Undefeated Boilermakers face first test in South Bend

Joe Tiller has been laughed at and ignored. But a strong showing against Notre Dame on Saturday could usher in a new era for Purdue football.

Updated: September 30, 2006, 1:55 PM ET
By Bruce Hooley | Special to ESPN.com

They laughed at Joe Tiller when he first came to the Big Ten Conference a decade ago.

Now? Well, they're treating him even worse.

It's one thing to elicit a few snickers and smiles because you're promising to build a Midwestern football program with something goofy called "basketball on grass."

Curtis Painter #12
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesCurtis Painter is the seventh-ranked quarterback in the country in total offense.
It's quite another to be ignored.

That's what Tiller is getting these days.

Indifference.

Or outright yawns.

Sure, his Boilermakers (4-0, 1-0) are one of four unbeatens in the league.

Purdue also is the only team among that group that isn't ranked.

That seven-game winning streak the team rides into South Bend for Saturday's game against Notre Dame is about as noticeable as Tiller's hair.

Which is to say, it isn't noticeable at all.

Not even Purdue fans seem to have much faith in the Boilermakers, unless empty seats at Ross-Ade Stadium constitute a sign of support.

Only 54,000 showed up this past weekend for Homecoming and a 27-21 win over Minnesota in the conference opener.

That's 8,500 shy of capacity, and a shade higher than Purdue has averaged while spending all of September at home.

Of course, Indiana State, Miami (Ohio), Ball State and Minnesota have a combined three wins. Ball State lost to a Division I-AA opponent Saturday.

So this season's victims pretty much mirror the three opponents Purdue swept to close 2005.

None of those teams went to bowl games, nor did Purdue, which -- despite its fast finish -- wound up 5-6 in a season many thought might end with a Jan. 1 bowl bid.

Notre Dame, though … Notre Dame is different.

The Fighting Irish -- despite their blowout loss to Michigan and a gift courtesy of Michigan State's overactive gag reflex -- afford Purdue the chance to revisit one of its greatest victories of the Tiller era and, perhaps this time, to build on it.

Back in 2004, Purdue also rolled into South Bend unbeaten, and it dominated, claiming a 41-16 victory that helped jump the Boilermakers into the top 10.

It all came apart a fortnight later when quarterback Kyle Orton needed simply to land on the turf safely with the football for a clock-killing first down in a first-place conference showdown with Wisconsin.

Instead, Orton fumbled inches from the ground, Wisconsin returned the fumble for a winning touchdown and Purdue proceeded to lose four times in succession and 10 of its next 14 games.

That and seven straight prove-nothing victories bring us to right now, with a team even Tiller can't tell much about before kickoff under the Golden Dome.

"I like this game because it's like a laboratory," he said. "It's an opportunity for everybody to improve. … There are no moral victories in going up there and playing close. Our measuring stick will be, 'Did we play better this week than we did last week?' If we play better this week than last, who knows how that game will go?"

Tiller can talk about patience because he starts only one senior on defense and two on offense.

He's clearly building for 2007, when quarterback Curtis Painter will have far more than his current nine career starts under his belt and every contributing skill position player will return.

Then again, being long on experience was supposedly Purdue's strength last season, when its entire defense came back after leading the Big Ten in 2004.

The results were disastrous, not only on the field but in the locker room.

Tiller admits he let discipline slide because he figured, "Hey, they're seniors, maybe I'm being too hard on them."

Age doesn't guarantee maturity, however, so at season's end, Tiller chased defensive end Ray Edwards, safety Bernard Pollard and quarterback Brandon Kirsch to the NFL despite their year of remaining eligibility.

As early as spring ball, Tiller acknowledged the difference, saying, "Sometimes, you can have addition by subtraction."

Will he still feel that way Sunday? Maybe not, but Painter is completing 64 percent of his passes and has the remainder of this season and next year to get even better.

Sure, Painter already has thrown five interceptions, but he also is just getting to know hyperelusive wideout Dorien Bryant and 244-pound tight end Dustin Keller, who rumbled for gains of 55, 60 and 69 yards this season.

Defensively, Purdue's secondary held up against a better-than-advertised Minnesota passing game despite starting two juco transfers and two freshmen.

Granted, no one confuses the Gophers with the Golden Domers, but anything less than the 440 passing yards and 621 yards total offense Brady Quinn & Co. amassed last year in a 49-28 rout will allow Tiller to sell his team on its progress.

Once again, the Big Ten schedule spares the Boilermakers both Ohio State and Michigan, and it brings Penn State and Wisconsin to West Lafayette.

That Nov. 25 road trip to Hawaii, therefore, might not need to serve as Purdue's bowl game.

Go 5-3 in the league, take care of the Rainbow Warriors and dispatch a second-tier bowl opponent, and all of a sudden, the Boilermakers are sitting on a 10-win season with an experienced team returning in 2007.

No one would be laughing at Tiller then.

Or ignoring him.

Bruce Hooley covered the Big Ten for 19 years and now is host of a daily talk show on WBNS-AM 1460 in Columbus, Ohio.