By CLIFF BRUNT
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Does it always have to be Wisconsin?
The last time Purdue was a serious Rose Bowl contender was in 2004. Kyle Orton was a Heisman candidate when the Badgers strolled into town for a midseason battle of unbeatens.
Purdue led late in their matchup back then before Scott Starks recovered a fumble by Orton and returned it 40 yards for a touchdown to give the 10th-ranked Badgers a 20-17 win at the fifth-ranked Boilermakers. Purdue never recovered and ended up losing in the Sun Bowl.
The Boilermakers had a chance to become relevant on the national scene Saturday. Even after a 44-13 loss to Michigan the previous week, Purdue had a golden opportunity to put itself in position to challenge for a Leaders Division title, especially with Ohio State and Penn State ineligible because of NCAA rules violations.
Instead, Wisconsin put Purdue in its place.
Unlike that 2004 game, the 2012 loss to the Badgers wasn’t heartbreaking. It was a 38-14 whipping that was much worse than the score indicates.
It looked good for the Boilermakers early. Caleb TerBush connected with Antavian Edison for 52 yards on the first play from scrimmage, TerBush scored on the next play, and the Boilermakers led 38 seconds into the game.
The Boilermakers were squashed the rest of the way. Let’s put this in perspective. Wisconsin has been playing very good football for a very long time. The Badgers go to Rose Bowls. They send lots of people to the NFL and sometimes contend for Heisman trophies.
Just once in the history of Wisconsin football has a Badgers team gained more than the 645 yards they hung on Purdue. Perhaps the silver lining for Purdue fans: the Badgers dropped 705 yards on Indiana in 1999.
Here’s some more perspective.
Montee Ball has been a very good running back for a long time. He sets records. He was fourth in last year’s Heisman balloting and is one of the most effective runners in the history of college football. He has never rushed for more yards than the 247 he gained against Purdue on Saturday.
It was a stunning fall from grace for a defensive unit that boasts preseason All-America candidates Kawann Short and Ricardo Allen. That once respected defense has given up 41, 44 and 38 points the last three weeks, with yardage totals of 534 against Marshall, 409 against Michigan and 645 against Wisconsin. I doubt it gets better next week in Columbus against Ohio State.
And no, you can’t hang this one entirely on Caleb TerBush, though his numbers aside from that first pass were atrocious. After the first throw, he completed 6 of 15 passes for 28 yards. He threw an interception and was sacked three times.
His replacements were actually worse.
Robert Marve, the popular choice to replace TerBush, completed just 3 of 9 passes for 43 yards. Worse, he was sacked on back-to-back plays late in the first half to knock the Boilermakers out of scoring range when they inexplicably trailed just 17-7.
The third quarterback, Rob Henry, was no better. He completed 1 of 6 passes for one yard. Overall, that’s 11-for-31 for 124 yards. The Boilermakers couldn’t even dink and dunk. Take out the first play and you have 10-for-30 for 72 yards with 34 yards lost on five sacks.
It was perhaps one of the worst performances in Purdue history on both sides of the ball. Only Wisconsin’s kindness and two missed field goals prevented this from being a 50-point game.
One of the day’s most telling moments came in the fourth quarter. Henry threw the ball out of bounds and into the stands to avoid trouble. Instead of being caught by a lucky fan, instead of people fighting over the ball, the ball hit empty seats, bounced several yards, then hit even more empty seats.
Now, Purdue plays at Ohio State, and the thoughts go from Pasadena to trying to become bowl eligible, from Hope being a coach-of-the-year contender to fighting for his job. Purdue has just two more home games, and one is against an improved Indiana squad. The Boilermakers take to the road four times the rest of the way. Only Illinois seems like a sure win.
There’s no pressure for the Ohio State game. Nobody expects it to be close. The next big game for Hope is the following week at Minnesota. Lose that one, and the calls to fire Hope might be too loud for athletic director Morgan Burke to ignore.
Follow Cliff Brunt on Twitter: www.twitter.com/cliffbrunt_isl.