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Turning Point?

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In the fall of 2004 Purdue reached the alleged high point of the program under the guidance of Joe Tiller. After a 5-0 start the Boilers were ranked 5th in the nation. Kyle Orton was a legitimate threat to win the Heisman and GameDay was in town for the Wisconsin game. Purdue was actually on the short list for the national championship, something that had not seriously been discussed in four decades.

Then the Fumble happened.

Purdue has been on a slide ever since. The slide appeared to reach an eerily similar bottom today when a phantom fumble by Curtis Painter, on another quarterback keeper for a first down that would all but seal the game, gave Central Michigan the ball back with new life. The Chips marched down the field with ease, scored a touchdown, and got the go ahead 2-point conversion on a gutsy call. Beating the MAC, As near to a sure thing as we have gotten under Tiller, no longer seemed so sure. We were getting the ball back with time, but after the offense had struggled all day there was zero confidence in the stands.

You could feel it in the stadium. We had had enough. Every pessimistic fan knew, even after a good return and fifteen yard penalty gave us good field position, we were in for another gut-wrenching loss in a long string of them.

Then something happened. Mr. Kory Sheets said he had enough. The much maligned running back ripped off one of the best plays of his career with a 46 yard touchdown run that not only rewrote the Purdue record books, but possibly saved the 2008 football season.

Central Michigan and Wisconsin are on different levels in the world of college football. Beating one in a close game does not necessarily mean you will beat the other. That game in 2004 and today’s game, however, were similar in that Purdue had a chance to end it, but an unfortunate turn of events reversed the scoreboard and put the Boilers unexpectedly against the ropes with less than two minutes to play. On that fall day in 2004, we crumbled and it sent the program into a four year tail spin. Today we responded to adversity and maybe, just maybe, turned that tailspin around.

This was another ugly game. We did not play well enough to win while Central Michigan showed that they are a very, very good football team. Dan LeFevour can play quarterback for nearly any team in the country and make them better. Our own highly touted quarterback had his third straight underwhelming performance. The entire team itself seemed to be missing the fire it had a week earlier. There are still maddening things that need to be worked on. We still treat a dump off over the rush to a running back like it is a legal play. The defense would play great one moment, then struggle to tackle or pursue the ballcarrier for two more. We made mistakes that need to be corrected now.

But the brighter point is that we responded to adversity. We got up off the canvas and actually delivered a counterpunch to win the game. The Chippewas are a very good team. They are even better than last year. They certainly could at least be in the top half of our opponents in terms of difficulty. LeFevour alone would give any number of teams trouble. For once we had an answer. Now that we have done it against a team even lowly perceived as Central Michigan the next step is to keep it going next week at Notre Dame.

Positives from the Central Michigan game:

Kory Sheets – A thread was started tonight on the GBI boards discussing if Sheets is the best running back that Purdue has ever had. We’ve long been known as the cradle of quarterbacks, so running backs have never been high on that list. The names Armstrong, Keyes, and Alstott are obviously in that discussion. If Sheets continues to play as he has the past three games, he will find his name in that discussion.

His first touchdown of the day tied Alstott’s record, and it came the way many of his 43 career scores have. It was a patient 1-yard plunge that tied the game. The record breaker was what we expected from Kory since day one. It was an explosive, unexpected big play in the open field that caught the other team at the worst time. Right now, Kory Sheets is the offensive MVP of this football team. If the passing game ever gets up to speed like we’re accustomed to, Sheets will give us a running threat that will make us very dangerous. At the very least, he needs to be considered one of the top five running backs in the Big Ten.

Frank Duong – If this kid doesn’t play a down the rest of the season he has already earned all the respect he needs from me. Here is an undersized, 5th year former walk-on that earned a scholarship just this year. When he came to Purdue, coaches probably never expected him to play a down. You can see when he plays that he gives every ounce of himself into every play simply because if he didn’t, he would have never seen the field. He’s not the biggest, strongest, or fastest guy, but his heart has earned him every second of playing time. Today he had the biggest play of his career with his pick six. Like Jake Standeford last year, he is an example every single player needs to follow.

Aaron Valentin – He only had one catch, but it was a tough catch and a huge runt hat setup a badly needed touchdown. The offense had been mired in a funk for several quarters and Valetin gave it a swift kick in the pants with his 57 yard catch and run. I only wish he had gone down earlier instead of flopping the ball around wildly at the end.

