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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.

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    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.