Published October 24, 2012
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – Purdue came into this season talking big.
Three games into the conference schedule, those thoughts have quietly slipped away. The Boilermakers are still searching for their first Big Ten win and need a dramatic turnaround to salvage a season that has gone from promising to worrisome in less than a month.
"As far as our record, we'll adjust accordingly," defensive tackle Kawann Short said Tuesday when asked whether the team had changed its preseason goals. "We can still do a lot of good things on this team going forward."
No, all is not lost for the Boilermakers (3-4, 0-3 Big Ten), but things sure don't look good.
Three months ago, coach Danny Hope spoke genuinely about making this the season Purdue returned to the national spotlight. Players followed his lead, talking enthusiastically about representing the Leaders Division in the Big Ten title game and possibly making it to the Rose Bowl.
Everything seemed to be lined up for the Boilermakers, too.
Traditional powerhouses Ohio State and Penn State were both declared ineligible for the postseason and therefore banned from December's Big Ten title game in nearby Indianapolis. The schedule-makers kept the Boilermakers at home for five of their first six games and inside their home state each week until last Saturday's trip to No. 7 Ohio State.
And it looked like Purdue might even avoid the rash of early injuries that had derailed each of Hope's previous three seasons.
Yet the Boilermakers couldn't take advantage of their good fortune, and every time they seemed ready to break into the national conversation, they fell short again.
Notre Dame made a 27-yard field goal with 7 seconds to go to hand the Boilermakers their first loss in Week 2. Four weeks later, Purdue had a chance to make amends against Michigan. Instead, the Wolverines jumped to a 21-0 lead in less than 18 minutes and routed Purdue 44-13.
The next week, the Boilermakers had another statement game at home against Wisconsin. This time, the Badgers rushed for 467 yards and left town with a 38-14 victory and the inside track to defend their Big Ten title.
It was a mystifying collapse.
"We were a good football team and Notre Dame was a good football team early in the season," Hope explained. "But where we were at against Michigan and Wisconsin didn't allow us to play as well as we wanted, too."
The most stinging loss came last Saturday.
Purdue never trailed in regulation and appeared to have the game sewn up with a 22-14 lead, 47 seconds to go and the Buckeyes out of timeouts.
Backup quarterback Kenny Guiton led Ohio State on a 61-yard drive, hooking up with Chris Fields on a 2-yard TD pass with 3 seconds left in regulation, then found Jeff Heuerman on a 2-point conversion pass to force overtime. Eventually, the Buckeyes won 29-22 — a disheartening defeat for a team that thought it had finally found the solution.
That loss left the Boilermakers 3½ games behind division leader Ohio State, 2½ games behind Wisconsin in the quest to be division representative in Indy and trying again to figure out how to break out of this funk when it heads to Minnesota (4-3, 0-3) this weekend.
"The leaders of this team got together after the game and said 'We've got to do better from here on out. No one is great, everyone is equal,'" Short said.
At least Purdue is through the toughest part of its schedule. The bad news is the Boilermakers play three of their next four on the road with the only remaining home games coming against Penn State, which is unbeaten in league play, and rival Indiana, which has lost its last three games by a combined total of eight points.
Hey, at least there's something to play for.
Purdue still can post its first eight-win season since 2007 — if it wins its last five games. It can still become bowl eligible, too.
"All of our energy has to be directed at playing our very best," Hope said. "Even though we've slipped up a little bit, we still have a chance to win eight or nine games, which hasn't been done around here in a long time."
NOTES: Don't expect a quarterback change this week. Hope said he intends to stick with Caleb TerBush this weekend and that he may use backup quarterback Rob Henry in other places on the offense. ... Hope is uncertain whether cornerback Ricardo Allen will play Saturday. An MRI taken on the junior's ankle came back negative, Hope said, but he also has developed sore shins from limping around on the injury and doctors believe he has calcium deposits in the leg. ... Receiver O.J. Ross is not expected to play against the Golden Gophers because of a turf toe. Ross played through the injury during the first half against Ohio State, then was benched in the second half. Hope said he is, well, hopeful, but doesn't expect Ross to make it back this week ... Hope is more optimistic offensive lineman Justin Kitchens could return from a knee injury this weekend.