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The Fumble Revisited

Every Purdue fan knows what this weekend means. Wisconsin is coming to town, and they aren't coming with the same amount of fanfare that they did last time. Two years ago the Badgers rolled into town unbeaten and ranked 10th. We were also unbeaten, ranked fifth, and boasted a legitimate frontrunner for the Heisman. The GameDay Crew was in town for the first time ever, and there was much hoopla in West Lafayette. Not only did we get GameDay in town, but we had Cold Pizza and were generally the center of the college football universe. On game morning I had to work on a shoot in Logansport, but we still got to Lafayette in plenty of time. We got to experience a couple of GameDay segments and walk around enjoying the Homecoming atmosphere. It was a more hyped game at Purdue than any of the Brees era, and had the potential to be the biggest win in the program's history.

From that point, everyone knows what happened, so I am not going to rehash it. Since 'The Fumble', as it has come to be known, Purdue has fallen into a funk where it has gone 12-10, has won only three times away from Ross-Ade, and has generally played without any form of confidence whatsoever. The feeling after The Fumble wasn't so much one of defeat as it was of, "What the hell just happened?" Purdue was a mere couple of inches, the distance between Kyle Orton and the ground, from being 6-0 and having a real shot at the national title. Not only has the team never recovered, but we as a fan base haven't. Since that moment every Purdue fan I know has never felt safe with any kind of a lead. Personally, I am always waiting for the other shoe to drop, and haven't felt very safe in a game until this past Saturday at Northwestern.

But Saturday is a chance for things to come around full circle two years later. GameDay will not be in town. We'll get a bit of a build-up from wherever they originate the show, but mostly we'll be ignored and picked against. We have the chance to get some poetic justice against a team that has more than once beaten us recently in close games where a turnover at the wrong moment has cost us dearly. Purdue has always done better when the spotlight is off. While Saturday is a chance to get a statement win and get the program back on the map, no one will be watching outside of Big Ten country. It is our third chance this year to make some noise when no one expects us to.

Before we get to my more in depth Purdue preview, let's take a look at the rest of the action in the conference this week.

Illinois (2-5, 1-2) at Penn State (4-3, 2-2) – If you are an able bodied former quarterback that attends Penn State, but aren't currently on the team you might get a chance to play this week. As part of last week's loss to Michigan last week both of Penn State's quarterbacks left the game with concussions and may not play this week. That means Paul Cianciolo will likely get the start against the Illini. Expect for the Nittany Lions to have a steady offensive diet of handing off to Tony Hunt, and only throwing when absolutely necessary. That is just fine because Illinois doesn't exactly have a run defense to speak of. They got run on by Indiana and Ohio, who aren't exactly Navy when it comes to running the football.

The Illini are reeling as they have finished three straight games where a game winning field goal was the final play. While that was all good and well when they won at Michigan State, it's not good when Indiana and Ohio are kicking field goals to beat you at home. There's pretty much no hope left of going to a bowl game, and it is simply time for the Illini to develop recruits.

I still can't take Illinois seriously when they have a quarterback that goes by the name of Juice. Who plays football and wants to go by the name 'Juice' these days? I know it has been over a decade, but ahs this kid not heard of O.J. Simpson? Seriously though, Illinois has been more competitive this year than originally thought, so they could hang around against a Penn State team that has been competitive in most of its games, but hasn't really shown anything special.

PREDICTION: Penn State 27, Illinois 13 – Illinois will hang around, but Happy Valley is a much different place to play at than East Lansing. Since Penn State loves to run the ball they should be able to do so all day and whoever plays at quarterback for Penn State will have an easy day.

Michigan State (3-4, 0-3) at Northwestern (2-5, 0-3) – This is a chance at another statement game for the Spartans. Of course, that is only if things go badly. In that case, the statement would be, "Good God these guys suck!" Seriously, it's one thing to have a four game losing streak when three of the four teams are currently in the top 10. It is something completely different when you lose to a Northwestern team that hasn't yet figured out that a forward pass is a legal play.

When you do take away the Illinois loss, Michigan State's losing streak can be at least understood. What is baffling is that after the fold against Notre Dame, they didn't even bother being competitive in losing to Ohio State and Michigan. Three of the four losses were at home, with the other being a rivalry game on the road. Michigan State probably has the softest schedule left of anyone in the conference with Northwestern, Indiana, Purdue, Minnesota, and Penn State left. They need to win three of those, and this week they can gain some redemption from the Illinois loss.

