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BOWL BOUND!!!!!!

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Since my mother's birthday is on Monday and she has never been to a Purdue game away from Ross-Ade Stadium, we decided to make the last minute trek over to Champaign and treat her to the game. We've been back home for about an hour and a half now, after a wonderful dinner at the famous Beef House (a first for us!), and we're just beginning to thaw out. Even though this was perhaps the coldest, most miserable Purdue football game I have ever attended aside from the 2001 bucket game, we're all smiles because the Boilers are going bowling again. My birthday trip to Northwestern in October ended in a win, and fortunately the Boilers came through for my mom today.

As I said on Thursday afternoon, we needed to take care of business as soon as possible lest we let a bowl game get away. Things were a little dicey for awhile today, but we got it done. We got our third straight win on the road and overcame some adversity to get it done. I was very impressed how we once again forced critical turnovers and overcame a second half deficit in order to get a big win. I think we can all agree that we very well could be 5-6 heading back to Ross-Ade right now and needing two tough wins just to get to a bowl.

Getting to a bowl after everything that has happened since the fumble is huge for this team. It means extra weeks of practice. It means another chance to play a game. It means national exposure for recruiting. I can't overstate how big this is for us as a program with everything that has happened. Yes, we have played badly in our four losses, but let's look at this from some perspective. Right now, Iowa looks like the worst loss since they have gone into the toilet. Outside of them we have lost to two 1-loss teams, and to a Penn State team in the worst game we have played offensively in more than a decade.

The more important thing to look at is the fact we are 7 for 7 in games against teams we should have beaten. Of our wins, only Michigan State was a question mark coming into the season, and since they have since folded the tent up as usual it has become a game we needed to win. The only team we have beaten that has a chance to go to a bowl now is Minnesota, and that is a good sign because it means we have beaten whom we should beat. If we had lost any of the games we have won so far, it would be a sign we're headed further down. Instead, we have lost only to bowl eligible teams. Yes, this means we aren't really improving, but at least we're leveling out and maybe headed on an upswing. Assuming we beat Indiana, the Hawaii game actually gives us another chance to show we're improving. They may be ranked by then, and the last time I checked beating a ranked team on the road is a good thing.

Granted, we should take today's win with some context. We were flat out struggling against a 2-8 team until they started dropping the football and letting us pick it up. Still, there are plenty of positive things to look at. The first of which is the running game. We faced a team that has had a fairly stout running defense of late and run for more than 200 yards. Within our offense it is almost impossible to lose if we manage to rush for more than 200 yards as a team. I especially like how we went back to how we should have been running the ball all season, and that is through the shotgun option with two backs. Honestly, this is our best rushing formation, and with the way Painter faked the shit out of everyone in the entire stadium on his 42-yard TD run we need to run it more against the less talented teams we face.

I was also very pleased with the way the defense forced turnovers. I know I am mentioning this second, but that is only because it is the most obvious positive of the day. I don't know how much of it was simply Illinois being careless with the football, but any time you get five turnovers it is almost impossible to lose. We also got our first defensive score of the season with McGee's recovery in the end zone. While the defense gets credit for the forced fumble and recovery, much of the credit needs to go to Jared Armstrong and his punt that dribble out of bounds at the two. This gave Illinois the poor field position we needed to set up a play like that.

The other four turnovers were simply table settings, and the offense was able to come through with finishing them off. I was actually surprised to see we gave up more than 400 yards on defense, especially since we ended four straight drives after one play or less with turnovers. Credit needs to be given to the coaching staff for being inventive after each turnover and going for the jugular. I was concerned that we had given up on the running game when we fell behind by nine in the third quarter, but we mixed things up very well. This team is going to be more successful if we run more and pass less since that is the style of quarterback that Painter seems to be. He is great at hiding the ball and taking off, and he did that very well today.

Another positive today was the way we spread the ball around, not only to different receivers, but different rushers as well. If you look at the box score, we have five different players run the ball and eight different players catch a pass. Perhaps the best example is Dorien Bryant. We have pissed and moaned about getting the ball in his hands more and more after every game this year. Since he seems hell bent on dropping easy passes (I counted three today), why not work him into the offense the way he was last year with the two back shotgun set. We did that today, and he responded with 32 yards rushing and a TD. Giving him the ball on a handoff is much easier than on a pass, and it often gives him more space to create.

Next, we were lucky. We took advantage of some bad coaching decisions today, otherwise known as the Ron Zook special. Illinois is down by 11 with a fourth down on the 15 (or so) yard line. It's 4th and long, and you need two scores to tie regardless. Your kicker has already made 3 field goals on a very windy day. Why not kick and go for onside kick down by 8 (one score)? This was just a dumbass play by Illinois that ended up handing us the game with more than four minutes left. One other positive is that we did field the one onside kick we faced very well.

