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Best Years in Purdue Sports History #7: 2003-04

I really should rename this one "The Last Time We Really Enjoyed Purdue Football". It is the centerpiece of the next year in our countdown. The 2003-04 athletic year was a fantastic year by Purdue standards, but it really could have been so much more. The basketball team went from being in the top 15 to not even making the NCAA's. The football team just missed a BCS bowl, and other sports came up just short of being so much more.

Football highlights:

In my opinion, Joe Tiller's 2003 squad that went 9-4 while losing the Capitol One Bowl in overtime to Georgia was his best team. Three of the four losses came by a total of 11 points. Two of those losses were in overtime to teams that finished ranked in the top 15. If not for a shocking 27-26 loss in the season opener to a very good Bowling Green team, Purdue would have had just its second 10 win season in school history.

Remember when we were good? I actually miss the Jumbo Heroes.

Special shout out in the video goes to fellow KHS class of 1998 member #90 Brandon Johnson psyching up the team at the 28 second mark of the video. His brother, Dondre, was Kokomo's career leading rusher and had a promising Purdue career cut short with an injury during the 1999 season.

Coming into the season, many thought Purdue was a very good team, but they felt that road trips in conference play to Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ohio State would prevent them from seriously contending for the conference crown. A defense that would send multiple players to the NFL after the season was expected to dominate, while Kyle Orton, then a junior, had finally nailed down the starting quarterback job over Brandon Kirsch after a two year battle. I felt going into that season we would win one of the big road games, lose one, and the third would be a toss-up. In that prediction, I was exactly right.

After losing our #16 ranking in the opener against Urban Meyer and the Falcons, Purdue had a rare road non-conference game against a ranked opponent not named Notre Dame. At Wake Forest, the Boilers found themselves in a defensive struggle. Stu Schweigert's fourth down stop preserved a 16-10 win over the #20 Demon Deacons. It was a welcome relief to actually close out a close game after a frustrating 2002 season. Purdue lost six times in 2002, by 22 combined points. Wake Forest was one of the teams that took advantage of Purdue's close game struggles the previous year when Berin Lacevic (Lacevic is Serbian for "Wide Left") missed three fourth quarter field goals in a three point Demon Deacon win in West Lafayette.

Purdue wins a close road game in football with a defensive stop against a ranked team? That's unpossible!

The win in Winston-Salem seemed to energize Purdue after the disappointing opener. Purdue returned home the next week and brought back the black uniforms for the first time since 2001. The result was a 59-7 crushing of Arizona. It was the first of four straight home wins as Purdue beat Notre Dame (23-10), Illinois (43-10), and Penn State (28-14) in dominating fashion. The defense was doing what many expected it to do after the Bowling Green game.

After the home stand, Purdue had the first of its three big road games. College GameDay was on hand in Madison as Kyle Orton played one of his best games as a Boilermaker in a 26-23 win over Wisconsin. Orton threw for 411 yards and a score, mostly to Taylor Stubblefield and John Standeford (who combined for 30 catches and 314 yards). Unfortunately, Purdue struggled to get into the end zone or it would have been a blowout. A Jim Leonhard punt return for a touchdown tied things with 2:55 left, but Orton engineered a drive down to the goal line for an 18-yard game winning field goal from Ben Jones with three seconds left. In my opinion, this was Joe Tiller's biggest road win at Purdue. It is the only time he beat a top 15 team away from West Lafayette.

At 6-1 overall and 3-0 in the conference, we had passed our first major test. Unfortunately, Ann Arbor was next. As usual, Purdue failed to show up at the Big House in a 31-3 loss to Michigan. We then came home and beat Northwestern (34-14) and #10 Iowa (27-14) to close out the home schedule. Sadly, the win over Iowa remains our last victory over a ranked team.

Heading to Columbus the next week, we had an outside chance at the Big Ten title. We needed to beat Ohio State and Indiana, then hope someone beat Michigan. Since Ohio State was still in the fight as well, the prevailing theory was that a victory over the Buckeyes would tick them off just enough that they would have extra motivation he next week to ruin Michigan's season. That would mean a win over Indiana would send us back to Pasadena. Even if Michigan won the Big Ten, the winner of the Ohio State-Purdue contest was largely expected to get an at large berth in a BCS bowl (and indeed Ohio State got a Fiesta bowl invite). A lot was on the line that day. GameDay was in town, and I made the trip to Columbus with a couple of friends. We were a little intimated on the bus to the stadium. We were the only people in Purdue gear on a bus full of Buckeye rowdies, but we made the peace by agreeing to cheer for Michigan the following week regardless of the outcome. Somehow, people from Ohio State hate you less as a visitor if you agree to cheer against Michigan.

As expected, a defensive struggle ensued. Ohio State's only touchdown came on a Kyle Orton fumble that Mike Kudla recovered in the end zone with about 12 minutes to play. Down 13-6 and with 100,000+ rocking against them, Orton directed a 92-yard drive with less than 6 minutes left to tie the game on Jerod Void's 11-yard touchdown run. I believe that had we won this game, that drive would have gone down as one of the best in Purdue football history. Bobby Iwuchukwu blocked Mike Nugent's 41 yard field goal attempt as time expired, but it wasn't enough. Nugent was good from 36 in overtime while Ben Jones missed from 37 to seal a 16-13 loss.

