The question, as ludicrous as it sounds, is posed to Akin Ayodele with a straight face: Might the junior linebacker be as valuable a player to the Boilermakers as quarterback Drew Brees? "Come on...me?" says Ayodele. "I can only hope to have the success I did last year. But having Drew means everything. Because of him the whole team has that confidence you need to win in the Big Ten."
This is all true enough, but for Purdue to have a serious shot at going to its first Rose Bowl since 1966, the Boilermakers must avoid the shootouts they so often lost in '99, when they gave up more than 28 points a game to Big Ten foes. Enter Ayodele, who finished last year with 11 sacks and 19 tackles for a loss despite having to learn a new position: defensive end. During the spring, coach Joe Tiller moved Ayodele back to outside linebacker, his natural position. "On D, everything starts with Akin," says Tiller.
On offense everything, of course, starts with Brees, who followed a stellar 1998 (3,983 yards, 39 touchdown passes) with an impressive '99 (3,909 yards and 25 scores). Big numbers, however, won't come easy this fall. Purdue's receiving corps is the weakest it's been since Brees arrived in West Lafayette, and then there's the schedule. The Boilermakers face a nasty five-game stretch that includes Penn State and Wisconsin on the road and Michigan and Ohio State at home. During a similar stretch last season, Purdue saw a 4-0 start give way to a hellish 2-3 October. The Boilermakers weren't the same after that, blowing a 25-point lead to Georgia in the Outback Bowl, the biggest meltdown in Division I-A bowl history. "That game pains me more than any other in my career," says Tiller.
Ayodele shares his coach's pain. "This year, though," he says, "we'll be finishing people."