My favorite Purdue Football Season: 2003

Ronald Martinez

Some might remember the Rose Bowl as Tiller's best team, but the 2003 season was a lot of fun too.

Things are naturally slow in the middle of July, plus I have been busy with job searching, trying to sell sponsorships to save my current job, and being a dad to a very active 14-month-old. That has left me bereft of creativity at the end of the day.

Fortunately, the good folks at the SB Nation Editorial team have provided us with some ideas we can use for such times. One of them was the following:

What has been your favorite season of college football?

While most fans would say the 2000 season that ended in Pasadena, I had to go with this one. In my opinion, it was coach Joe Tiller's best team in his time at Purdue. Nine players from that team were taken in the following spring's NFL Draft, and an additional seven would head to the League over the next three Drafts. It was a loaded team that could have been even better and set the stage for The Fumble the next season.

Pre-season: Purdue entered the year ranked 16th, which was a spot lower than the Rose Bowl team. It was a team that had a major "yeah, but" attached to it. There was no question that Purdue was going to be good, but it had three difficult road trips in the middle of the season at Wisconsin, Ohio State, and Michigan. That is why most experts did not see Purdue as a serious Big Ten contender. I felt that going in they would win one of those three, lose one, and the third would be the toss-up that would decide If Purdue won the Big Ten or not.

September 6: Bowling Green L 26-27 - The season of promise started with what felt like a gigantic thud, as the Boilers lost at home to a MAC team. In the end, it wasn't a bad loss, as the Falcons were loaded with talent recruited by one Urban Meyer, who left for Utah before the season. They went on to finish 11-3 and win the Motor City Bowl over Northwestern. In fact, Bowling Green was ranked for a good portion of the season and lost only to Ohio State (24-17) and twice to Ben Roethlisberger and Miami (OH). The second came in the MAC title game and was the rare MACtion where both teams were ranked.

The name Josh Harris still chills me, as he was the prototype MAC athletic QB that can't be brought down and just makes plays, including a 32-yard TD to Charles Sharon on 4th and 14 late in the fourth quarter for the win. In retrospect, Purdue got beat by a pretty damn good team.

September 13: at #20 Wake Forest W 16-10 - A year before against Wake Forest was one of the most frustrating losses I have ever attended for Purdue. The Boilers lost at home to the Demon Deacons by three thanks to Berin Lacevic (Serbian for "Wide Left") missed three fourth quarter field goals inside 40 yards. It was one of many frustrating losses by the 2002 team, but the defense with eight senior starters handled things a lot better than it did against the elusive Harris. Stu Schweigert timed a blitz perfectly to make a huge fourth down stop in the red zone and seal the road win, which is Purdue's only non-conference road victory over a top 25 team in the last 40 years. My guess as to the last one was 1974 at Notre Dame.

September 20: Arizona W 59-7 - Purdue went back to the black uniforms for the first time since late in the 2001 season and absolutely destroyed the Wildcats with 580 yards of total offense against 174 given up. At the time, it was the largest margin of victory ever for Purdue at home, later to be broken by a 58-0 win over Southeast Missouri State.

September 27: Notre Dame W 23-10 - This was the first career start for Brady Quinn and while Purdue didn't play well offensively, a second half shutout preserved the victory. Shaun Phillips had a TD catch while stepping over to offense in a goal line situation and Ray Williams caught an early TD pass.

October 4: Illinois W 43-10 - Jerod Void pulled off a Bundy with 119 yards and four touchdowns as Purdue ran for over 300 yards as a team. It was probably one of the best power football performances of the Tiller Era, as the Boiler didn't need to go all "basketball on grass" thanks to a great offensive line. The running back trio of Void, Brandon Jones, and Jerome Brooks may have never made the NFL, but they were three backs that complimented each other extremely well and gained enough to allow the defense to rest.

October 11: Penn State W 28-14 - There was once a time when Purdue's punt return game was actually a threat! Anthony Chambers returned a punt for a score and set up two more TDs with long returns and, once again, the defense was fantastic. Michael Robinson, who would dominate the Big Ten two years later, was limited with two interceptions and if not for a 90 yard interception returned for a TD Purdue would have won by even more. Purdue has not beaten Penn State in West Lafayette since.

October 18: at #14 Wisconsin W 26-23 - For the first time ever Purdue was involved in a game where College GameDay was in town. Purdue was able to hit on a few big plays, but had to settle for field goals way too many times. Jim Leonhard got loose for a late punt return to tie the game, but Kyle Orton led a great clock-grinding drive against a tough defense. Alex Lewis sacked Orton five times, but Purdue sacked Jim Sorgi nine times as a team. Orton's conservative play got Purdue inside the five at the end, where Ben Jones won the game on an 18-yard field goal with three seconds left. To date, this is the last time Purdue has beaten Wisconsin, which is our current longest Big Ten victory drought.

October 25: at #13 Michigan L 3-31 - Having already gotten one of the big three on the road with two to play, Purdue was definitely in the running for the Big Ten title. Unfortunately, the Big House continued to be Purdue (and specifically Joe Tiller's) kryptonite. As usual, their big corners dominated our smaller receivers and Purdue never recovered after falling behind 14-0. I missed most of this game because it was the day my now-wife moved to Indiana, so I was helping her out.  I blame myself. Purdue was ranked 10th coming into the game, and has only gotten that high once since.

