Technically, there was a tie at the #23 spot. Kyle Orton and the #23 honoree each received 125 votes, but I made the editorial decision to rank Orton 24th. Why? Because I am the editor, that's why! Seriously, Orton accomplishments were great, but I think you'll agree when #23 is revealed that his or her accomplishments were historically better and they are held in higher esteem.
So we have Kyle Orton, current quarterback for the Denver Broncos at the #24 spot. I always felt that Orton had a very underappreciated career at Purdue. He had to take over midseason in a year we were trying to replace a legend. He battled to be the definite starter for two years, nearly taking us to a BCS bowl once he cemented the spot. He took Purdue to its greatest in-season heights in almost 40 years, but quite unfairly saw it all crumble away. He gave us a ton of memories and he continues to extend Purdue's lead in "Number of NFL starts by quarterbacks from a school".
He is the pride of Altoona, Iowa. The bustling town of just over 10,000 is solidly in the territory of Our Most Hated Rival, but we recruited him mostly because of Drew Brees' spectacular career. Orton came to us in the fall of 2001 on the heels of everything Drew did for us. He went to Southeast Polk High School where he also played basketball, tennis, and track. He was the #2 rated quarterback in the nation in his class, and he grew up idolizing Nebraska quarterback Brook Berringer (thus the #18). His numbers as a starter were modest, but he had a ton of promise.
The immortal Brandon Hance began the 2001 season as a redshirt freshman and starting quarterback. Hance had played very sparingly the season before, but he was named the heir apparent to Brees once he was gone. Hance started the season very well, going 4-0 and pushing Purdue into the top 10 before we headed to Michigan. Orton played in a blowout win over Akron, completing one pass for 40 yards, but for all purposes it looked like Hance was going to pick up right where Brees left off. Once he led an amazing miracle comeback at Minnesota things were looking good.
Even in the loss at Michigan Hance did well, throwing for 198 yards and a touchdown as we had a competitive 24-10 loss. The trouble started in November, however, when Purdue was 5-1 and hosted Illinois. Purdue forced five turnovers and even had a 51-yard run on a fake punt, and it resulted in 13 points. Hance threw a pair of picks, both returned for touchdowns. Orton came in after the second pick, throwing for 46 yards, but losing a pair of fumbles.
Hance struggled the next two weeks, a loss at Ohio State and a win over Michigan State, with Orton replacing him both times. Orton completed six of nine passes for 61 yards as Purdue clinched bowl eligibility with a 24-14 win over the Spartans. It would be the last time that Hance would play for Purdue, as he lost his starting job the next week at Indiana and transferred to USC at the end of the season.
Orton's first starts were rough. He lost 13-7 in a monsoon at Indiana, but threw for 263 yards and a score. His first home start was my final home game as a student, a 24-18 loss to a Notre Dame team that had fired Bob Davie, had no passing game to speak of, yet we gave up a kickoff and interception return for touchdowns. Against Washington State in the Sun Bowl Orton threw for 419 yards and two touchdowns on 74 attempts with 38 completions, but also had four picks in a 33-27 loss. Even then, he had us with the ball on the 20 before a turnover on downs.
The next year Orton began the year as the starter, but by midseason we were playing musical quarterbacks with Brandon Kirsch. It was a disjointed season where Purdue led the Big Ten in offense and defense, but shot itself repeatedly in the foot with Berin "wide left" Lacevic missing field goals and turnovers at the worst times. The low point was the Notre Dame game I hate the most, a 24-17 loss in South Bend where we held them to three points, but gave up three defensive touchdowns.
Orton played in all 13 games, including a come from behind 34-24 win over Washington in the Sun Bowl. He threw for 2,257 yards and 13 touchdowns against nine picks and cemented himself as the starter by the end of the year. His signature play was when he saved the season at Michigan State. After standing on the sideline in the cold for over three hours he was forced to come in during a 4th and 8 situation and Purdue trailing late. With barely any time to warm up he threw a 40 yard touchdown pass to John Standeford, then a two-point conversion pass to Taylor Stubblefield to give us a 45-42 win that saved our bowl hopes.
The 2003 season may have been Orton's best as a starter. All those freshmen that played key roles on defense during the Rose Bowl year were now seniors. A record nine boilers would get drafted at the end of the season, Jerod Void had a hell of a year running the ball with Brandon Jones, and Orton threw for 2,885 yards and 15 scores against just seven picks. He also ran for three scores. We were shocked by Bowling Green 27-26 in the opener, but reeled off six straight wins to roll into Ann Arbor with a 6-1 record, unbeaten mark in conference play, and a #10 ranking. Naturally, we got pantsed in a 31-3 beatdown.
