WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – One win has kept hope alive at Purdue.
Two more and the Boilermakers could go down as the nation's most improbable bowl-eligible team, with a roster of players and coaches who have routinely defied the odds.
"We're in a playoff situation," said sixth-year quarterback Robert Marve, who is playing with a torn ACL in his left knee. "It just kind of hit me today, we can't lose a game right now."
Actually, under new NCAA rules, if there aren't enough bowl-eligible teams to fill all the slots, the Boilermakers could still make it in at 5-7. But why try for the long shot when Purdue can still take care of things itself?
The Boilermakers understand what they're up against.
A year ago, they needed to win two of their last three regular-season games to snap a three-year bowl drought. They did.
Now if they can win these next two and finish the regular season on a three-game winning streak, they would likely make it back despite all of the things that went wrong this season — a five-game losing streak that left Purdue out of the Big Ten title chase, four blowouts that had many pondering whether this team had quit on the season, rotating quarterbacks that may have contributed to a lack of continuity, and, of course, the persistent speculation about coach Danny Hope's future in West Lafayette.
Saturday's 27-24 victory at Iowa not only gave Purdue (4-6, 1-5) respite, but a whole new perspective on this season.
Suddenly, the Boilermakers are talking about winning at Illinois (2-8, 0-6) this weekend and again when rival Indiana (4-6, 2-5) visits Ross-Ade Stadium the following weekend in the annual Old Oaken Bucket game.
"A bowl game is a big deal to us," Marve said Tuesday. "This team feels like that's a successful season. No, it's not the season we wanted, but it would be one that Boilermakers Nation could look back at and say we bounced back."
Judging from what Hope saw last weekend and through the early part of this week, this looks like a rejuvenated team.
Marve, who replaced Caleb TerBush in the starting lineup the previous week, threw for 266 yards and two scores. The Boilermakers topped 200 yards rushing for the first time since September and only the second time all season. A healthier defensive front held Iowa to just 2.4 yards rushing per carry, and Paul Griggs ended the losing streak with a 46-yard field goal as time expired.
Somehow Purdue stayed calm despite playing without offensive coordinator Gary Nord, who was out with a back injury, and facing the win-or-else scenario.
"I think we went into that game relaxed and that's not really been the case this season," Hope said. "I think we were a lot more loose this past weekend. We just kind of let it all hang out and we had a lot of fun. We had a blast, we really did."
The difference also was as evident at Tuesday's weekly news conference where Hope cracked jokes with reporters, defensive tackle Kawann Short smiled and laughed as he answered questions, and Marve seemed to say whatever was on his mind.
If they keep it up, the Boilermakers just might come up with that big finish that could send them to a second straight bowl game.
"We expected this year to be a lot different," Short said. "But (going to a bowl game) is still big to the team and to make that last effort since that's the last thing we can do."
Hope still isn't sure whether Nord will be calling the plays this week, though his gut-feeling is that Nord likely won't travel to Champaign, Ill. Nobody can ever be certain how Marve's left knee, the one he's torn the ACL in three times, will hold up. And, of course, the Boilermakers still must prove that last week's strong showing at Iowa was the norm — not the aberration.
But Purdue doesn't care about logic or conventional wisdom.
All they want to do is get the job done and salvage something from a sour season.
"I'm really pumped up and excited about it," Marve said. "I would really like to get this team to a bowl game. It's been a long road, and if we can finish strong at the end, it would really mean a lot to me."