Purdue quietly lurking in Big Ten
When Purdue stumbled out of the gate, falling at home to Bowling Green, it was easy to dismiss the Boilermakers as pretenders in the Big Ten. That was particularly true because teams such as Iowa, Michigan State and Minnesota, which weren't accorded the kind of preseason darkhorse status Purdue had received, got off to fast starts.
Upon further review, Purdue is indeed a contender.
The Bowling Green loss doesn't look so bad in light of the havoc the Mid-American Conference has been wreaking around the country. More importantly, Purdue, which returned 17 starters from a team that led the Big Ten in total offense and total defense last season, is playing well and building momentum.
Saturday's victory over Notre Dame was the third straight triumph over a BCS school. It followed a good win at then-No. 21 Wake Forest and a blowout victory over Arizona.
No question, the Boilers wish things had worked out against Bowling Green. But the silver lining is that that setback might have made them stronger.
"We really saw our team respond to adversity, having lost a game the world expected us to win," coach Joe Tiller said. "To go on the road to play a hot Wake Forest team demonstrated that our team has some resiliency. Now we're curious to find how we handle some success. To have a good year, you have to deal with both issues. And the teams that are the most level-headed, the ones that consistently show up and perform every week, have the best chance. That opening game might have driven that point home to our team better than anything a coach could say."
Give some credit to the wry, grandfatherly Tiller, who quietly has guided Purdue to a bowl game in each of his six seasons in West Lafayette. Of the four coaches hired in 1997 by Big Ten schools, Tiller, 60, was the most curious.
Illinois and Indiana, which hired Ron Turner and Cam Cameron, respectively, went for hotshot NFL assistants, while Minnesota went for Glen Mason, who had made something out of nothing at Kansas. Tiller? He was older and rounder, and he came from Wyoming, hardly a football hotbed.
While Cameron is long gone, Turner, who won a Big Ten title in 2001, and Mason, who has taken the Gophers to three bowls, have had some fine moments. But Tiller's consistency, highlighted by Purdue's first Rose Bowl trip in more than 30 years, puts him at the head of that 1997 hiring class.
And it appears that Purdue is poised to add more this season.
Diverging from the run-and-gun reputation they acquired when Drew Brees was setting passing records, this Purdue squad is following the formula that Ohio State used to win a national championship last year. The Boilermakers are relying on a strong defense and trusting that a buttoned-down offense won't get in the way.
Having said that, junior Kyle Orton continues to grow, and receivers John Standeford and Taylor Stubblefield are the most productive pass-catching duo in the Big Ten for the second straight season. Tiller occasionally has dropped in sophomore Brandon Kirsch, who's more mobile, to give the Boilers a different look. But that's not really a commentary on Orton.
"Every week when we come out of the film room, we're more impressed watching him on tape than we are watching him live," Tiller said. "Kyle has done a great job of protecting the football. And the Notre Dame game was his best job since he's been at Purdue in terms of pulling the ball down and running at opportunistic times."
Still, between nagging injuries that have hindered Stubblefield (ankle) and Standeford (groin) and Orton's continued progress, Tiller sees room for improvement as the trio hones the Purdue passing game.
"Kyle's not playing his best football yet, but he's playing pretty good," Tiller said. "I look forward to the day when both of our receivers are 100 percent and Kyle and those two guys are really in synch. I don't think we're where we'd like to be in that area so far."
In short, there are a lot of reasons to believe that the Bowling Green loss was not indicative of where Purdue is headed this fall.
Herb Gould covers the Big Ten for the Chicago Sun-Times.