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SPECIAL EDITION: It’s Bucket Week!

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I couldn’t resist the extra entry this week before my typical week preview. While this isn't a full-fledge preview of the game, as that is coming tomorrow, I still wanted to take a look at how different this game is viewed by both schools.

It’s bucket week and for the first time in years both teams actually have something to play for. It is not every day that a bowl in Arizona has been chomping at the bit, just hoping the Hoosiers were eligible so they could choose them to bring their hordes of fans out for something other than basketball. It’s also the bowl that Hoosier nation has been dreaming of all year.

Of course, I am not talking about the BCS championship game, or even the Fiesta Bowl. I am talking about the Insight Bowl, the most likely bowl destination of the Hoosiers should they win the bucket on Saturday. Therein lies the difference between our two programs. We could finish the regular season 9-4 and wonder what might have been had we played better games against Iowa, Wisconsin, and Penn State. Indiana would be jubilant to finish 6-6 and get the bucket, even if a bowl game wasn't involved. Our season is a failure if we lose the bucket to Indiana, while the Hoosiers accept it as just another loss. I guess when you lose so many games they all kind of blend together. That’s what last year felt like for us, of course we still managed to come through in Bloomington rather easily.

Over the years, the Hoosiers have resorted to a number of tactics to state their overzealousness for beating Purdue. Lee Corso was well known to have a sign above his office that read, "What have you done today to beat Purdue?" It should be noted he was 4-6 against Purdue during his ten years, and carried the Hoosiers to the lofty heights of the 1979 Holiday bowl where he led them to a win over their highest ranked opponent ever. When your highest ranked win ever is over the ninth-ranked Fightin’ Mormons of BYU during an 8-4 season, you don’t have a very strong program.

This article in the IU Student Newspaper from the 1993 season shows the invective that many Indiana fans show at wanting to beat Purdue. I find it ironic that even though the Hoosiers beat us that season, making us finish at 1-10, they still only won 21-14 and were flattened by Virginia Tech 45-20 in what would be their last bowl game. That was the golden era of IU football, when Bill Mallory was king and the Hoosiers went to six of their eight total bowl games in just eight seasons. Those two years they didn’t go to a bowl were because of losses to the Boilermakers that cost them bowl eligibility. In one of those years we even had the handicap of Jim "A tie is as good as a win in the Big Ten" Colletto. During the Mallory era Purdue was in the dark ages of the Akers/Colletto dynasty and we managed to go 5-5 against them.

There are even more examples. Indiana once (and may still have) a clock in its locker room counting down until the Purdue game. This led to a recent posting on the Gold and Black forums talking about the slogan of said clock. It even goes beyond basketball as what Purdue fan hasn’t heard Bob Knight’s "I’m sick and tired of losing to f*cking Purdue!" tirade.

My point is that even when we are at our worst as a program, we have not obsessed over beating Indiana as much as Indiana obsesses over beating us. To us, beating Indiana is so commonplace that it is more shocking when we lose than when we win. Since we have not only won, but absolutely owned the Hoosiers over the eight of the last nine years, it makes events like the 2001 game seem so rare. Even then it took a driving rainstorm, a true freshman quarterback making his second start for us, an all-world talent like Antwaan Randle El, and an inches short goal line stop for the Hoosiers to barely escape with the bucket. What was Indiana’s response? They skipped the dignified midfield exchange and ran over to our sidelines to steal the bucket away.

How can we take them seriously when beating us is what makes a good season for them? How can we take Indiana seriously when we have heard what Lee Corso did with the bucket the first time he won it? How can we take them seriously when, at the 2003 Bucket Game in Bloomington a bunch of IU students showed that, definite articles be damned, they wanted the bucket by dangling a giant bed sheet sign over the edge of Memorial Stadium that read "WE WANT BUCKET!"

This was just the second funniest thing of the day, as there is another reason we can’t take seriously was a comment from my lovely wife that day. We had just been dating a year and she had recently moved to Indiana. She was attending her first bucket game with me and it happened to be in Bloomington that year. Being from Miami and seeing what good college football was like, plus having attended a pair of Purdue games at Ross-Ade Stadium with me, she was unprepared for the glorious splendor that Bloomington is on game day. As we got off of state road 37 and headed into Bloomington I pointed out Memorial Stadium on the top of the hill. Her comment was a classic, "Where’s the rest of it?’ making me laugh so hard I nearly wrecked. She was not even at her first game of this heated rivalry and she already knew instinctively what to do. This is one of many reasons that I love her so.

