Joe Tiller puffed on a cigar as he entered the post-game news conference, pleased with his team after a 32-25 victory over Central Michigan on Sept. 20 that made him Purdue's winningest career coach with 85 victories.
"It feels damn good," Tiller said that day. "Instead of me saying 'Aw, it's not that big a deal ...' yeah, it is."
That was then, this is now. Since lighting that celebratory stogie, Tiller's season has gone up in smoke. Purdue is mired in a five-game losing streak and must win out to go to a bowl for the 11th time in 12 seasons under Tiller, who is retiring after the season and moving to Buffalo, Wyo., to fish and whittle.
"This isn't what I had in mind," Tiller said after last week's 17-6 homecoming loss to Minnesota.
This was supposed to be Tiller's victory lap around the Big Ten. But with a home game against Michigan on Saturday followed by trips to Michigan State and Iowa and a season-ending visit from Indiana, this is Purdue's dark, frightening reality: a 2-10 record.
How did this happen? The program has been slipping since 2005, with some pointing toward spotty recruiting and coaching-staff turnover as major culprits. A roster bereft of blue-chip talent has been further compromised by injury.
The offensive line limped out of spring ball with questions that have remained unanswered. The Boilermakers already have used five starting combinations. Running back Jaycen Taylor, the heart and soul of the team, suffered a season-ending knee injury before the season started. Tight end Kyle Adams hurt a knee in the opener and hasn't played again. A perpetually cranky back has kept linebacker Jason Werner sidelined all season, crippling a linebacking corps that is perilously thin. Quarterback Curtis Painter may miss Saturday's game with a shoulder injury, and backup Joey Elliott is out with a shoulder injury suffered at Northwestern. That leaves Justin Siller, a former quarterback who switched to running back this season because he was ill-suited to play quarterback.
And so it has gone, all season.
A floundering offense averaging just 10.3 points in Big Ten play has had an adverse impact on a defense that has played well enough to win on many occasions. The coaches won't admit it, but a "woe is me" factor has to have crept into the psyche of defenders who too often get thrown onto the field in bad situations. Still, the defense also is culpable. The linebacking corps is undermanned and the line has underperformed.
With the 2008 team ready to be administered its last rites, it may be time to start looking toward tomorrow.
"I started going through these players and thinking, 'If you keep these guys healthy, I think they'll rebound dramatically next year,' " Tiller said. "I'll be surprised if they don't. I would be pretty optimistic if I were coming back next year."
Player to watch
Wisconsin QB Dustin Sherer. If Wisconsin hopes to build on the momentum of last week's victory over Illinois that ended a four-game losing streak, Sherer needs to play well against Michigan State. Taking over for Allan Evridge, Sherer made his first career start against the Illini. He finished 12-of-22 for 174 yards and two touchdowns. The junior has brought a calming influence to an offense that needs his leadership to help the Badgers salvage the season.
Matchup to watch
Illinois' defensive line vs. Iowa RB Shonn Greene. Let's go ahead and call this a must-win for Illinois, which has been stuck in a win, loss, win, loss, win, loss pattern since Sept. 13. There is plenty of blame to go around for the Illini's inconsistency. Near the top of the list is a defense that has been soft. The run defense has been the root of the problems, ranking ninth in the Big Ten (152.3 ypg). Here comes Greene, who may be the hottest running back in the nation. He is the only Big Ten player who has run for 100 yards in every game. He has put Iowa on his back, rushing 177 times for 1,154 yards (6.5 ypc) and 10 TDs. He just may catch Michigan State's Javon Ringer (1,373) for the league rushing lead.
Minnesota is No. 1 in the nation in turnover margin (plus-1.9 per game), generating 24 turnovers while committing just nine (plus-15 margin). … Last Saturday, the Golden Gophers limited Purdue to 109 passing yards, the fewest in the Tiller era. … Indiana's win over Northwestern was the first of QB Ben Chappell's career. Chappell, who hurt his ribs in the victory, was playing for the injured Kellen Lewis, who may be back this week after missing the past two games with a high ankle sprain. That means IU may be able to revert to its two-quarterback system Saturday against Central Michigan. … Michigan State and Indiana got big efforts from unheralded wide receivers in victories last week. Spartans walk-on Blair White caught four passes for 143 yards. The Hoosiers' Tandon Doss grabbed eight passes for 107 yards and a touchdown. … Penn State leads the Big Ten in scoring offense (41.8), scoring defense (11.1) and total defense (265.9). The Nittany Lions are No. 2 in total offense (459.8), behind Illinois (462.6).
Purdue quarterbacks have tossed six touchdown passes and 11 interceptions. … Michigan has lost four games in a row. … Wisconsin has a Big Ten-low 11 sacks. … Penalties continue to hurt Illinois, which has been whistled for a league-high 51 for 459 yards. … Indiana has gone just 7-for-13 on field-goal attempts, the worst percentage (.538) in the conference. … Illinois' foes have completed 174 consecutive passes without an interception. The Illini have just three picks, with only one coming by a defensive back. … If Purdue's losing streak reaches six games with a loss to Michigan, it will match the longest losing skid in the Tiller era.
What they're saying
"I think collectively, as a program, we got a monkey off our back. … It's a great accomplishment to do this in my last chance. I think it's a statement. Coach (Don) Treadwell (the offensive coordinator) talked before the game about making a change. We need to make a change in this rivalry and make a change in this state. I think the state is probably more green today than it was yesterday." – Michigan State senior QB Brian Hoyer on the Spartans' first win at Michigan since 1990
"That thing there, the snake-oil deal … we had a good laugh about that at the Big Ten meetings. … At the time it was like kind of 'stand in line, take a shot.' I don't know if I've got my snake-oil sample with me or not. I can bring it down to West Lafayette this weekend and get Joe. We had a little chuckle about that. I believe there are probably people calling our commitments now, some Big Ten schools. That's part of the deal." – Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez, on if he has mended fences with Purdue's Tiller after Tiller took a veiled shot at Rodriguez when he lost a recruit on signing day to Michigan
Penn State is off this weekend, which is good for QB Daryll Clark. He got his bell rung in the fourth quarter of last week's win at Ohio State but is expected back when the Nittany Lions travel to Iowa on Nov. 8. … Ohio State also is off this week. … Wisconsin received a huge blow when TE Travis Beckum broke his left leg in last week's win over Illinois. His college career is over. … Northwestern RB Tyrell Sutton's college career also is complete. He had surgery on his left wrist after last week's loss at Indiana. Omar Conteh will take over as the starting tailback. Even more bad news: Wildcat QB C.J. Bacher is questionable with a leg injury suffered last week. If he can't go, Mike Kafka will start. … Purdue's Painter has started 40 consecutive games, the longest streak among quarterbacks in the nation. He is questionable for Saturday's game. … Iowa has won five in a row over Illinois, which last won in the series in 2000. … Among the top four teams in the Big Ten standings, Minnesota's remaining opponents have the lowest winning percentage: 6-11 (.353). Penn State's remaining foes are 7-7 (.500), Michigan State's are 6-8 (.429) and Ohio State's are 5-8 (.385). … Penn State had no penalties at Ohio State, and the Nittany Lions have been called for only one in two other games this season. … This will be Wisconsin's first trip to Michigan State since 2004. The Badgers have won five of the past seven meetings, including two of the past three in East Lansing.