A Real Eye-Opener
Jolted awake by a loss to Penn State, Purdue has soared to first place in the Big Ten
A team can lose a game it shouldn't and let the defeat ruin its season. Or it can use the defeat as a wake-up call and turn around its season. Two weeks after falling 22-20 to Perm State, which was 1-4 at the time, Purdue has rebounded to become one of four teams tied for first place in the Big Ten; each has a 3-1 conference record. The Boilermakers have beaten all three of the other coleaders—Minnesota 38-24, Michigan 32-31 and Northwest-em 41-28 last Saturday—and host Ohio State (2-1 in the Big Ten) on Oct. 28. In other words, they control their destiny. "That's all that you can ask," says Purdue defensive coordinator Brock Spack, whose charges spotted Northwestern two touchdowns in the first 7:33 and then didn't allow any points until the fourth quarter. "No one can have any excuses."
That's the businesslike attitude the Boilermakers lacked in the first month of the season. If Purdue goes to the Rose Bowl for the first time in 34 years, the main reason will be the way it responded after losing to the Nittany Lions. Coach Joe Tiller likes his team to be loose, and early this season Friday practices in particular reflected his light touch. No one took the special teams walk-throughs too seriously, either. "The punt team was not putting forth the effort," says junior defensive tackle Matt Mitrione.
Poor special teams play cost Purdue dearly against Penn State. The Nittany Lions set up their only two touchdowns by twice tackling Travis Dorsch in the third quarter before he could get off a punt. After the game Tiller realized he'd made a mistake. "We want a team that's relaxed, but we had taken it to the next level, the wrong level," he says. "We had been a silly team on Fridays. We needed to get more serious."
When the players assembled for the Sunday meeting following the Penn State game, Tiller wrote three things on the board in the front of the room.
ARE WE A SMART TEAM?/ARE WE A DUMB TEAM?
ARE WE A DISCIPLINED TEAM?/ARE WE A SLOPPY TEAM?
ARE WE A SERIOUS TEAM?/ARE WE A SILLY TEAM?
Tiller then laid into the Boilermakers with a terse lecture. They responded immediately—and positively. " Coach Tiller snapped on us," says Mitrione. "We walked out and said, 'He's right.' " The following week the punting unit was flawless and Dorsch made up for a missed field goal with 2:11 to go in the fourth quarter by kicking a 33-yarder with four seconds remaining to beat the Wolverines.
The rest of the Boilermakers are humming. Senior quarterback Drew Brees, who threw for five touchdowns against Northwestern, is leading an attack that's fourth in the nation in total offense and 15th in scoring. The defense is second in the Big Ten against the run and held Wildcat Damien Anderson, the nation's third-leading rusher coming into the game, to 55 yards, 120 below his average.