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Best wins of the Tiller Era #13: Wisconsin 1997

I have been a Purdue season ticket holder for many years. I started going to games with my parents in 1988. I maintained season tickets with them until becoming a student in the fall of 1998. I got tickets all four years as a student and have gotten tickets each year since graduation. Because of commitments during my senior year of high school, however, I missed a pair of games during Tiller's first season in 1997. To the best of my knowledge, I have only missed a total of four home games since Joe Tiller became coach, but two of those were in the 1997 season. One of those games is the game I am reviewing today. The Wisconsin game from 1997 was the third game of four that received a single vote in my poll. It was significant because it was the game that made my father, an alumnus and season ticket holder for much longer than I, believe in Purdue football.

A little background is in order for my dad. He is a 1975 graduate of the Purdue school of Pharmacy. He is far from being the sports fan that I am, but the one sport he has always carried a strong interest in is Purdue football. As a student, he suffered many losing seasons under Bob Demoss and Alex Agase (the later he nicknamed the Agase of Defeat). He has had season tickets since before I can remember. His reasoning, as he once put it, was, "We get to see a lot of good football, unfortunately none of it is Purdue. We get to see Michigan, Ohio State, Notre Dame, Penn State…" Since I was a kid he always promised that if Purdue ever went to the Rose Bowl, my mother and I would be going with him. Obviously, this never seemed like a realistic dream for many years.

At the beginning of each season my parents always miss a game or two, as they have a time-share in Breckenridge, Colorado at the beginning of September. During the 1997 season they missed both the Notre Dame and Ball State games because of this. Since I was able to attend that great Notre Dame game with my brother-in-law and his brother, I was continually talking about how Purdue was no longer the same old Purdue, and that my dad might have to actually fulfill his Rose Bowl promise. He hadn't attended a game before this Wisconsin game, so he didn't believe me. After this Wisconsin game he came up to me and said, "You know son, you just might be right about this team." The Wisconsin game in 1997 made my dad believe that he might actually see his Boilers play in Pasadena. Three years later, on New Year's Day of 2001 all three of us were in the Rose Bowl to watch the Boilers, and I have the Wisconsin game from 1997 to thank for re-igniting that dream.

Date: October 18, 1997

Place: Ross-Ade Stadium West Lafayette, Indiana

Incoming Purdue record: 4-1, 2-0 Big Ten

Incoming Wisconsin record: 6-1, 3-0 Big Ten (ranked 24th)

Since 1984 Purdue had not had a season with more than four wins before this day. Sure, we technically had a five win season under Jim Colletto thanks to a forfeit win over Michigan State, but a technicality is about the only way Colletto would have had a winning season. The truth is that we actually lost that Michigan State game, and the ineligible player used would not have made a difference. Our best start in that long 13 year period was a 4-1-1 start in 1994 with Mike Alstott leading the way. In typical Colletto fashion, however, we stumbled to a 4-5-2 finish. It should be noted, however, that a tie is as good as a win in the Big Ten, so we must have been 6-5.

Wisconsin was in the midst of another strong year. They had opened the season with a 34-0 loss to Syracuse in the defunct Kickoff Classic, but carried a six game winning streak into this game. They were also in the hunt for another Big Ten title, a goal they would reach in the following two seasons thanks to some guy named Ron Dayne. The Badgers had squeezed out one point wins over Indiana and Northwestern before dumping Illinois. They carried a #24 ranking into Ross-Ade that day, and quickly found out they would be the second straight ranked team to fall to the Boilers that season.

The Game:

Purdue made very short work of the Badgers, jumping out to a 28-3 lead and coasting the rest of the way. This win was more impressive than the Notre Dame game simply because Purdue imposed its will from start to finish. Many people still thought our 4-1 record was a fluke, especially with the Toledo loss still lingering. Wisconsin, however, was one of the best teams in the conference. Purdue took them behind the woodshed thanks to its fast start.

Edwin Watson made himself very familiar with the end zone on this day, scoring three times and racking up 82 yards on the ground. Willie Tillman got Purdue on the board first on a six-yard TD pass from Billy Dicken less than two minutes into the game. This followed a 42 yard scramble by Dicken and a 40 yard pass to Isaac Jones. A pair of defensive stops led to touchdown runs of 75 yards and 1 yard by Watson, as he was very efficient in doing all his work on just nine carries. Purdue led 21-0 after one quarter and never looked back.