We also scored 42 points today. This is the most we have scored since the Indiana State game. All this was against a defense that held the #1 team in the country to 17 points. Granted, we got many of those points off of turnovers, but they are still points. When you look at statistics points are all that matter. We could have given up 7,000 yards on defense, as long as we had more points than Illinois I would not have cared.

One last positive I want to mention is Anthony Spencer. He has been a star for us all year, but he was simply a terror today. Not only did he have another handful of tackle for loss, but he also forced a fumble that was recovered for a TD, sniffed out a trick play single-handedly, and generally force Juice Williams to panic all day long. Spencer simply did what he wanted to do, when he wanted to do it, and only Williams' sheer elusiveness prevent him from having about four more sacks.

With all the positives today, it was easy to ignore the negatives as we warmed up by cheering everything that happened in the last 20 minutes of the game. Still we did have some problems. First of all is Chris Summers. I really don't mean to harp on the kid, because he is honestly the best option we have for field goals, but he has clearly lost his confidence on field goals. I say on field goals because everywhere else in the kicking game he is money. On extra points he couldn't be more perfect. On kickoffs he is putting the ball exactly where it needs to be placed. When his kicks appear to be short it is because he is instructed to kick a high, pop-up type of kick that is intended to come down on the 20 and let the coverage team hold them there. If you notice, that is exactly what he does. It is clearly something mental that is allowing him to miss field goals at this point, since he's missing them from the same distance each week.

I know he is out there giving it his best effort, and I credit him for it. I know he has the talent and the leg to be a great kicker, if he ever gets the accuracy down. I am still preaching patience on him, because I know he can get it together. If he comes in next year and has a stellar year, then all will be forgotten. Yes, he has struggled this year, but he has yet to cost us a game directly. Kicking is the hardest position on the team behind quarterback, and it's an awful lot of pressure for a true freshman walk-on to handle. As fans we're going to have to buckle down and realize that for the immediate future he's our best option, so let's support him instead of boo him and call for his head. I propose that we back him up both on the message boards and in the stands. Let's see what a little positive reinforcement can do.

Chris, if you're reading this, I still believe in you and I know you can be great. You can turn it around, just be patient and relax each time you're out there. You are doing something that 99% of the population can't even do on an extra point. You still have this fan's support and I know you can do it.

Once again, dropped passes were the bane of the offense. There were at least seven dropped passes that could have been caught, and a number of other passes where I openly wondered where Painter was throwing the ball. The one interception we had was one of the ugliest picks we have thrown all season. Still, these were not our undoing. We were still aggressive and went for the throat offensively when we needed to. Even throwing the ball for a first down when we were up 11 with 2 minutes to go was ballsy. That's the Cowboy Joe we all have come to know and love, because they can't score if they don't have the ball.

We also probably allowed a bit too much on the ground. Much of it came from Williams running on a scramble and using his sheer athletic ability to allude tacklers, but 300+ yards given up on the ground is not good. It does improve our passing stats though, and I think it bodes well next week when we face an Indiana team that has a similar style of offense and quarterback.
That is just about it as far as negatives go from this game. Again, this is just a great win that we needed. We needed to show that we could take care of business at the first opportunity when it comes to clinching a bowl bid. For all the good that came from the beginning of the 2004 season it still took us five chances to clinch a bowl bid. We did it this season in our first chance to do so. Now we get to play for bowl positioning

The good news is that the Indiana game may not even matter. I think we can all agree that the Big Ten will get two BCS berths because of Wisconsin. The Badgers may sneak in to BCS bid #2 if Michigan absolutely destroys Ohio State, but still, the top three are going BCS, BCS, Capitol One bowl. That leaves us and Penn State for the Outback bowl. Penn State likely goes there, so we go to the Champs Sports bowl or the Alamo, depending on which of the two actually selects fourth. If Minnesota beats Iowa next week it means we can't have the Hawkeyes picked ahead of us, and will someone actually pick Minnesota or Indiana ahead of us if we lose to the Hoosiers? It sucks that the Penn State game was essentially the Outback Bowl playoff, but thankfully a good SEC team won't destroy us unless we beat IU AND Hawaii, Penn State loses to Michigan State, and we get picked to go to Tampa.

I'll save the bulk of my bowl thoughts for the Big Ten wrap up on Monday or Tuesday, but I think we locked up not just a bowl game today, but a decent bowl. Let's enjoy the fact we're going bowling again period. I sat through the Akers and Colletto years as a kid, and I can't imagine waiting 13 years for another bowl. One year was bad enough, and that streak is now over. Let's celebrate that tonight and concentrate on beating the Hoosiers.

I think it is cute how they think they have a chance to get the bucket. Maybe we'll send them a picture of it.