The evening was young, but this drunk had gotten a jump on it.
Four Purdue football players were busy devouring prime rib at a
roadhouse on the outskirts of West Lafayette, Ind., earlier this
month when a hirsute gentleman began weaving his way toward
their table. Slurring his speech and neglecting to introduce
himself, he announced that come hell or high water, he would be
in Pasadena on New Year's Day to watch the Boilermakers. As
everyone in these parts knew, Purdue was on the brink of
clinching its first Rose Bowl berth in 34 years.
"I'll drive to California and live in my car if I have to," the
man declared, and no one had trouble believing him. He rambled
for 10 or so minutes, telling the fellows about himself ("I grew
up here; I've been watchin' Purdue football all my life") and
his regrets ("Too bad you guys had to leave Madison right after
the Wisconsin game, 'cause that's a hell of a party town"). The
players were too polite to ask him to leave. And who knows?
Maybe they were enjoying the attention.
They don't get much of it. You've heard of Drew Brees, the
Boilermakers' gunslinging quarterback. Meet Drew Crew, the core
of Purdue's immensely productive and largely anonymous receiving
corps. Last weekend the four Crew members caught 18 of the 29
passes that Brees threw, helping the Boilermakers to a 41-13
victory over Indiana in their Old Oaken Bucket rivalry and
clinching Purdue's trip to Pasadena.
The quiet ones in the amiable bunch are sophomore Seth Morales
and freshman John Standeford, both wideouts. The little guy is
Vinny Sutherland, a senior wide receiver who's listed as 5'9" in
the media guide but in real life is an inch shorter. Sutherland
is a sprinter on the Boilermakers track team and the only guy on
the football roster capable of scoring every time he touches the
Playing Mutt to Sutherland's Jeff is his best buddy and fellow
party animal, Tim Stratton, a 6'4", 252-pound junior tight end
whose 40-yard dash could be timed with a sundial. Stratton makes
up for his lack of speed by having the best hands on the team. Of
all the receivers, says Purdue coach Joe Tiller, "I think Drew
has the most confidence in Tim."
Brees passed for 3,393 yards and 24 touchdowns this fall, and the
guys catching those throws have remained strangers to nearly
everyone but their parents and die-hard Boilermakers fans, one of
whom is still standing at the table, offering to spring for a
round. "No thanks," says the 18-year-old Standeford, who hails
from tiny Monrovia, Ind. It's one of half a dozen phrases he'll
utter during the evening.
Next to this kid, a geisha seems overbearing. "He doesn't say
boo," says Stratton. At a team meeting this season the hulking
tight end performed a chest-slap, a move borrowed from the World
Wrestling Federation, on Tiller. "I don't think John thought it
was funny," says Stratton.
Stratton was lightly recruited out of Elmhurst High in Oak Brook,
Ill., where he starred in, of all things, volleyball. During his
first two collegiate seasons, the coaches yelled at him, "Quit
blocking like a volleyball player!" While he now rates as an
above-average blocker, Stratton is on the field because he hangs
on to virtually every ball thrown his way. He has 56 catches this
fall and is best known by Boilermakers fans for his habit of
pointing upfield, like a referee signaling a first down, after
making a catch that moves the chains. "Yep," he says, grinning,
"I'm the ass---- who does that." He does it a lot. Purdue has
converted 58% (108 of 187) of its third downs this season, by far
the best percentage in the Big Ten.
While the Boilermakers have the conference's most prolific
passing offense, the most talented receivers in the Big
Ten--Michigan's David Terrell and Marquise Walker and Ohio State's
Reggie Germany and Ken-Yon Rambo--play elsewhere. How to explain
this paradox? Critics say that the receivers are beneficiaries of
Brees's accuracy and the wide-open spread offense Tiller
installed after he arrived at Purdue in November 1996. "I could
catch 50 balls in this system," says one writer who covers the
Boilermakers. While such talk rolls off the back of the resilient
Drew Crew, it annoys offensive coordinator Jim Chaney. "The
system doesn't catch the ball," he says. "The system doesn't run
after the catch. These guys could play for a lot of teams."
