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Best Wins of the Tiller Era #2: Kansas State 1998

Before we reach the penultimate game on the countdown I must do some shameless pimping. I have long been a fan of my Big Ten blogging brethren at Lake the Posts. Anyone who devotes that much time to Northwestern athletics (which is having a very successful spring in women’s tennis, lacrosse, and softball) is either a sadist because of the basketball program or a diehard fan. He does great work over there in covering the one program in the Big Ten that everyone forgets about until they find themselves on the business end of another shocking upset. Earlier this week I played Q&A in a guest role over there, giving my thoughts on the upcoming season and my impressions of the Northwestern program.

My second promotion goes in the direction of fellow blogger Nittany White Out. There are nearly half a dozen Penn State blogs in the network, but Nittany White Out is in the midst of counting down the toughest venues to play at in the Big Ten from a visitor’s perspective. It’s a neat series in that he has several great shots of all the Big Ten venues. His review of Purdue is nearly dead on, placing Ross-Ade 7th out of the 11 home venues ahead of the Memorial Stadiums, Ryan Field, and the Metrodome. It’s definitely worth a look not just for his opinions of Ross-Ade, but his evaluations of each stadium in general. I agree with him for the most part. With a few more wins over ranked teams we can move up, but it is hard to see us ahead of anyone else except maybe Michigan State.

That brings us to game #2 in the countdown. This game was the overwhelming runner-up with 95 votes. It also marks the highest ranked opponent that Joe Tiller has beaten in his career. Kansas State was ranked 4th coming into the 1998 Alamo Bowl, having been one play away from playing for a national title. They felt they should have been in the BCS, and probably rightfully so. Too bad they should have paid attention to their bowl opponent a little bit more, as some lightly regarded quarterback made a national name for himself back in his home state that night.

Date: December 28, 1998

Place: Alamodome, San Antonio, Texas

Incoming Purdue record: 8-4

Incoming Kansas State record: 11-1 (ranked 4th)

After a 3-4 start to the season that included losses at USC, Notre Dame, Wisconsin, and Penn State Purdue was one of the hottest teams in the country. The Kansas State Alamo Bowl would come in Tiller’s hottest period as head coach. It would be the 6th win in a row for the Boilers, and that streak would grow to a nation’s best (at the time) ten in a row before a visit to Ann Arbor the next season. We came into the Alamo Bowl on quite a roll, but it all came against the bottom of the Big Ten. Our five straight wins were over Illinois, Iowa, Northwestern, Michigan State, and a 52-7 drubbing of Indiana in the Bucket Game. Since I was a freshman that season, I certainly didn’t mind our spotless 6-0 mark at Ross-Ade, but when Rice and Central Florida (with Daunte Culpepper) were among our best home wins we didn’t exactly face a murderer’s row.

Less than ten years before this game Kansas State was one of the worst teams in college football. Bill Snyder had performed a near miracle in even getting them to respectability, let alone make them one of the handful of teams competing for the 1998 national title. The year before this one Kansas State blasted everyone in their path on their way to a Fiesta Bowl win. Only a 56-26 loss to eventual co-National champ Nebraska prevented a perfect season. Since 1998 was the first year of the BCS the Wildcats had their eye on returning to the Fiesta Bowl for the national title game. They were perfect through their first 11 games, but a Big 12 championship game loss in double-OT to Texas A&M ended the dream on a day when UCLA also saw its undefeated season end at Miami in a game delayed by a hurricane. That meant the first BCS championship would have unbeaten Tennessee against one-loss Florida State, instead of having to pick between three unbeatens.

I remember being at home just before finals and tuning into the bowl selection show. Kansas State was nowhere on my mind, as many were talking of a return to San Antonio as a reward for another good year. Surely K-State was going to get one of the two at large BCS bids. I was overjoyed to see us back in San Antonio, until I saw vs. 4 Kansas State on the other side of the screen. I turned to my brother-in-law and told him, "well, at least we get to play one of the best teams in the country." ESPN even rated K-State’s snub as the ninth biggest mistake in BCS history.

The Game:

Kansas State certainly did not want to be there and played like it. Being the #4 team in the country they brought a large contingent to San Antonio, but a bad attitude too. To them, playing the Boilers was an insult. We didn’t deserve to be on the same field as them. The funny thing is that if it wasn’t for our own mistakes such as giving them two touchdowns off of bad snaps, we probably would have blown them out.

I was home for Christmas break and I went over to my sister’s house to watch this game with my brother-in-law. Since I grew up without brothers we were going through that period in life where he was a good older brother influence on me as he and my sister began to have their own kids. We watched a ton of games together in those early Tiller years, so the Alamo Bowl was an event for us. Purdue did not disappoint in this one.