Northwestern is simply the worst team in the Big Ten this year. They cannot pass the ball at all, and it is not like they have a dominant running game to make up for it. When you manage fewer yards and points against a bad Purdue defense than a 1-AA team that hasn't won in over two years that sets a new level of offensive suckatude. Northwestern's defense isn't much better, either. Their two wins are against two of the worst teams in college football this year.

PREDICTION: Michigan State 24, Northwestern 7 – If Michigan State somehow loses this game it is seriously time for them to go sit in the corner and think about what they have done for the rest of the year. I don't think even they are bad enough to lost this one.

Indiana (4-3, 2-1) at Ohio State (7-0, 4-0) – In one week the Hoosiers have remade themselves into a worthy football rival for Purdue. They didn't do this by beating Iowa last week, a team that thoroughly dominated the Boilers. No, they did it by becoming so thoroughly annoying and full of smug from one win over a ranked team that they rival many Notre Dame fans out there. Have they completely forgotten that this is the same IU team that lost to Southern Illinois at home? "Well that is the week Hep was undergoing surgery," is what many of them are saying. I don't care if he was having a freakin' sex change operation as the halftime show; it is still unacceptable to lose to a 1-AA team if you are a Big Ten team. Many of them are talking about a bowl game as a certainty now, and they all think that Purdue is deathly afraid of losing the bucket this year. I will give them credit that they do have a better win than Purdue does so far, but let's calm down a little bit here.

We will lose the bucket to them, eventually. The law of averages says that some year we will stumble again and give it back to them. Honestly, I said coming into the year that the bucket game could be dangerous if Indiana has five wins by the time it is played. They only need one more and they have two winnable games left with Michigan State and Minnesota coming up. We need to be careful, that is for sure, but we both have a lot of football left to be played first. Indiana hasn't won in Ross-Ade since the Bill Mallory finale, and the last time they came up here we so thoroughly destroyed them that they fired a coach that had gotten hem their last win over a ranked team, and a much more impressive when at that by beating Oregon in Autzen Stadium.

I'm not worried about the bucket game just yet because it is still four weeks away. If Indiana wants to make a bowl, they won't worry about it either. I know all of this also has nothing to do with Indiana's game against Ohio State this week.

PREDICTION: Ohio State 45, Indiana 14 – That's because the Buckeyes will easily bring the Hoosiers back down to earth. I am making a proclamation right now. If Indiana wins in the Horseshoe on Saturday, I will buy season tickets to The Rock next year instead of Purdue. Those are both things I am very confident in saying they won't happen.

Wisconsin (6-1, 3-1) at Purdue (5-2, 2-1) – On paper this one looks awfully tough. Wisconsin is probably the most physical team we will face all year. They have the toughest defense we will probably face this season, and they aren't afraid to hit us. Offensively they have a line that is probably more physical than the one that Iowa used to push us around all day. P.J. Hill is a solid running back that will take it to us all day. John Stocco is experienced and unflappable under pressure. They also have their trademark speedy receiver that will look to get behind our defense. This is a very tall order for us to face, as Wisconsin may end up being a better team this year than Iowa or Notre Dame. An 11-1 record is a real possibility for them, but because of Michigan and Ohio State being so good they won't have a chance at a BCS bowl without a huge upset down the line.

All that being said, it may not be as bad as we thought. Yes, it was only Northwestern last week, but the defense played its best game of the past two years, outside of last year's Illinois game. There is something to be said for gaining confidence as a unit, and last week you could feel the defense gain that confidence. It was almost like a light went on that said, "Hey, this is how we do it, guys!" I recognize that Wisconsin and Northwestern are light years apart in talent, but again, it's about confidence.

We're also back at home for the first time in about a month. While we don't have a huge home field advantage, we did play roughly the same Wisconsin team tough last year in Madison before two pick 6's really turned things around. We also have The Fumble owing us a huge karmic payback. We're going to have to do an awful lot right to even have a chance in this game, but there is going to be one game this year where this team will come together and everything will click. Why not this week?