They're at Purdue because not a lot of teams pursued them. As a
wideout, running back and kick returner at Palm Beach Lakes High
in West Palm Beach, Fla., Sutherland averaged 35 yards every time
he touched the ball as a senior. None of Florida's Big Three, not
the Gators nor the Hurricanes nor the Seminoles, recruited him.
So he visited Purdue and made a lasting impression. "He was
actually kind of a punk," recalls Stratton, who visited on the
same December weekend in 1996. In training camp the next summer,
says Stratton, "the seniors wanted to kill him. One day Vinny got
hit so hard he had a bloody nose. They were trying to take his
Sutherland sheepishly admits, "I ran my mouth a little bit when I
first got here, but I came to play."
Tiller obliged him. Seeing spot duty at receiver and
returning kicks, Sutherland gained 634 all-purpose yards as a
freshman. He twisted both ankles as a sophomore, which limited
his playing time and led to a weight gain that affected his
stamina. With Sutherland, it seems, it's always something. This
season Tiller suspended him for the opener, against Central
Michigan, for failing to pick up his school books for the fall
semester on time. That shot across his bow has focused
Sutherland, who has 65 catches this season, including 11 for
touchdowns, and is averaging 160.4 all-purpose yards per game.
Over the last month, says Tiller, a lot of NFL scouts have
evinced interest in Sutherland. While he won't go so far as to
say that Sutherland will be drafted, Tiller is confident that
Sutherland will end up in some NFL camp next summer. Will Tiller
miss him? He pauses just a little too long before saying, "Sure,
I'll miss some things about Vinny. I'll miss his speed."
Sutherland is the closest thing Purdue has to a marquee receiver.
It amuses Tiller not in the least that his offense, tailored to
make stars of its wide receivers, has failed to attract top high
school wideouts. No fewer than four blue-chippers broke the
Boilermakers' hearts last winter. Carlos Perez of Hoboken, N.J.,
narrowed his choices to Purdue and Florida before opting for
year-round sunshine. Mark Jones of Wallingford, Pa., whose
brother, Ike, had starred at receiver for Purdue, chose
Tennessee, as did Fort Lauderdale standout Tony Brown. Johnny
Morant of Parsippany, N.J., jilted Purdue for Syracuse "to be
closer to his mother," says Tiller. "We're finishing second all
the time. We need to finish first on some of these rascals."
Tiller's disappointment was tempered during two-a-days by the
performance of a receiver he did land. Standeford, the rail-thin
freshman, got open with ease and caught everything. He left the
coaches no choice but to play him. Where he ran into trouble was
digesting Tiller's tome of a playbook. At Monrovia High,
Standeford wasn't asked to memorize scores of sets and formations
or to read defenses on the run and adjust his route accordingly.
"It was more like, 'O.K., John, get open,'" says Monrovia High
coach Chad Neal.
The Purdue coaches streamlined the material the 6'4", 180-pound
Standeford needed to know, and he started catching on. His 62
receptions and 667 receiving yards are the most of any true
freshman receiver in the conference, overshadowing many of the
studfish who said, Thanks, Boilermakers, but no thanks.
Standeford's six touchdown grabs include a five-yarder from Brees
in the fourth quarter of a thrilling 31-27 win over Ohio State on
Oct. 28. Not bad for a guy whose biggest play before this season
was a 70-yard punt return against the Greencastle (Ind.) Tiger
The real hero of that victory over the Buckeyes, however, was
former walk-on Morales, one season removed from the scout team
and two seasons removed from Division I-AA. By earning a
scholarship and a starting job with the Boilermakers, Morales is
living a dream that virtually everyone he turned to for advice
discouraged him from pursuing. As a freshman at Butler in his
hometown of Indianapolis in 1997, he led the Bulldogs in all
receiving categories, which made him sure he could play in the
Big Ten. When he raised the possibility of transferring to
Purdue, his mother, Chris, frowned on the idea. "She's not big
on change," says Morales. "One of my coaches at Butler told me
I'd never play up there."