Purdue’s defense was absolutely brilliant for three quarters. They played perhaps the best game a Purdue defense has ever played in the opening 45 minutes. K-State quarterback Michael Bishop was one of the best players in the nation at the time. He was runner-up for the Heisman and even the country’s best defenses couldn’t figure him out. We made him our bitch. Purdue sacked Bishop, a very mobile quarterback, six times, picked him off four times, and forced him to fumble once in a game that surely caused his draft stock to plummet like Enron. All told he was 9 of 24 on the night for 184 yards, 88 of which came on one play.

As a whole the defense forced seven turnovers and Kansas State committed 125 yards worth of penalties. It’s amazing that this game was as close as it was. Billy Gustin was the beneficiary of two of those Bishop INT’s. I also think Rosevelt Colvin and Chike Okeafor still have the deed to Michael Bishop somewhere.

The teams played a scoreless first quarter but Purdue broke through just 13 seconds into the second quarter when Drew Brees hit Chris Daniels with a five yard scoring pass. The play was set up by a fumble recovery late in the first quarter by John Reeves in K-State territory. Purdue then added a field goal before its first big mistake allowed Kansas State to get on the board. A bad snap on a punt attempt gave the Wildcats the ball at the Purdue one yard line and they scored on a one yard pass to make it 10-7. As poorly as K-State played on offense in the first half they had seven points after a mere 1 yard "drive".

Purdue quickly got it back when Brees found Isaac Jones a little more than a minute later for a 30-yard touchdown pass. That gave Purdue a 17-7 lead at the half, and many felt it could have been a lot more. Everyone forgets that Brees threw three interceptions in this game, but I’ll forgive him for everything else he did. Since he also had 230 yards passing and three touchdowns.

Once again Purdue gave the Wildcats seven points midway through the third when a second bad snap on a punt was recovered in the end zone. Brian and I were incredibly frustrated at this point because Purdue’s defense was playing lights out. Kansas State had barely sniffed the Purdue end of the field, but our own special teams had handed them 13 points. Martin Gramatica missed the extra point, and the Boiler defense would get it back.

Late in the third Kansas State was pinned back inside its own 10 when Purdue’s defense struck again. David Nugent recovered David Allen’s fumble in the end zone to make it 24-13 with just a minute to go in the third quarter. Another Bishop interception gave Purdue the ball back on Kansas State’s next play and it would lead to a field goal. Purdue led 27-13 after three quarters, and really should have been up at least 27-0.

Kansas State finally got a drive going that yielded points with its first possession of the final quarter. Allen scored from three yards out, but Purdue would respond with another field goal drive to make it 30-20 with 6:44 left. As well as our defense had played to that point everything seemed in hand.

That false sense of security lasted one play, as Bishop found speedster Darnell McDonald for an 88 yard touchdown. Purdue failed to score on its next drive, and Kansas State put together a final drive for a score with 1:24 left to take a 34-30 lead. Brian threw a nerf ball at the TV and sat back to sulk. I was shocked, most likely swearing up a storm. As well as Purdue had played it appeared we were going to blow it late. It was especially frustrating because we were the better team all game, only to lose it in the end.

Drew Brees had other ideas.

The sequence above doesn’t even do it justice. I can’t even give it justice with words except to say this was the greatest multi-play drive in Purdue football history. On the drive Brian went from sitting all the way back in his chair to the edge when Jones caught the winning TD. Each play moved him forward a few inches until the touchdown made him jump out of it. I’m sure we woke up my sister with our yelling, but we didn’t care. Kansas State got the ball back with some time, but Reeves, in a career that saw him move from hated quarterback to loved safety, ended the game and his career with an interception he nearly returned for a touchdown. Purdue had won 37-34 in the biggest upset under Tiller.

After the Game:

"I feel for every player in that (locker) room, every coach and every Kansas State fan that showed up here in San Antonio. Tonight was the culmination of three weeks of disappointment." -- Bill Snyder, Kansas State head coach on losing to Purdue

This was back in the days when a top team losing to Purdue was still an embarrassment. I wish I had been in San Antonio for this one, as everyone I have talked to said it was an incredible atmosphere. I have mentioned that my parents have a time share in Breckenridge, Colorado that they visit every year in September. They used to drive out there across Kansas and eat breakfast near Manhattan. Nearly every year after this game they received middle fingers and honks toward the Purdue sticker on their car, to which they simply waived back. It’s a loss that K-State fans still can’t believe happened.

I remember hearing a reporter ask Tiller after the game what he felt the following season would bring since it would get a lot tougher with Michigan and Ohio State returning to the schedule. His response was, "We just beat the number four team in the country, how much tougher can it get?" I also remember the game’s commentator stating after Brees’ winning pass that, "the groan you hear is the other 10 defensive coordinators in the Big Ten groaning that they have to face this guy for two more years."

This win was the middle act of our path to the Rose Bowl. The dream started with the win over Notre Dame in 1997, grew legs in this game, and became a reality in the final game of our countdown.