Purdue defensive tackle Kawann Short prepares to rush during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Wisconsin in West Lafayette, Ind., Saturday, Oct. 13, 2012. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)
Updated: November 17, 2012 6:22AM
From theoretical Leaders Division and Big Ten title contender to … what the heck happened?
After back-to-back beatdowns at home against Michigan and Wisconsin by a combined scored of 82-27, Purdue’s season, and perhaps the path of the program beyond, has reached a critical mass.
Well, maybe not.
More realistically, the Boilermakers are facing a similarly lopsided outcome at No. 7 Ohio State on Saturday (though coach Danny Hope’s tenure has been punctuated by borderline shocking wins, including against then-No. 7 Ohio State in 2009 at Ross-Ade Stadium, and Michigan that same season at the Big House for the program’s first in Ann Arbor since 1966).
Then they can go about the business of preparing for the truly telltale final five games of the regular season, a manageable stretch, though not as user-friendly as it once appeared, given some of the recent performances of those opponents.
Purdue could run that five-game table to finish 8-4. There’s not a game among that handful — at Minnesota, Penn State, at Iowa, at Illinois, Indiana — where one would dismiss out of hand the possibility of the Boilermakers winning.
But at the same time, if they continue to play the way they have been, they might not win another game the rest of the season.
That narrow loss at Notre Dame, which has risen to No. 5 in both polls and the BCS standings, seems like a distant memory, doesn’t it?
Against Michigan, the Boilermakers had an opportunity to validate their status as a legitimate factor in the conference. They flopped epically.
Even after that punch to the gut, against Wisconsin, they still had an opportunity to seize early control of the (two-thirds of a) division race. One would have thought they would have been beyond anxious to respond emphatically after the previous week’s debacle; instead, the opportunity had already slipped through their grasp not all that long after the underwhelming crowd was able to settle into its seats on a dreary Saturday.
“We’re still going to try to make our way to the Big Ten championship,” junior cornerback Ricardo Allen said. “If not, we’re going to try to make it to a really good bowl game. We’re not going to lay down just because we lost the last two.”
The defensive line was supposed to at the very least be able to keep Purdue in every game, give the team a chance to win. But even that unit has fallen on hard times, with Denard Robinson and Montee Ball shredding it the last two weeks. Sure, those two guys are elite players. And, sure, there have been injury issues among the players in that D-line rotation. But there are no excuses at this point.
The offensive line hasn’t developed nearly quickly enough.
And the quarterback play has been extremely disappointing, particularly after all the talk about the roster having three players at the position with starting experience, finally healthy (four — the only team in the country with that many — if one includes converted linebacker Sean Robinson). On multiple levels, it’s just an absolute shame what happened to Robert Marve. Before and especially after
Marve’s latest ACL injury, it’s clear the decision-makers, the only people whose opinions ultimately matter, prefer Caleb TerBush.
And special teams? They can be “difference-makers” with Purdue’s ability to punt, return and kick. But blocked punts, for example, remain an ongoing problem, with the Boilermakers surrendering their third of the season against Wisconsin.
This team has widely been billed as Purdue’s best in four seasons under Hope — who last December received a contract extension through the 2016 season — including by the coach himself.
And it might yet be.
But the momentum from last season’s trip to the Little Caesar’s Pizza Bowl and the buzz from the early part of this season have all but vanished.
And the Boilermakers have a long way to go to regain any of that mojo.
But another season of gaining postseason eligibility by the slimmest of margins, and again playing in — and, ho-hum, likely winning again — some lower-tier bowl simply won’t suffice.
“We still can do a lot of things this year,” senior defensive tackle Kawann Short said. “I feel like we’re still in it, all these guys still have faith. … All these guys are still humble and hungry.”
Said sophomore defensive end Ryan Russell: “You have to take a step back and really evaluate everything. Whether anyone out there believes in us or not, we believe in each other. We’re a family.”
For sure, the Boilermakers have been saying all the right things as they’ve dealt with the fallout from these last two games.
But it’s their play that will speak volumes.