Purdue Football finally broke me last night.
It wasn't The Fumble. It wasn't last year's Ohio State game. It wasn't 2009 Notre Dame, 2012 against Kansas in basketball, or any of dozens of other losses where defeat was snapped from the jaws of victory.
No, it was last night, where Purdue not just surprising many across the country by being competitive against a team that was undefeated last regular season, but the Boilermakers were actually the better team for three quarters. The running game was still bad, but Rob Henry was making smart decisions and throwing the ball away when he needed to throw it away. B.J. Knauf was being a terror whenever he got the ball. Akeem Hunt and Justin Sinz were having success by taking advantage of a surprisingly soft underbelly to consistently move the football.
It wasn't "Basketball on grass", but Purdue was actually moving the ball and threatening to score when a week earlier it could do no such thing against Indiana State. On the defensive side of the ball Purdue's run defense was as excellent as it has ever been. Joe Gilliam was also a surprisingly strong force at linebacker. Gilliam, Taylor Richards, and Ricardo Allen had near interceptions in the second quarter, with Allen's inches away from being a sure-fire pick six.
This was totally unexpected. Purdue was a 20-point underdog on its home field and was not only showing that was a mistake, but it was the better team for three quarters. Purdue was finally playing with the poise and discipline that the new regime promised.
Then, in a span of less than four minutes, they broke me:
DeVaris Daniels caught a nine-yard pass to the corner of the end zone where the coverage needed to simply turn around and bat it away.
Daniels then burned Allen again down the sideline, somehow beating the coverage, stiff-arming a tackle, and not getting knocked out of bounds for an 82-yard score.
Finally, Bennett Jackson broken on a Henry pass, his first major mistake of the night, and pick-sixed him.
That was the moment I was finally broken. I just couldn't take it anymore. After being a Purdue fan for over 30 years and seeing hundreds of games, many very similar to this, they made me tap out. I was headed for the exit before Jackson even crossed the goal line. I missed the rest of the game because I had seen all too many times how it plays out. Yes, Purdue answered with a quick score and even got the false hope of the fumble by Amir Carlisle recovered by Richards near midfield.
This game was a microcosm of what it is like to be a Purdue fan. The entire Notre Dame series since about 1997 has been a running serial of similar results. In 1998, 2000, 2002, 2009, 2012, and now this year Purdue was arguably the better team for the entire game only to lose in gut-punch fashion. Winning comes so easy for other teams. For Purdue, be it in basketball or in football, we have to work, scrap, fight, and claw for every inch. We have to listen to mocking taunts of the majority of the rest of our own state because our biggest football rival and biggest basketball rival are both storied programs with history and we have none. Worse yet, Purdue always manages to "find the banana peel" just as it gets close to succeeding, and more times than not it is in the most agonizing fashion possible.
I feel like Sisyphus rolling that damn boulder uphill. Purdue got it as high as No. 5 in the nation and had GameDay in town with actual, national football respect being paid, then it rolled back over us in The Fumble. Purdue pushed that boulder back up to a top 3 ranking and was looking like the best team in the country, then it crushed us and left us crumpled on the hillside like Robbie Hummel lying in the lane at The Barn. Last year, for 59 minutes we were the better team than the only undefeated team in the country on their own field. The last minute was that boulder rolling back downhill over us. It even happened in baseball, a sport where Purdue has NEVER had success, as the best season in school history and a chance for a breakthrough much like IU had this year was all undone in less than 24 hours.
As I said, last night was a microcosm of the entire Purdue sports fan experience. Purdue outplayed and outworked a better, more talented Notre Dame team for 45 minutes. We still had to sit and have our nose rubbed in defeat as they danced in our stadium. This morning their bandwagon fans (their true fans are actually quite nice) are chuckling to themselves and remembering that Purdue sucks, as they always do.
I am not sure what I even mean when I say that the team broke me last night. I rarely leave games early. I am usually the one seeking any shred of Hope for victory and last night there was plenty of time for it, even after I heard the whistle blow signaling the touchdown from Henry to Sinz. At this point I guess we just know as Purdue fans. We know when it is over and we're just beaten. Different coaches come and go, sports change, players change, and the results are still the same. As fans, we get kicked in the teeth in the most cruel way possible.
So I sit here at my computer, haunted look on my face as a cursor blinks on a beautiful Sunday morning. I question what this broken-ness now means and what to do going forward.