November 1: Northwestern W 34-14 - I don't remember much about this game. It was a pretty business-like victory over a decent Northwestern team that went to a bowl game. Purdue recovered four fumbles and John Standeford became the Big Ten's all-time leading receiver in terms of yards. I know it seems rare now, but there was once a time that Purdue was good enough to have nice, boring wins over bowl teams.

November 8: #10 Iowa W 27-14 - The final home game of the season was a defensive struggle but Purdue was up to the task, opening up a 27-0 lead in the fourth quarter before giving up two scores in the final 20 minutes. It was a great game, really, and one of the best overall performances by Purdue I have ever seen. Iowa was a really, really good team who played in the Orange Bowl and won the Big Ten the year before. Purdue dominated them virtually end-to-end.

November 15: at #4 Ohio State L 13-16 OT - A year after Holy Buckeye (why can't that footage be lost by ABC Sports) it was once again heartbreak at the hands of the Buckeyes. We knew going in that Michigan held the inside track for Pasadena because of their earlier win over us even after losing at Iowa earlier in the season. A piece of the Big Ten title and an almost certain BCS bowl were still on the line for the winner. The defense was the story all game as it was 6-6 at halftime and still knotted there after a scoreless third quarter.

Orton was hit and fumbled in the end zone in the fourth quarter and it was recovered for a touchdown by Mike Kudla on third and long. It seemed as if Ohio State had the advantage, but Orton led a damned impressive 92-yard drive starting with 6:36 left and Void scored on a Statue of Liberty play to tie it.

To date, this has been my only visit to the Horseshoe and it was impressive. The stadium itself just feels massive, and the noise contrast in both touchdowns was incredible. The place was deafening and shaking when OSU scored on the Kudla recovery, but even the screams of all the Purdue fans around me (maybe 1,000 way up in the south end zone) was a tinny din by comparison when Void scored.

Bobby Iwuchukwu blocked the game-winning FG attempt as time expired, but a Ben Jones miss on our possession in the overtime ended any BCS hopes for Purdue. To date, Purdue's longest active Big Ten road losing streak is still in Columbus dating back to 1988. This one was probably the most painful though, because it was two excellent teams that battled dead even.

November 22 at Indiana W 24-16 - The loss in Columbus took so much out of Purdue it sleepwalked through this one. That's the only explanation for 2-10 Indiana keeping this close. The future Mrs. T-Mill and I went down for this one, scalped tickets on the 40 yard line for about $25, and even had Indiana fans saying they had no business keeping the game as close as it was. Void finished with 141 yards and BenJarvus Green-Ellis went for 155 yards in his final game at Indiana. It was the only time all year that Purdue gave up 100 yards rushing to a player.

Fortunately, we also had John Standeford, who caught six passes for 151 yards and two scores.

January 1 vs. #11 Georgia L 27-34 - What a game here, but it was almost like the Outback bowl from four seasons earlier. Once again, we went to overtime with the Bulldogs, but this time it was because of our own comeback as opposed to blowing a huge lead. Orton ended up playing most of the game with a dislocated thumb as Purdue fell behind 24-10. Purdue still trailed 27-17 late, but Anthony Chambers cut it to 27-24 on a TD with two minutes left.

It was then that a huge mistake by Kregg Lumpkin almost cost Georgia the game. Instead of going down with less than a minute left he tried to make a play and fumbled in Georgia territory. Purdue lookedlike it had about four guys who could have scooped it up and scored, but eventually Niko Koutouvides fell on it and set up a typing FG by Ben Jones.

In OT a pass interference call set up a TD my Lumpkin on fourth and goal from the one and Orton was picked off on fourth down.

Overall season:

It is hard to not see this as Tiller's best team. It played (and beat) three major conference teams in the non-conference part of the schedule, dropped two of its four losses in overtime, and a third by a desperation fourth and long play where the Bowling Green receiver made a great catch between two defenders. With a few bounces Purdue is easily 12-1 with a bowl win and a share of the Big Ten title.

Purdue ended up beating three ranked teams (Wake Forest, Wisconsin, Iowa), two of them on the road. Seven of the 13 opponents played in bowl games, which is impressive when two of the teams that didn't play in a bowl were traditional power teams Notre Dame and Penn State. The combined record of the four teams to beat Purdue was 43-11 with both Michigan and Ohio State playing in BCS bowls.

More importantly, this was the last time Purdue had a great defense. If anything, the offense let it down in games like Michigan, Ohio State, and Georgia. Seven of the eight seniors on the defense were drafted and Shaun Phillips is still kicking around in the NFL.

It's hard not to like this Purdue team, and I certainly long for the days when we can have a defense like that. Stu was a crowd favorite, Landon Johnson and Koutouvides were excellent linebackers, and the defensive line was flat out beastly. The offense had NFL talent all over the place as well. It was easily the most complete Purdue team of the last several decades.

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