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Five Minute Guide to '99

21 Purdue

The Boilermakers got fat on a light schedule but now must play the big boys

Sports Illustrated
  Willie Fells
Fells and his defensive mates must clamp down on top-level opponents.  Peter Read Miller
Weight rooms are wallpapered with motivational signs. Some are subtle, some are as blunt as a forearm shiver. A billboard-sized plank hanging high on one wall of Purdue's Mollenkopf Center falls into the latter category. It simply lists the Boilermakers' 1999 schedule, including four consecutive weekends in October when Purdue plays at Michigan and Ohio State and hosts Michigan State and Penn State. "Just in case we forget," says sophomore tight end Tim Stratton.

Joe Tiller, Purdue's third-year coach, has made fans forget that before his arrival, the Boilermakers suffered through a 16-year drought during which they had two winning seasons (1984 and '94). By shaking up the lumbering Big Ten with a wide-open, one-back passing attack that has thrown an average of 42 passes a game, Purdue has put together back-to-back nine-win seasons (6-2 in the conference) and twice won bowl games, including last year's 37-34 upset of Kansas State in the Alamo Bowl. This sudden revival has led to a jump in season-ticket sales, from just more than 17,000 to better than 25,000, and a galloping optimism in need of tempering. "After all," says Tiller, who came to West Lafayette after six years as coach at Wyoming, "it's no secret that the schedule has been very kind to us."

Tiller's arrival coincided with a two-year span in which Purdue didn't play Ohio State or Michigan (although the Boilermakers swept Michigan State and split with Notre Dame and Wisconsin). This year's abrupt upgrade amounts to an ice-water bath. It is possible Purdue could be a stronger team and win fewer games, although that's not the intention. "We love the schedule," says senior wideout Randall Lane. "We want to play the best."

In that case it helps to have the best, and that's what junior quarterback Drew Brees is. Brees, who threw for 3,983 yards and 39 touchdowns last year, will be one of the leading Heisman Trophy candidates. Yet the key will be in throwing less than the 569 passes Brees attempted in '98, including 83 in one game. An effective ground game has always been the X factor in the one-back. Purdue brings back its entire offensive line, but 296-pound redshirt freshman Gene Mruczkowski has won the job at right tackle as Tiller tries to make his team more physical.

Defensively, Purdue lost defensive ends Rosevelt Colvin (15 sacks, 21 tackles for loss) and Chike Okeafor (11 sacks) but has senior linebacker Willie Fells and senior strong safety Adrian Beasley coming back. Opponents averaged 30 points in Purdue's four losses, a number that puts too much pressure on Brees and the offense.

In all, the killer schedule will test whether Tiller has done more than catch defensive coordinators napping. Players say he has instilled the discipline lacking under his predecessor, Jim Colletto. Two years ago Tiller suspended Okeafor for the '97 season, and last spring he booted Fells and leading rusher J. Crabtree before conditionally reinstating both in July. Slowly he has turned the Boilermakers into a tougher team. "When you hear that the coach wants to see you," says sophomore linebacker Jason Loerzel, "you're scared." The challenge is to make Ohio State and Michigan feel the same way come October.

-- Tim Layden

Fast Facts

1998 record: 9-4 (6-2, 4th in Big Ten)
Final ranking: No. 24 AP, No. 23 coaches' poll

1998 Averages Offense Defense
Scoring 34.2 21.2
Rushing Yards 116.2 146.9
Passing Yards 323.7 193.7
Total Yards 439.9 340.6

Key Games
Schedule strength: 8th of 114

Sept. 11 vs. Notre Dame
With a brutal October ahead, the Boilermakers need a 4-0 start. Knocking off the Fighting Irish is the key.

Oct. 23 vs. Penn State
Beating Michigan or Ohio State on the road is almost impossible, but this one is at home. If the Lions are unbeaten and ranked No. 1 or No. 2, this could be the biggest game for Purdue since Griese played in Pasadena.

Bottom Line

Give Brees a ground game, win two of four in October, and Purdue will be playing in a bowl.

Top 25 | The Master List | Lower Divisions
Five Minute Guide to '99



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