"You don't want to do this," Tiller told Morales. But Morales,
whose father, Tom, a Mexican immigrant, is the CEO of a
fire-protection company, persuaded the coach that he did want to
transfer. After a year on the scout squad, he earned a
scholarship in last summer's training camp.
When Ohio State took a 27-24 lead with 2:16 left, "I lost hope,
but just for a minute," says Stratton. On third-and-seven at his
own 36, Brees called Yellow 74 XZ-pole, a pass play that requires
Morales to line up on the right side and run a post. Morales had
caught 25 passes as a Boilermaker, none of them on this play, on
which he was Brees's fourth option. But Morales plays as though
he's afraid that if he jakes it on a single snap, he'll wake up
to find himself sitting at his old stall in the Butler dressing
room. Because he plays that way, he found himself behind the
Buckeyes secondary, which is where Brees, having gone through his
first three reads, spotted him. Morales's 64-yard, game-winning
touchdown reception stands as the most dramatic play in Purdue's
finest season in more than three decades.
Let's not forget Stratton, who caught 12 passes against Ohio
State. "Ask him how many yards he got," cracks Sutherland.
(Answer: a relatively modest 100.) Yards after the catch isn't
one of Stratton's strong suits. The big guy smiles. He doles out
his share of verbal abuse--"You know Vinny's family is at the game
when you see a bunch of short people wearing jerseys with number
14 on 'em and saying stuff like 'Down in front!'"--and he can take
As the prime rib dinner went on, even the Drew Crew members
inclined to speak were having trouble getting a word in. The
souse was in mid-filibuster at the end of the table. "I've seen
a lot of guys in [Ross-Ade] stadium who went on to the NFL," he
said, "and so can all you guys!"
That, of course, is an Old Oaken Bucket of horse manure, a
bald-faced lie. "You guys can make history!" he shouted, and, for
once, it wasn't just the booze talking.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY AL TIELEMANS VINNY AND HIS JETS The speedy Sutherland shook free of Indiana to make six catches for 44 yards and finish the season as Purdue's top receiver.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY AL TIELEMANS QUIET STORM The taciturn Standeford let his actions--62 receptions--do the talking.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY AL TIELEMANS NOT SO TINY TIM Stratton, who deals out punishment as well as insults, pulled down four passes for 47 yards against the Hoosiers.
Line in the Sand
There's a lot of animosity between Arizona and Arizona State, and
not just because the Wildcats twice knocked the Sun Devils out of
a Rose Bowl berth in the 1980s. In '68 the Sun Bowl wanted to
invite the winner of the game between 8-1 Arizona and 7-2 State.
The Wildcats demanded to be invited beforehand or else they would
not attend. In what became known as the Ultimatum Bowl, Arizona
State won 30-7.
--According to Duke, North Carolina holds a 48-35-4 lead in
their rivalry. According to North Carolina, the Tar Heels have a
--According to Georgia Tech, Georgia holds a 52-37-5 lead in
their rivalry. According to Georgia, the Bulldogs have a 52-35-5
--According to BYU, Utah holds a 45-26-4 lead in their rivalry.
According to Utah, the Utes have a 48-29-4 advantage.
During last year's Southern Methodist-Texas Christian game in
Fort Worth, the visiting Mustang marching band strode onto the
field for its halftime performance surreptitiously toting
ryegrass seed. (Some ryegrass is perennial, while Bermuda grass,
the playing surface at TCU's Amon G. Carter Stadium, is an
annual that goes dormant each winter.) When the band members
formed the school's insignia, they dropped the seeds. A few
months later a bold m was emblazoned on the Horned Frogs' home
Four of the last five games between Georgia and Georgia Tech
have been decided by three points or fewer.
UCLA-USC, which was once one of the most glamorous games on the
calendar, nearly wasn't televised last Saturday. Fox Sports Net
2 decided four days before the matchup to air the game between
the 6-4 Bruins and the 4-6 Trojans.