Also, outside of Michigan Wisconsin hasn't really played anyone of note. They have played a non-conference schedule of Bowling Green, Western Illinois (1-AA) and San Diego State (winless). In conference they have played Indiana, Northwestern, and Minnesota for their three wins. That is three teams without great offenses or defenses. We're easily the second best team they have faced outside of Michigan. They did play Michigan fairly close though.

PREDICTION: Wisconsin 38, Purdue 28 – I'll be cheering hard on Saturday, but I don't see us pulling this out unless Wisconsin makes more than a couple of mistakes on offense. The defense will need to play out of their minds as well. Next week is much more winnable and important than this one.

North Dakota State (6-0) at Minnesota (2-5) – Our non-conference game of the week features the mighty Bison of North Dakota State, undefeated and ranked in the top ten of the 1-AA poll, coming to the Metrodome to face a reeling Minnesota squad. The Bison recently moved up to Division 1, and they are probably more famous for the major upset their basketball squad had last year in knocking of Wisconsin in Madison. They already have a win over a 1-A team this year in beating Ball State, but that is different from playing a Big Ten team.

Already this year ranked 1-AA teams have twice knocked off Big Ten teams at home, with New Hampshire beating Northwestern, and the other reference I have driven into the ground. They have the horses to pull the upset against a Minnesota team that is the definition of struggling right now. The Gophers need a win in the worst way, and North Dakota State may not be the team to get it against. As usual, Minnesota likes to run, and the Bison have the best run defense at the NCAA's JV level.

This one could be the third 1-AA upset of the year very easily.

PREDICTION: Minnesota 35, ND State 21 – The Bison will hang around, but if I didn't have the guts to pick New Hampshire over Northwestern earlier this year, I can't pick North Dakota State over Minnesota. Check back in one week when this is my upset that I didn't call.

Iowa (5-2, 2-2) at Michigan (7-0, 4-0) – Iowa, I am mad at you. I sang your praises in the preseason. I touted you as my pick to really make some news in the big ten, and this is how you thank me? By going into Bloomington and making Indiana insufferable in a sport other than basketball? You have reached the level of Michigan State in that you will no longer be taken seriously until you do something of note. This week at Michigan is an excellent chance.

This looks to be the last obstacle to the judgment day Michigan-Ohio State game on November 18th for both teams. The schedule is very easy for both squads outside of this game, and after last week's loss at IU, it certainly doesn't look too tough.

Michigan seems to be a team of destiny this year. Last year they won 23-20 in Iowa City in a game that turned out to be their best win in a disappointing 7-5 season. They have not even been challenged too seriously in any game this year, with Wisconsin being the closest exception. They are playing well and destroying everything in their path. Unless the real Iowa team shows up, this could get ugly. The Big House is a much, much tougher place to play than the Rock.

PREDICTION: Michigan 24, Iowa 10 – This one will be a methodical destruction, rather than a brutal slaying. Michigan will be very calculated and businesslike in getting the job done. We still won't have an answer of if Iowa Purdue played that badly in Iowa City or if Iowa was simply a good team with a bad week last week.

NATIONAL GAMES: I have a funny feeling this week. I just have the strange feeling that Notre Dame is going to get shocked at home. I don't know what it is other than a feeling. If I was a betting man and put money on it, it wouldn't happen. I almost don't want to say anything. UCLA is no pushover and could pull off something this week. What the heck, I'll go score only: UCLA 31, Notre Dame 30.

On a more serious note, one critical game nationally is Rutgers at Pittsburgh. This game is as big in the Big East race as the Louisville-West Virginia game in two weeks. I still can't like Pittsburgh when they've lost to Michigan State. That was pre-implosion though, when the Spartans are one of the most dangerous teams in the nation. Pittsburgh 26, Rutgers 24, only because the Panthers are at home.

For my last game I am going to go with Georgia Tech at Clemson. Who knew this would be the best game in the ACC all season. With a Georgia Tech win, suddenly Wake Forest is in the driver's seat to win that division. Both teams are about one play away from being undefeated, too. This should be one hell of a ballgame, and proof that the guard of Miami, Florida State, and Virginia Tech is over for at least one year. Clemson 17, Georgia Tech 14.

NEXT UP: Reactions from Saturday's game sometime Saturday night (and if there is a miracle, me e-mailing the IU ticket office).