. Rolling right off a handoff fake, he was palming the ball in his right hand, far away from his body. When Starks shot in, Orton switched the ball to his left arm and tried to tuck it in. But it was the wrong arm, his inside arm, leaving the ball exposed to onrushing safety Robert Brooks.
Starks hurled himself at Orton's knees and sent the 6-4 senior flying upside down. Brooks rushed up to apply the second hit, and it appeared that his knee knocked loose the ball about a foot above the grass.
"(Starks) got pretty low on me," said Orton, who was 25-of-45 for 235 yards and a touchdown, but also had an interception and two fumbles. "I probably should have ducked inside and not had a head-on collision with him."
Said Brooks: "I heard Orton go, 'Oh, shoot.'"
Asked if he didn't say something spicier than shoot, Brooks insisted, "No, it was definitely shoot."
That left the expletives to the 65,196 in Ross-Ade Stadium, as they watched Starks grab the ball and a wave of terrible realization crashed down. A brief flicker of hope prevailed when the call went to instant-replay review, but the replay official correctly ruled the play a fumble.
Thirty minutes after the game, Brooks still had no idea he'd knocked it loose.
"I thought it was Scott," he said. "Heck, I'll give him the fumble."
Starks will accept it gladly. He was burned deep by star wideout Taylor Stubblefield and tackled him in the third quarter, helping a Purdue drive that tied the game 7-7. Then he was flagged for interfering with wideout Ray Williams, facilitating a field-goal drive that made it 10-7.
But nobody on Wisconsin's sideline was worried about Starks after that double whammy.
"Scott's one of the most strong human beings I've been around," Bielema said.
And true enough, the high-risk, high-reward life of a cornerback swung sharply back in Starks' favor at the end.
Yet even after the fumble return, the game wasn't done. Wisconsin's extra point attempt was easily blocked, leaving Alvarez "sick to my stomach" and leaving Orton a final chance to reclaim all he'd left laying on the field.
The senior slowly, inexorably pushed Purdue downfield. Orton led them 62 yards in 15 steely plays to the Wisconsin 25, then turned the game over to trusty kicker Ben Jones for a 42-yard field goal to tie.
On ESPN2, they flashed the graphic: Jones was 11 for 11 for his career from 40-49 yards. The hex was in effect.
The kick never had a chance. Jones pushed it wide right, and a Badgers team that hasn't scored more than 24 points since its opener Sept. 4 had done it again.
With an absolute minimum of glamour, Wisconsin is 7-0, 3-0 in the Big Ten, and should be favored in its final four games: home against Northwestern and Minnesota, then the last two on the road at Michigan State and Iowa. Conference co-leader Michigan is not on the schedule, so Wisconsin would win the Rose Bowl tiebreaker with the Wolverines if it came down to that.
And after this one, you have to wonder whether fate has blessed the Badgers.
"I'm just really proud of this group," Alvarez said, "how they competed and how they found a way."
They found what Purdue lost Saturday night, in the nick of time.
Pat Forde is a senior writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.