WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – Purdue was a few plays away from being one of the surprise teams in college football last season.
The Boilermakers lost five straight games by a combined 33 points early in the season, including a two-point loss at Oregon and a three-point loss at home against Notre Dame on a last-minute touchdown.
Purdue (5-7, 4-4 Big Ten) rallied to win four of its final six games, falling a victory short of bowl eligibility. Now, the Boilermakers hope to take the next step — becoming a team that avoids mistakes and makes those precious few plays that turn a losing season into an extended season.
Enter Robert Marve.
While Joey Elliott stepped in admirably as a senior quarterback last year, Marve's long-awaited takeover is in full effect at Purdue.
Marve transferred to Purdue from Miami in May 2009, then sat out last season because of transfer rules. While waiting, he had to recover from an ACL injury. He finally was ready for spring practice, and he passed for 160 yards in the spring game. He did enough to earn the Newcomer Award, given to the player who makes the most progress in his first spring practice.
Coach Danny Hope says his star quarterback is ready.
"Everything about Robert Marve excites me," Hope said. "He's, I think, the most talented quarterback I've been around from a total package. He's got outstanding arm strength. Very accurate. Has a lot of velocity on the ball."
Marve's mobility also separates him from many of Purdue's past quarterbacks.
"He runs very fast, runs between a 4.5 and 4.6. He has the ability to beat you with his arm or beat you with his legs," Hope said. "If things break down around him, he can take off, get outside the pocket and make a big play."
While 2009 was littered with close losses, the Boilermakers posted several big wins in the second half of the season. Purdue beat Ohio State 26-18 when the Buckeyes were ranked No. 7, derailing the Buckeyes' national title hopes. The Boilermakers also won at Michigan for the first time since 1966 and closed the season with a 38-21 victory at Indiana.
Hope heads into his second season as head coach expecting the momentum to grow. Purdue opens the season Sept. 4 at Notre Dame, and Hope said it helped his team to know it would start against a traditional power.
"It created a great sense of urgency for our football team's preparation throughout the course of the summer," Hope said. "I think it's really expedited or advanced our development as a football team."
Marve will be throwing to Keith Smith, who caught 91 passes for 1,100 yards last season. Kyle Adams returns at tight end after catching 29 passes last season.
Running back Ralph Bolden ran for 935 yards last season, but he tore the ACL in his right knee in March and had surgery in May. His status is uncertain, and Al-Terek McBurse is the likely starter at running back. The sophomore was a kick returner last year, but Hope said he's ready for a larger role.
Former quarterback Justin Siller, who was suspended last season, is also back and listed at receiver, though he will probably move around. He was Big Ten offensive player of the week after leading Purdue to a win over Michigan in 2008, but the 6-foot-4, 220-pounder was dismissed last season for an undisclosed academic violation.
Purdue's defense returns six starters.
Defensive end Ryan Kerrigan, who had 13 sacks last season, is one of the nation's top honors candidates at his position.
"This year, you know, he stepped up even more and being a vocal leader as well," Hope said. "We expect Ryan to continue leading by example on the practice fields and on the playing fields on Saturday, to even step up his role from the vocal standpoint as well."
Linebackers Joe Holland and Jason Werner also return. Holland is the top returning tackler with 81, and Werner had 14.5 tackles for loss last season.
Kicker Carson Wiggs anchors the special teams. He made a school-record 59-yard field goal last season.
Hope feels the win over Ohio State symbolizes where Purdue is heading.
"We had a lot of recruits in for that game," Hope said. "I think it's an indication not only to the recruits but to all of the football world the direction of the program and the potential that we have at Purdue."