Dwight McLean – Dwight was in on a number of tackles, but made a very nice play with his sealing interception. As elated as I was when Sheets scored, the general consensus in my section was that there was too much time left. When the Chips quickly got across midfield our fears were confirmed. McLean made a big play reading the ball in the air and ending it then and there. Again, I wish he had just fallen down instead of risking a fumble on a return, but nothing bad happened.

Torri Williams – Torri had a couple of big hits, but one play in particular stands out. Late in the fourth quarter, just before Purdue got the ball back on the drive that ended in Painter’s phantom fumble, Williams played the ball perfectly in the air down the sideline and knocked away a potentially long pass. That was big at the time, and would have been bigger if not for the late fumble.

Joe Tiller – It was a fairly quiet game for Joe. He showed some gumption and actually went for it in the right spots. He had the defense actually make some adjustments that worked for most of the second and third quarters. Most importantly, he is mentioned here simply because no other Purdue coach has ever one 85 football game for us. Though he has taken some flack in recent years, I thank Joe for everything he has done for Purdue.

I actually heard comments in my section today about how Colletto had better defenses when he was here and play tougher schedules. I thought this was insane. Tiller has built this program into a regular postseason participant and has at least elevated us out of the cellar of the Big Ten. He also gave us three New Years Day bowls and 10 bowls total. As long as it is a step along the journey up from here on, I am fine with that. Thanks again, Joe. Even though win #85 should have come while ago, it is well deserved.

Negatives from the Central Michigan game:

Defending the running back screen – This is not a difficult concept to understand. Still, we have been vulnerable to this play for years. When you have an avalanche of guys pressuring the quarterback and he keeps dumping the ball off to his running back for huge gains maybe, just maybe, we should assign a linebacker, safety, cornerback, towel boy, or someone to cover the running back no matter what and light him up as soon as he catches the ball.

This is not hard to stop. The most infuriating thing is that we continue to struggle stopping it. A team runs it, has success, and we don’t adjust. When they lined up for the two point conversion I actually said they should run the same play again. Even if they announced they were running the same play as they lined up I doubted our ability to stop it. It’s like they were playing Playstation and kept running it over and over again (aka HB iso strongside with trips left).If we had figured out how to stop this and the QB scramble we would have held Central Michigan to half its yards gained.

Curtis Painter – The pick was atrocious. The rest was very safe as we appeared afraid to throw the ball more than five yards down field. Curtis continues to stare down receivers and needs to both look for other guys and learn to tuck and run again. I am tempted to say he played better last week.

I saw only a handful of plays inside Follet’s of the Notre Dame-Michigan State game. As much as I hate to say it, Jimmy Montana is a better quarterback than Painter. From what little I saw, Jimmy actually moved his head and scanned the field for open guys. When Curtis has the ball, if he’s not looking your way you might as well lay down because you’re not getting the ball. At least he did spread the ball around and got 8 receivers involved.

Receiver blocking – It would have helped if we had run more than swing passes, but our receivers were horrible on blocking and didn’t allow any gains after receptions. Much was made in training camp about how the receivers were blocking more, but it did not show today.

Containing a running quarterback – Every lesson we learned from containing the Oregon quarterbacks last week was forgotten. We got good pressure on LeFevour, but when he did run he had all day to run. What will Terrelle Pryor or Kellen Lewis do to us?

Using the tight end – I know Dustin Keller is gone, but do we even have tight ends we use as receivers anymore? This is especially frustrating because Jeff Lindsay, one of the few 4-star recruits we have gotten lately, isn’t even being used despite his tenacity.

Final thoughts:

This can be a huge step forward for us if we let it. The theme of this article has been one of redemption from adversity. We turned the normal fortunes of this program. I don’t care that it came against a MAC team, they are a good team. We had every reason to lose and finally stole a victory. When was the last time we did that? We cannot underestimate the value of that.

Next is Notre Dame. The Irish lost today, so we don’t have to worry about being a speed bump on the way to their next national title. We can win this game, but we have to play better. Because of our past history I refuse to count any win in South Bend until the clock reads triple zeroes and we have more points than they do. This feels like it could be a lot like the 2002 game where we outplayed the Irish, but our own screw ups led to another loss up there. The Notre Dame game is huge for our season. A win means we are all but assured of a bowl game because I know we can win four conference games. A loss means we will be fighting for bowl eligibility all year.

I thought I would be discouraged by a 7 point win today, but instead I am encouraged. I am encouraged by its nature. It is now time to build on it.