Purdue had a very balanced attack on this day, lighting up what was a good Badger defense for 559 yards. 355 yards came through the air while another 2004 came on the ground. Back then, as is true now, it was very hard for Purdue to lose when it rushed for 200 yards or more as a team. It may have been even more true back then as we were much more pass-happy. Still, Kendall Matthews and Watson led a strong running attack that reminds me a lot of our current duo of Kory Sheets and Jaycen Taylor.

In my research for this game I found a very thorough review at this site. The stat that stands out to me is that we only had the ball for 3 minutes and 14 seconds combined on our three first quarter scoring drives. I remember that Purdue team having a great quick-strike ability, but it was especially evident in this game. On Watson's long run it was a simple handoff up the middle, but the line opened a gaping hole and Watson was gone untouched for 75 yards. Having seen Wisconsin's defense for many years it is clear that that was an atypical performance against the run, therfore credit must be given to our line for opening those holes.

Billy Dicken, who is one of the more underrated quarterbacks in my alma mater's storied history, threw for three touchdowns in the game. He added to Tillman's score in the second half by tossing a second quarter touchdown to Jones and a fourth quarter TD to Vinny Sutherland. The final TD gave Purdue a very comfortable 42-20 lead with little more than seven minutes left. At the time, Tiller was the master of the closing TD. If he felt we needed another late TD to break a team, we went out and got it. We saw it earlier that season in the win over Notre Dame when Tiller went for the late score to put us up two scores as opposed to sitting on a four point lead.

Of note for Wisconsin in this game was the performance of Ron Dayne. Dayne, who eventually became the NCAA Division 1 all-time leading rusher, had 141 yards on the ground with a touchdown. He suffered a first half knee injury in the first half, however, and was very limited in the second half, further hampering Wisconsin's efforts at a comeback.

After the game:

Wisconsin went on to have a marginally successful season, playing in the Outback bowl on New Year's Day but losing big to Georgia. The Badgers' Big Ten title hopes took a severe hit though, and losing the last two games of the regular season to Michigan and Penn State finished them off. Wisconsin closed at 8-5, 5-3 in the Big Ten, but lost several big games (sound familiar?). They would learn from their mistakesand bounce back to win consecutive Rose Bowls. So far they are the only Big Ten school to do so.

For Purdue the win meant legitimacy. The win over Notre Dame earlier in the year was nice, but could still have been considered a fluke. Beating the Badgers, especially in such dominating fashion, meant that Purdue was suddenly a contender right then and there for the Big Ten championship. The Boilers also got their first national ranking in a quite some time after this game.

Purdue would stay in the Big Ten race for another game and a half. The Boilers trounced Illinois 48-3 the following week in Champaign, but a dismal second half in Iowa City ended the 1997 dream of a Big Ten title. Purdue led the Hawkeyes 17-14 at the half before falling apart. A similar effort two weeks later against Penn State formally ended Purdue's dreams of Pasadena.

As I stated though, the win gave legitimacy for the program. Most importantly, it set things up for Purdue to go to its first bowl game in 13 years. That bid was clinched in the win over Illinois, and further solidified with a comeback win over Michigan State and trouncing of Indiana in Bloomington. The Boilers went on to finish 9-3 and win the Alamo bowl in a game that will appear later on the countdown. This was the rare season in that most of Purdue's wins came in such dominating fashion. Aside from the heroics against the Spartans, Purdue won every single game by at least 11 points. Many times Purdue went out and simply stomped its competition, which made the record and recovery from the previous seasons' 3-8 mark all the more shocking.

This win over Wisconsin announced to the rest of the Big Ten that Purdue would be a force in the conference. While we have been far from that dominant for many years, we have proven over the long haul to be a tough out in nearly every game. Since beating Wisconsin we have never had a season of less than five overall wins or three conference wins. That may not seem like much, but compared to all 120 Division 1-A teams nationally over the last 11 seasons it is actually quite good.

Finally, this win meant, at least for a short time, that Ross-Ade would be a very difficult place for opponents to play. We have never had a dominating home-field advantage, but from the beginning of the 1997 season through the closing of the 2000 season Purdue went 21-3 at the friendly confines of Ross-Ade Stadium This included two perfect 6-0 marks in 1998 and 2000. We even won the first three games of the 2001 season to push that mark to 24-3. These marks may seem quite modest for some teams, but trust me when I say this was literally earth shattering for long-time Purdue fans who probably hadn't seen 24 home wins in the past 15 years or more. The only three losses in that time came to Penn State in 1997 and 1999 (ranked in the top 10 each time) and Wisconsin in 1999 (the Big Ten champion featuring that year's Heisman winner).