By CRAIG DRAGASH
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — “There are no moral victories. You get what you get.”
These were the words of Purdue head coach Darrell Hazell after his Boilermakers outplayed Notre Dame for the better part of three quarters before allowing three touchdowns in a span of less than four minutes and finally dropping a heartbreaker to the Irish, 31-24.
And that is one of many reasons why Purdue fans should have reason for optimism.
During Danny Hope’s time at Purdue, his teams had moments where they competed with some of the best programs in the Big Ten, but they were woefully inconsistent overall. For example, they had a three week stretch in 2011 where they were outscored in consecutive weeks by Michigan and Wisconsin 98-31, then turned around and upset Ohio State in West Lafayette 26-23. Last season, they lost five straight games before finishing with wins over Iowa, Illinois, and Indiana to earn a berth in the Heart of Dallas Bowl, where they were crushed by Oklahoma State 58-14.
One thing that fans didn’t like about Hope was the fact that he would always give the same song-and-dance in post-game press conferences despite what was going on. He insisted on a two-quarterback system. He sold fans on what the team and coaching staff did well in spite of embarrassing performances at times. ISL editor Cliff Brunt portrayed him as a “used-car salesman” in this story last season.
This is why Hazell’s approach is so refreshing. He’s not a spin doctor, he’s a straight shooter. He holds himself accountable. He holds his players accountable. He doesn’t shy away from adversity. After the Notre Dame loss, Hazell said “the only way you come out of adversity is to work through it.”
Mackey Arena was electric during the 211 rally, a new tradition started by Hazell. That atmosphere carried over to Ross-Ade Stadium with 61,127 fans rocking the house Saturday. And the Boilermakers made plays. They converted third downs and stopped the Irish on numerous occasions when they were faced with third down situations. They hit as hard on defense as any Purdue team I’ve seen.
And most of all, they fought…..and that’s what fans should enjoy about this team.
Most were wondering after squeaking out a 20-14 victory over FBS opponent Indiana State the week before if Purdue would have another winnable game on their schedule. Granted, Notre Dame isn’t the same team it was a year ago when they earned a spot in the national championship game against Alabama, but they possessed the talent to make them a 17-point favorite over the Boilers. And Purdue outplayed them for a majority of the game.
Illinois was thought to be one to keep an eye on as a potential win for the Boilermakers, but they crushed Cincinnati in week two 45-17; the Bearcats did the same to Purdue in week one, 42-7.
Iowa? They’re 2-1, including a victory over week five opponent Northern Illinois, who played in last year’s Orange Bowl.
Indiana? The Hoosiers hung 73 on the same Indiana State team that Purdue struggled to defeat last week, but were defeated by Navy, and struggled with Bowling Green early before pulling away in the second half.
But first comes Wisconsin in Madison. The Badgers will be hopping mad after the controversial finish to their contest against Arizona State last week. But make no mistake about it, this is a different Purdue team than the one that barely got off the bus at Cincinnati. The coaching staff has restructured the offense to better suit the strengths of Rob Henry, putting him in more situations where he is on the move and able to better take advantage of his athleticism. The defense is flying to the football, hitting hard and making plays. Don’t be surprised if Purdue has a similar performance to what it had against Notre Dame.
This is what fans love about Hazell; instead of insisting on the same system that doesn’t work, he is willing to adjust to better suit his team’s strengths, and his players are responding.
And that is why, despite the fact that Purdue may not be favored in a game it plays for the rest of the season, the Purdue Boilermakers will always have a fighting chance.