It has been almost 48 hours now, and I am still wondering what happened in Ross-Ade Stadium on Saturday. Coming into this season I know I was in the minority. I predicted we would win at least six games to go to a bowl game and that the infamous losing streak against ranked teams would end. I predicted all summer that we would win at Oregon, even as people in both fan bases told me I was crazy for thinking the game would even be competitive. As each close loss piled up, however, I gave up on the bowl dreams. I still knew we were good enough to beat a ranked team, but as it turned out we would only get one shot this year. Of our remaining five games, only Michigan might be ranked at the time of the game. That meant Ohio State was the one chance to end the ranked losing streak. Surely we wouldn't win that game.
But I was right.
The ranked losing streak is now a thing of the past. Unlike Chubby Charlie and our non-rivals to the north, we now know what it is like to beat a ranked team. We don't have to rely on moral victories anymore because we almost beat a top-10 team at home. Just imagine what we could do if we had a decided schematic advantage and four- and five-star talent all over the field.
Sorry about that. I couldn't resist that shot this morning. What happened in Ross-Ade Stadium could be a huge moment for the Purdue football program. Fittingly, it came just one day after the five-year anniversary of the last groundbreaking moment in our program's history. We call it The Fumble, but it could easily be called The Dropped Interception (thank you, Kyle Smith), The Missed Field Goal, or The Collapse. Whatever you want to call it, from the 8 minute mark of the fourth quarter in that game with Wisconsin, when Kyle Orton scored on a bootleg to make it 17-7, Purdue has never been the same. Even before The Fumble we gave up a lightning quick touchdown drive (sound familiar?) that featured Smith dropping a sure interception that would have sealed it. Most fans remember 10/16/2004 with sadness and resentment.
Five years later we were at rock bottom. I call it rock bottom because could we have really gotten any lower before that Ohio State game? We had gotten dominated by a middling MAC team at home. We had lost 19 straight games against ranked opponents (no one else in the country had lost more than 14 straight). We had digressed to the point where we couldn't even hold on to the football, turning it over three times in two minutes during our last home game to basically hand a sure victory over to a struggling Northwestern team.
The evidence was even in the crowd Saturday. I can't remember the last time we barely had 50,000 people in the stadium for even a 1-AA game, let alone against Ohio State. Even me, the eternal optimist, had a hard time getting excited for a trip to West Lafayette.
It is almost like we emerged out of purgatory Saturday morning. Maybe for some reason the football gods decided we needed exactly five years of ineptitude as punishment for some unknown sin. Since that moratorium ran out at midnight Friday night, we could once again be a good team. I am not saying that we are now worthy of the #5 national ranking that we held at the time of The Fumble, but you could see it in this team from the beginning Saturday. They just looked and felt different all day long. Even the Ohio State fans, who immediately tried to get the O-H-I-O chant going in the round, were subdued and couldn't get it going. That was a big sign in our favor.
Ryan Kerrigan played like a beast, setting the tone with a forced fumble on the second play. We made mistakes, but amazingly we didn't give up a single point after all three turnovers and the shanked punt. Even after the shanked punt we forced Ohio State backwards and forced another fumble.
I think the ultimate play that reversed The Fumble needs to be called The Kick. When Dan Dierking threw his awful interception it felt like we were just hanging on. It looked like another mind-numbing close call that Ohio State would pull out in the second half. The defense got a stop, we used our timeouts wisely, and Elliott got us in range with two nice throws. With nothing to lose we trotted out Carson Wiggs for a 55-yard field goal into a decent wind. He nailed it.
The moment his kick went through the uprights I felt a huge shift in the stadium. It is the type of shift I haven't felt since The Fumble. Before The Fumble, we felt that winning was inevitable. Since then, we have been waiting for disaster in nearly every game. After Wiggs' kick, however, everyone's demeanor changed. Like any player of NCAA Football on playstation does, we used the halftime break as a defensive stop to get the ball back. We then showed amazing competency and confidence in marching down the field for a touchdown. That was shocking. We NEVER march down the field at any time against Ohio State. Every touchdown we have gotten against the Buckeyes since Brees-to-Morales has felt like we needed to pull everything out of the bag just to get the score. Later in the third quarter we did it again. Leading 23-7 I had the same look on my face as every Ohio State fan in the South End Zone. It was the "What the hell is going on here?" look.
Amazingly, we closed it out with defense. Aside from one Elliott interception that did no harm, we played a virtually mistake free second half. Anyone who follows Purdue football knows this is a rarity even against bad teams. Our defensive line of two star talent was mauling Ohio State's large, heralded offensive line. The maligned secondary was batting passes down left and right. This was completely unheard of for us.
As I stood on the field following the win I couldn't help but wonder if the curse of The Fumble had finally been broken. That is the main reason behind this article today. Just as we didn't know the full effects of the Fumble on October 18th, 2004, we don't know what the full effects of this win will be on October 19th, 2009. It sure feels like a swing in the right direction though.
Much like after the Oregon game, we now have people seeing us as a dangerous team the rest of the year. We also have an overmatched opponent (from the state of Illinois, no less) coming into Ross-Ade for our next game. Like the Northern Illinois game, we are going to be a double digit favorite. The next step in the process is to not do what we did against Northern Illinois and blow a game we absolutely should win.
This win over Ohio State can be one of two things: First, it could be a lot like a 41-14 win Purdue had to open the 1992 season against #11 California. It was a great win that some thought would turn the program around. We immediately crapped the bed at home the next week against Toledo, finished 4-7, and had a 1-10 season the next year. As punishment, we had to have Jim Colletto be our coach from that game until the end of the 1996 season, wasting the career of the greatest running back in Purdue history.
Second, it could be a lot like another great day in Purdue history: September 13th, 1997. On that day Purdue shocked #12 Notre Dame 28-17 in very similar fashion. We dominated that game in the same way we dominated this one. We held on late with some big plays on defense. That win came totally out of left field, as few people expected it walking into the stadium that morning. It even had its own signature play: the fumble recovery by Adrian Beasley for a touchdown. That win started a six game winning streak that ended with an unexpected bowl game. In related news, a similar six game winning streak would result in an even more unlikely bowl game. It is possible too. If we can beat Ohio State we are more than capable of beating each remaining team on our schedule. We just have to go do it.
I tend to think Saturday was closer to #2 than scenario #1. We just seemed to have an edge on Saturday that is intangible and hard to describe, but you could feel it from the players. They kept fighting through all the crap of the last five weeks, and now they know what it feels like to have that work pay off. They have taken the next step in learning how to win and overcome the mistakes that are happening. If we can ever learn to not have those silly, correctable mistakes, then watch out.
Maybe I am just delusional. Maybe I am still drunk off the ambrosia of the biggest win the program has had since at least 2003. We very easily could return to Northwestern form and blow a game to an Illinois team that has clearly quit on its season. As big as Saturday's win was, a loss to Illinois would be 10 times worse. At least Northern Illinois was a MAC team playing a virtually perfect game. The Huskies had a ton to play for. Illinois has already given up. You could see it when they got dominated by Indiana. If we lose to Illinois it would be the most damaging loss in the history of Purdue football.
We have to make it a win. That is the next step: not falling off pace. A win gives us an actual winning streak. Then, if we're 3-5, we can look at the final third of the season and still have an outside chance at a bowl. Let's keep the confidence rolling and make sure the curse of The Fumble is broken.