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The Bucket Stays (A lesson in winning ugly.)

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Tonight is a night of reflection and reaction. Many in the Indiana camp are looking forward to next season with optimism, and rightfully so. They feature a very weak non-conference schedule and a Big Ten schedule devoid of the two-headed monster that is Michigan and Ohio State. To editorialize a bit here (and I realize that every comment is editorializing when I write and edit this blog) it is Indiana's own damn fault if they don't go to a bowl next year.
Then again, it is their own damn fault they didn't go to a bowl this year, too.

I find it amusing that they are griping about us riding a weak schedule with no Michigan or Ohio State this year, when next year they plan on doing the exact same thing to get to a bowl game. They already have Central Michigan and Akron on their non-conference schedule, with two open spots. There is no Ohio State or Michigan in sight, and they get Northwestern back on the schedule. There's no reason for them not to get back to a bowl with the way their program is improving.

And improving they are. I was very impressed with the way their offensive line came together today and gave Lewis plenty of time to throw in the second half. Lewis, if he gets a decent second receiver and some sort of a running game to help him out will be a very good quarterback as he develops. Defensively they have plenty of speed and as they develop, they could be a solid unit. Give them a year, maybe two, and Indiana will at least be up to the middle of the Big Ten as far as talent and record. With no Michigan and Ohio State on the schedule for two years, they could go on a bit of a run like we did in 1997 and 1998 in terms of building for the future. We have ended our similar two-year run, and we're a step back from where we were. This is Indiana's chance to make a move.

That being said, everyone will be better next year. Northwestern, Illinois, and Minnesota were all very young this year and can only go up from here. Michigan State looks to take a step back being the only guaranteed team to have a new coach, but the Big Ten as a whole will be much, much tougher next year. We need to watch out for ourselves because I am not entirely convinced we have turned much of a corner in what was essentially a caretaker season.

We beat the seven teams we were supposed to beat because they did not go to bowls, while we have only one win so far over a bowl team in Minnesota. The true measure of our program and how far we have come will come next week at Hawaii and in our bowl game. If we win both of those to finish 10-4, then we can start looking toward next season with some serious optimism. There are still plenty of questions that needed to be answered, but as I will touch on later, we are learning to win ugly, and that is a good thing.

Looking strictly at today's game it is hard to judge either team. Indiana should have won because they rolled up 500 yards offense and had a quarterback that ran for more than 100 yards. They didn't win because they had the ball three times inside the 20-yard line and came away with a fumble, missed field goal, and a fumble on a long fumble return. Purdue should have lost because it turned the ball over five times, but it didn't because it held Indiana to 19 points.

This was a hideous game to watch for both sides, because either team could have won going away. It had all the makings of a high-scoring affair with all the yards gained, but the turnovers made both offenses look completely inept. Neither defense did much of anything to slow the opposing offenses down except when said offense made a mistake and turned the ball over. Both teams made more than their share of mistakes when it came to scoring, and I honestly cannot point to a single reason as to why Purdue was the better team today.

Throwing the ball, there is little question that Kellen Lewis owned Curtis Painter today. I don't know what Curtis' problem in home games is, but it needs to be fixed and fixed before next season. He has now thrown one touchdown pass against seven interceptions in his past three homes games, while throwing five touchdowns against just two picks in his last three road games. Lewis showed poise in staying in the pocket and picking his spots to run. He also had some very nice, long gains by running some option play fakes to perfect. Painter meanwhile was indecisive both running and throwing, and had only one interception that could be attributed to the receiver not catching a catchable ball.

The running backs were a reverse for both teams. Sheets and Taylor combined to both have solid games when given the ball. They rushed for more than 150 yards and each had a touchdown, while Taylor had some big catches out of the backfield. Indiana's backs, aside from Lewis were mostly an afterthought. They were okay, but the fumble at the goal line was much more crucial than Taylor's fumble the way things worked out.

James Hardy and Greg Orton played to a virtual draw, with both going over 100 yards receiving and finding the end zone. Hardy had bigger catches that got IU into scoring position, but a number of them were simple jump balls thrown up in one-on-one coverage against overmatched corners. David Pender saved the game with his deflection in the end zone on what was going to be a sure touchdown to Hardy, and Starr missed a field goal on the next play.

Both defenses were horrible as far as yards given up, but in terms of Points, Purdue had a clear edge. Purdue's turnovers killed at least two solid scoring drives, if not four, while Purdue's defense stiffened and forced three field goal attempts instead of giving up touchdowns. That turned out to be the difference in the game. We kept Indiana out of the end zone when it mattered most.