A deflated Purdue team sleepwalked through a 24-16 Bucket game in Bloomington the next week. We were rewarded with a Capitol One Bowl bid against Georgia, who many remembered from four years earlier in the Outback Bowl. Another overtime loss awaited us 34-27, but it was almost a reverse of the 2000 Outback Bowl. Purdue was the team that fell behind and made a daring comeback in this one. Kregg Lumpkin made one of the dumbest fumbles in the history of college football hat set up Ben Jones' 44 yard field goal to tie it in regulation, but we had no gas left for overtime.

I think 2003 was Tiller's best simply because we had a ton of NFL talent and succeeded against the toughest schedule during his tenure. There were no 1-AA games and just one game came against a team from a non-BCS conference (which, ironically, was one of the losses). Purdue beat three ranked teams (two on the road) and played four others that spent time in the top 25 that year. None of those seven teams included traditional powers Penn State and Notre Dame. Kyle Orton, John Standeford, Shaun Phillips, Stu Schwiegert, Gilbert Gardner, Niko Koutouvides, Landon Johnson, Jacques Reeves, Bernard Pollard, Craig Terrill, Ray Edwards, Anthony Spencer, Nick Hardwick, Kelly Butler, Uche Nwaneri, and Mike Otto all played at least some that season and eventually went on to the NFL. That is 16 players on that roster that went to the next level, and many of them are still playing there.

I also view the season as a success because it was not a big deal to beat a ranked team. Only the Wisconsin win made the Best Wins of the Tiller Era series. The win over Iowa was a victory over a top 10 team, yet it didn't even make the cut. It shows just how high the program was riding at the time, and how low we have currently fallen.

Men's Basketball highlights:

The 2003-04 men's basketball season will forever be known as the season that Chris Booker cost us. With Booker, Purdue was 8-2 and won the Great Alaska Shootout in impressive fashion over Duke. The only losses were a 47-45 last second loss at Oklahoma, and a 60-59 upset loss to SMU in the championship of the Boilermaker Invitational. That loss to SMU was Booker's final game in a Purdue uniform and the Boilers were ranked #17 at the time. Booker was declared academically ineligible for the rest of the year and Purdue stumbled to a 17-14 final record. The most notable part of the rest of the season was that Purdue and Notre Dame finally met in basketball for the first time in 38 years. The NIT forced them together, but the Irish won 71-59 on their home court. It would be Gene Keady's final post-season game as Purdue head coach.

I remember that basketball season as a very difficult one. Taking a cue from the football team, Purdue excelled at losing close games. Purdue had 10 losses by seven points or less. Seven of those tough losses were by two points or less, meaning one basket (say a Chris Booker putback?) would have made a difference. One was a highly controversial loss at Colorado State in which the Rams hit a 3-pointer after time expired, but the officials counted the basket. Since the game was not televised no replay was available. It is very safe to say that Purdue would have been an NCAA tournament team had Booker been eligible.

Other highlights:

Women's Basketball - Many people expected a loaded Purdue team to walk to the Final Four in 2004. Purdue went into the tournament with a 27-3 record and a #2 seed in the West Region. Only a 93-63 loss to Duke and a pair of conference losses to Penn State blemished Purdue's record. The final one, a 69-60 loss in State College, gave the Big Ten title to Penn State in the last game of the regular season. Purdue avenged both losses in the Big Ten Tournament Final when Shereka Wright nailed a pair of free throws with 4.8 seconds left. Wright also blocked the game-winning attempt by Penn State to seal the win.

A Final Four wasn't to be as Erika Valek missed a wide open layup that would have tied the game in a 56-54 Sweet 16 loss to Georgia. Valek, Wright, Beth Jones, and Lindsey Hicks formed a senior class that was one of the most decorated in school history. Valek started a school-record 131 games in her career and Wright was a first team All-American. Future All-American Katie Gerlads was a bench player for this team. The senior class won a Big Ten record 113 games in their four years and were freshmen on the 2001 National Runner-up team.

Baseball - This is mostly noteworthy because the baseball team had a winning season at 29-28. Purdue finished 17-14 in the Big Ten and qualified for the Big Ten Tournament, but was done in just three games in Minneapolis.

Wrestling - Ryan Lange won his second consecutive Big Ten championship and placed fifth at the NCAA Championships in the 174 pound division. He was named a two-time All-American for his efforts. He had a school-record 130 career wins.  

Women's Golf - The Ladies' golf team continued its streak of solid postseason play with a 4th place finish in the Big Ten championships and 22nd place finish at the NCAA meet.

Track and Field - Shaun Guice (6th place high jump) and Amber Ferner (7th place 3000M Steeplechase) earned All-American honors for Purdue in Track and Field in 2004. It was the third time in his career that Guice earned All-American honors in the outdoor high jump. It was the first time a Purdue male track and field athlete received All-American honors in an outdoor event. He was a four-time indoor All-American as well.

Swimming - Giordan Pogioli earned All-American honors with a fourth place finish at the NCAA meet in the 200 meter breaststroke.