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
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.
COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER No mercy Fells and his defensive mates must clamp down on top-level opponents.
1998 record: 9-4 (6-2, 4th in Big Ten)
Final ranking: No. 24 AP, No. 23 coaches' poll
1998 Averages Scoring Rushing Passing Total
Yards Yards Yards
OFFENSE 34.2 116.2 323.7 439.9
DEFENSE 21.2 146.9 193.7 340.6
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.
The Bottom Line
Give Brees a ground game, win two of four in October, and Purdue
will be playing in a bowl.