In the end, I think Purdue's maturity was the largest difference. We're not exactly a senior laden team, but George Hall, Anthony Spencer, and Mike Otto provided a leadership quality that Indiana was lacking. WE were able to recover from the mistakes we made and correct them by forcing another turnover or field goal, while Indiana had no such answer. The talent gap is definitely closing between the two schools, but on this day Purdue still had the edge.

Which brings me to my point about winning ugly. We have had no games this year where we have been able to coast through the second half. Even against Indiana State it was a five-point game with 5 minutes to go in the third quarter. Only against Indiana State, Ball State, Northwestern, and to some extent Illinois have we been able to build a big second half lead to the point where the outcome was never in doubt. In the other four games we have shown a resolve to pull out close games that was not there for the past several seasons.

When we needed to make one play to beat Miami we got it with the blocked kick. Yes, it looks like a bad win now, but the point is we got the win at any cost. Against Minnesota, Pender's play against Wheelright in the end zone was huge, and the defense closed them out when they were unable to a year ago. Against Michigan State we had a really, really bad game and left a lot of points on the field, but the defense found a way to make two plays, one to set up the winning score and another to preserve the win, that it would not have done a year ago.

Even today the same was true. We made a play when Indiana had a chance to tie, and the offense answered by immediately driving for a score to maintain control. Just when we could have given Indiana a huge confidence boost by tying the game in the fourth quarter we made a play when they didn't. That was the difference. That is what is still separating us from Indiana. They can complain all they want about our weak schedule, but the bottom line is that as long as they cannot take care of their own business they shouldn't be worried about ours. We were 7-0 against non-bowl eligible teams, and they were 4-2. Against bowl teams we are 1-4, with two games to play, while Indiana was 2-5. That tells me that if they are close to use in terms of talent, but they are not "obviously the better team" as some on the Peegs board are saying. I will give them they are nearly equal, but not "obviously better".

When you receive five turnovers but give four back you are not "obviously better". When you blow three chances inside the 20 you are not "obviously better". When you have three chances against teams worse than Purdue (Minnesota, Southern Illinois, Connecticut) you are not "obviously better".

My favorite argument is that we would not have gone bowling in nine out of ten years had we played Michigan and Ohio State. In 1997 and 1998 when we didn't play the two we went 8-3 and 8-4 during the regular season. In 1998 we lost to Penn State, Notre Dame, Wisconsin, and USC while knocking off the #4 team in the country in our bowl game. It would not have mattered if we had played the two, we still would have gone to a bowl. Last year it wouldn't have mattered, because we didn't go bowling anyway. This year it might have made a difference depending on who rotated off the schedule. If Wisconsin, Penn State, or Iowa were involved in any rotation, it wouldn't have mattered.

And by the way, we're 6 for 6 as far as bowl eligibility under Tiller when we do play them, going 3-9 against them head to head. Four of the losses were decided on the final possession, unlike getting blown out by a combined score of 78-6. Indiana fans say they could have been bowl eligible with our schedule this year, when they should have been bowl eligible against their own which was tougher!

Now I am not saying we are the greatest team that has ever walked the face of the earth. We are a flawed team that simply took care of business against our weaker opponents. That's what good teams do. Great teams then rise above and excel against great competition. We are not a great team, merely a good one. We're like the car I had in college. It was a good car, it got the job done and since it was a convertible (of the 1993 Chrylser Lebaron variety) it would turn a head or two, but it's not exactly a Dodge Viper. That is Purdue football. They are the Chrysler Lebaron of the Big Ten, while Indiana has improved from Yugo to Kia Sephia.

A final note about the Hoosiers is that next year will be a turning point game in the bucket rivalry. This game was fun and competitive. It felt like a rivalry game again. I will give them credit for their improvement and how they played hard today. Next year will be a turning point because it will be time for them to make a statement and bring the Bucket back to Bloomington.
We will be ready for them.

I will go more into the bowl chances and possibilities later in the week, as I'll probably be writing some on the plane to Honolulu, but we still have plenty of work to do this season. For all the crap we have taken and generally bad performances, this cans till go down as a ten win season. We now have about a 95% chance of heading to the Champs Sports bowl against an ACC opponent that will be beatable, and Hawaii is beatable if we play a solid game. We need to make ten wins our goal, as that will also mean that we got past our recent deficiencies in bowl games.

We have made our goal of having a winning season, both overall and in the Big Ten. We are going back to a bowl, and it will be a fairly decent bowl game (anything is better than Detroit). We won two of our three trophy games, and they were the most likely of the two we were going to win. We are still erratic on both side of the ball, but we are better defensively, even after giving up 500 yards, than we were at any point last year or earlier this year. We have two chances to go out and get wins against ranked teams, since Hawaii will likely be ranked and our bowl opponent from the ACC may be ranked. That's two chances to prove we're better, and we need to take advantage of them.