Home wins over Northwestern and #10 Iowa set things up for a nice finish though. On November 13, 2003 Purdue headed to defending national champ Ohio State ranked 11th and with an outside shot at the Rose Bowl. The winner of the game would likely receive an at large BCS berth and would need a Michigan loss the following week to go to Pasadena. It was a defensive slugfest that was tied at six at the half. Ohio State's only touchdown was a backbreaking sack, fumble strip, score in the end zone with 11:23 left. It looked like it was going to be yet another painful loss I would have to erase from my memory (of course I was there), but Orton did something I will never forget. He actually led a damned impressive 92 yard drive to tie the game and send it to overtime when Bobby Iwuchukwu (who had one of the best names ever) blocked a game-winning field goal attempt as time expired.
Of course, we lost in overtime when Ben Jones pushed a field goal left, but this remains one of the best Purdue games I have ever been to. It is the only time we have put the fear of God into a top five team on its own field in recent memory.
The 2004 Season
We all know what happened, but let's remember the good parts. Orton started the year 5-0 throwing for 1,476,729,023 yards and 986 TDs (approximate) to Stubblefield. We smoked the Fighting Irish 41-16 in South Bend (probably the most fun I have ever had watching a football game). We were #5 in the nation, Kyle was the favorite for the Heisman, and Gameday was coming to town for a homecoming night game against Wisconsin. With eight minutes left Orton scored on a scramble to put us up 17-7, running into the corner of the south end zone right in front of my seats. We were actually dreaming of a National Championship and a potential title game against Miami that would have put my marriage in danger about 10 days before it started.
Poetry in motion
For the record, I don't blame Kyle for The Fumble. I blame the defense for giving up a touchdown on the following drive in about .2 seconds. I blame Kyle smith for dropping what would have been the game-sealing interception when it hit him RIGHT IN THE FREAKING CHEST! I blame the collective mood of the fans going, "Oh shit! Not again!" when Wisconsin scored on its drive before The Fumble. I blame the deflated nature of the stadium for the pre-ordained miss by Ben Jones as time expired.
All downhill from here
All I remember was standing there with my hands on my head in stunned silence as Scott Starks ran The Fumble back for the winning score. We literally went from "WE GOT THIS!" to "WHAT THE F***!!!" in half a second. I hate thinking about this game. I viewed The Fumble on YouTube in preparation for this article and it still pisses me off. I won't subject you guys to it.
The program has never recovered, and it should have never gotten to the point where we needed that play, anyway.
I feel bad for Kyle because he has gotten jerked around in his career about as badly as he was jerked around during the 2002 season. He has thrown for almost 13,000 yards and won 10 games as a starter in his rookie season, but he was later bench in favor of Rex Grossman. Seriously, you have either hit a career low or God hates you when you're benched in favor of Rex Grossman. Given the full-time job again in 2008 he nearly took the Bears to the playoffs with a 9-7 record. He went 21-12 as a starter for Chicago, but apparently winning games doesn't matter in comparison to stats.
With the Broncos he started 6-0, but the defense fell apart for him and Brandon Marshall became a primadonna receiver, wrecking their playoff chances this past year. His good performance still wasn't enough to keep away the detractors, as Denver drafted Tim Tebow. Tebow started the last three games of last year, but Kyle had a good season with 3,653 yards and 20 scores against just nine picks. For his career he has 71 TD passes against 48 interceptions, not a bad ratio.
Orton is a Purdue legend because his career numbers are second only to Brees. He is the only Purdue quarterback to start in four bowl games, and he holds (and will likely always hold) every conceivable career Sun Bowl record because I can't see someone starting three Sun Bowls ever again. He had a lot of big wins, including at Notre Dame and Penn State (the only Purdue QB to ever win at Penn State), but there were a lot of agonizing losses during his time. It was an era that always felt like it should have been better, but was marred by bad luck. He was also a warrior, playing hurt in the last half of 2004. His 2004 Capitol One Bowl was another memorable performance, as he led Purdue to a hard fought overtime loss despite playing with every injury except Hysterical Pregnancy.
Kyle Orton is definitely worthy of the ICON status bestowed upon him. He is one of the greatest quarterbacks in the Cradle, and my esteem of him grows every year.