To Purdue fans, the bucket game has almost become just another game. We get far more worked up about playing Notre Dame than we do Indiana. Beating the Hoosiers has almost become a given. The bit of headway they made in the 80’s and 90’s in the overall series has long been offset by winning eight times in nine years. We still love to beat Indiana, but it is more because we don’t want the embarrassment of losing to the Hoosiers that other Big Ten teams feel. For us it is about keeping the bucket safe and secure in the Mollenkopf Center for another year and making sure the seniors get their chance to parade around with it like so many senior classes beforehand.

Our current senior class barely remembers what life is like without the bucket. For the handful of fifth year seniors we have on the roster that have been at Purdue all five years, they only vaguely remember getting the bucket back at the conclusion of the 2002 affair. Those seniors were freshman that likely did not play in that game as they were redshirting, and they are the only ones who know of life in West Lafayette without the bucket. The reverse is true for Indiana’s fifth year players. To add to the pain that they have played five years of bad football under three different coaches (some of them were recruited by Cam Cameron originally), they only vaguely remember something about a bucket being on campus. Maybe that is why Indiana keeps such a large picture of it on its football website, and ours is so understated.

I know that the Indiana-Purdue rivalry is relatively minor in the grand scheme of college football. I believe there has only been one season where the teams have met when they were both ranked. There was also only one season where the teams have met and both have gone to bowl games, that being the year I was born in 1979. We’re never going to have the national title game ride on what happens in the bucket game. Our score will be an afterthought at the bottom of the screen during Saturday’s Michigan-Ohio State game, much like it is every year. Historically neither of our programs have been good at the same time. Only the 1967 season comes to mind as the year that the game decided who won the Big Ten. Indiana won that year to share the championship with us and Minnesota, and went to its only Rose Bowl. Because the state of Indiana has been so talent poor for so many years it has been hard for both programs to be successful at the same time. I don't think it is a coincidence that Purdue has improved as we have relied on more and more out of state recruits while Indiana has placed importance on winning the state. It's important for Purdue to keep the good recruits at home, but coach Tiller has seen that recruiting is a national game and that is where his efforts have dominated Indiana.

Drew Brees was from Texas. Kyle Orton was from Iowa. The bulk of our 2003 defense came from states like New Jersey, Texas, Michigan, and California. Tiller used a quirky offense to turn us around immediately in his first two years, then that allowed a niche to form where we got more out of state recruits into our system. Having a player like Drew Brees come along certainly didn't hurt either. It is because of this early success that we have been able to sustain it into a modest run of nine bowls in ten years. Sure, we have never seriously contended for a national title and only have eon one conference title in that time, but when you look at all 119 Division 1-A schools that is good enough to place us in the top 40. Compared to where we were (and where Indiana has been) that is fantastic. It's hard to contend for a national title in one year, let alone every year. When it comes time for Tiller to step aside, the program will be in much better shape than it was when he came in ten years ago.

This is what Indiana needs to get going. They need a breakthrough year, and then they need to sustain it. Illinois broke through in 2001, and then has fallen apart ever sense. Minnesota has improved, but is still on a level just below us. Northwestern is erratic, but it will always be difficult to sustain success there. Iowa seems to be going through some of the fits we experienced a few years ago. Don't even get me started on Michigan State. Michigan, Ohio State, and to some extent Penn State and Wisconsin will always be at the top, and we're always just outside trying to join them with Iowa.

It is still our rivalry though. Even though I think Purdue takes Notre Dame more seriously as a football rival, Indiana has been a rival for longer and becomes more of a matter of state pride when we play. If you ask the average Purdue fan, the bucket is still important to us. We certainly don't want to see Indiana have it. It is just not the end all, be all of our season like it is for IU.

Honestly, if the Hoosiers continue to improve it could mean a bit of a dip for our own program. Still, I would like to see them improve to make this rivalry interesting again. Coach Hoeppner has them pointed in the right direction, and maybe one day they won't need to make the bucket game their bowl game, but be able to treat it like we treat it. We have arrived at the point where we can view our seasons in terms of how well we do in the Big Ten and bowl placement. With improvement, Indiana can get there as well, and that will only be good for the rivalry.

So on the eve of this bucket game I hope I have taken a kind view of the rivalry without resorting to childish name calling and trailer park jokes. I feel I have gotten some jibes in, but still shown that I respect Indiana as a rival even though it hasn't been very close for a few years.

I promise to be a little snider in my game preview and prediction tomorrow.