By CLIFF BRUNT
It’s becoming safer for Purdue football fans to dream big.
The program is in a better place today because of its solid performance against Notre Dame. The Boilermakers lost a 20-17 nailbiter, and if you were watching the final minutes, you lost your football fan card if you turned the channel.
Notre Dame isn’t old-school Notre Dame, but Purdue stood strong on the road against a good team with a national ranking and reputation. A lot of young prospects out there got to see a rising Boilermakers program that appears to be a few plays or players away from making some real noise. And, while Purdue played pretty well, the Big Ten posted one of its most horrific non-conference weeks ever.
Perhaps a conference title is a realistic goal for the Boilermakers.
The Boilermakers struggled offensively against the Irish, but the defense was stout against a team that rolled Navy 50-10 in the opener. The Fighting Irish gained 490 yards and ran for 293 against Navy, but those numbers were chopped to 376 total yards and 52 yards rushing on 36 carries against the Boilermakers.
Defensive tackle Kawann Short had two sacks against Notre Dame, strengthening his candidacy for big-time awards at the end of the season.
Even with the news that the Boilermakers have lost quarterback Robert Marve for at least two weeks with a torn left ACL, his third such injury since he transferred from the University of Miami, the overall outlook should be positive.
His injury, after all, allowed us to be introduced to Caleb TerBush, the playmaker.
Marve was injured while being sacked on a critical fourth-quarter drive against Notre Dame. With Marve and his playmaking reputation on the sideline, we learned that TerBush could deliver in the clutch. His touchdown pass to Antavian Edison on fourth-and-10 at the Notre Dame 15 with 2:12 remaining tied the score. He didn’t do much before that, but he gets credit for coming through under difficult circumstances and delivering one of the best clutch plays in recent Purdue history. If you think I’m overselling it, name five better plays in the past five years.
Though losing Marve hurts, the quarterback carousel Purdue has ridden under Danny Hope will pay off now. TerBush has 14 career starts, and new No. 2 quarterback Rob Henry is a former starter. Even without Marve, there should be little change in production, and possibly fewer mistakes. And remember, Hope has said that TerBush was clearly the top quarterback in camp.
In the grand scheme, Purdue arguably performed better than anyone in the Big Ten last week, so I feel more strongly than ever that the Leaders Division looks ripe for the pickings.
Wisconsin, the alleged favorite in the Leaders Division, just fired offensive line coach Mike Markuson after the Badgers lost 10-7 to Oregon State. The Badgers ran for just 35 yards and fell from the AP Top 25 Sunday. Ohio State and Penn State aren’t eligible for postseason play, though Penn State doesn’t appear to be in any danger of being good enough to have qualified anyway. The Nittany Lions are 0-2 after losses to Ohio and Virginia. Ohio State looked mortal in its 31-16 win over Central Florida. Indiana, just one of two teams to win its first two games in the division, just lost quarterback Tre Roberson for the season with a broken leg. Arizona State crushed Illinois 45-14.
The Legends Division didn’t look overpowering, either.
Iowa lost to Iowa State. Having lived on the Nebraska-Iowa border for the first 28 years of my life, I know that is NEVER supposed to happen. Iowa has always considered Iowa State nothing more than an annoying little brother. That won’t go over well in Iowa City. Nebraska lost at UCLA in a game that was supposed to be a pretty easy win for the Cornhuskers. Michigan State and Minnesota rolled lesser opponents. Northwestern beat a solid Vanderbilt team and is never to be overlooked. Michigan beat Air Force 31-25.
Michigan State hosts Notre Dame on Saturday, so maybe we’ll learn something there.
Then, there’s the schedule. Purdue doesn’t play Legends Division teams Nebraska or Michigan State, though the Boilermakers might have beaten the Cornhuskers anyway. Purdue faces two of its toughest opponents, Michigan and Wisconsin, at home.
The point is, there is no powerhouse in the Big Ten this year, just good teams, and after Saturday’s game, we now know that Purdue can compete with good teams. Notre Dame will be better than most of the teams in the Big Ten this year, so battling the Fighting Irish down to the wire on the road is noteworthy. Even with the loss, Purdue drew closer to national relevance than it has been in a long time. That bodes well in both the short and long terms. And with winning the Leaders Division looking like a legitimate possibility, Hope’s master plan, as he often calls it, is still in place.