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October 16th: The Purdue Football Apex and Nadir

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October 16th is now a nexus for Purdue football.

NCAA Football: Iowa at Purdue Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

If Purdue football has, indeed, hit rock bottom (and it is hard to argue otherwise barring an 0-12 season) October 16, 2016 will mark the beginning of the turnaround. I know the process will likely be slow. No one is expecting Gerad Parker to take over reel off six straight wins to get to 9-3 (though if he can do that, by all means!). Instead, we are expecting more losses to finish this year with the firing of Darrell Hazell this past Sunday as the first step on a long road back to even being competitive.

October 16, 2016 has an odd bit of symmetry in relation to Purdue football. I realized last night that it comes 12 years to the day after October 16, 2004, which was likely the apex of modern Purdue football. Some will call it the Rose Bowl season of 2000, or the 2003 season when Purdue went 9-4 and was a handful of plays from 12-1. October 16, 2004 will always remembered as the day of the Fumble when Purdue started the decline into the pit of despair it currently finds itself in.

That morning Purdue was 5-0, ranked No. 5 in the nation, had the Heisman frontrunner in Kyle Orton, had just won consecutive road games at Notre dame and Penn State, and ESPN’s College Gameday was on campus. Lee Corso put on the Purdue Pete head, picking the Boilers over No. 10 Wisconsin. We would climb a little higher, as Kyle Orton waltzed into the south end zone with 8 minutes left to put Purdue ahead 17-7 and seemingly in the driver’s seat for the Big Ten, if not the national title.

Just 12 years later that same south end zone saw the end of Darrell Hazell and his 9-33 Reign of Error. Many will argue that Hazell’s fate was sealed two weeks earlier at Maryland or five weeks earlier against Cincinnati. When Akrum Wadley broke a 75-yard TD run just after Purdue had scored to cut the Iowa lead to 28-7 it immediately erased Purdue’s faint comeback hopes. As he ran into the same South End zone, virtually untouched on a run straight up the middle that was likely designed only to kill the clock, Hazell’s tenure effectively ended immediately. The next day, 12 years to the day after The Fumble, Hazell was fired.

How does this happen? How does a team go from one of the best in the country to the laughingstock in 12 years? We could ask Kansas. They fell quite a bit faster from an 11-0 start and No. 2 ranking in 2007 to 1-11 by 2012. They are Kansas though. They had a meteoric run to that wild 2007 season pretty much out of nowhere. Purdue had spurts of relevance in the 60’s and early 80’s. By 2004 Joe Tiller has established Purdue as a solid team that was regularly in the top 25 since 1997. This wasn’t a one-year wonder of a run. A program had been built and there was real momentum for more.

2004: As we know, the Fumble started a string of four straight losses by 10 total points. There were injuries that were a factor. Orton was never the same after the hit and even missed the 23-21 loss at Iowa. A windy day with an injured Orton led to a 13-10 loss at Northwestern. Dorien Bryant getting absolutely annihilated on a hit, leading to a fumble as he got into field goal range led to the 16-14 loss against Michigan. Purdue finished the regular season 7-4, but the defense absolutely collapsed late in a 27-23 loss to Arizona State in the Sun Bowl. That was a preview of things ot come.

2005: Purdue began 2005 again as a dark horse national title contender, mostly because of the fortuitous quirk of missing Ohio State and Michigan on the Big Ten schedule. Brandon Kirsch was taking over for Orton and that meant a more varied run-pass offense to take advantage of his running ability. The Boilers beat Akron and won at Arizona to start 2-0 and get into the top 15. Purdue went to Minneapolis and lost 42-35 in double overtime, failing twice to end the game with a 4th down stop and once on a two-point conversion. That started a six game losing streak where the defense played like crap against Notre Dame, Iowa, and Northwestern. Kirsch lost his job to Curtis Painter and Purdue failed to make a bowl game at 5-6.

2006: Purdue again had no Ohio State or Michigan, but expectations were much more measured after the previous year’s debacle. The Boilers started 4-0 against a soft schedule, but only went 8-6 by beating a bunch of mediocre to bad teams (6-7 Minnesota was the best win) while losing to anyone with a pulse. That included a 24-7 bowl loss to Maryland where it looked like Purdue barely showed up.

2007: With an experienced Curtis Painter, who had broken Drew Brees’ single season passing record the year before, there were again some decent expectations, but Ohio state and Michigan were back on the schedule. Purdue started hot at 5-0, reaching No. 23 in the rankings, but a 23-7 home loss in a night game to Ohio State showed that the 5-0 start against Toledo, Eastern Illinois, Central Michigan, Minnesota, and a terrible Notre Dame team was smoke and mirrors. Purdue has not been ranked since that Ohio State game, and only Indiana and Syracuse as Power 5 teams have a longer drought. The Boilers still finished a respectable 8-5 with a bowl win, but lost to Indiana for the first time since 2001 and only won the Detroit bowl game against a MAC team it had already played. Of the eight wins, Purdue’s best was over 8-6 Central Michigan, twice.

2008: Here is where Purdue really starts to slip. Tiller’s recruiting classes had started to struggle by this point and in year two of the Big Ten Network you could begin to see it for the revenue generator it would be. This is the perfect time to invest back into the program, as the renovations of 2002 were still new, and much of Tiller’s original staff remained. Instead, nothing happened off the field. The restless fans were wanting more and by this point it was pretty obvious that Tiller was a little burnt out. The succession plan to Danny Hope was announced and Tiller was expected to ride off into the sunset with one more season behind Curtis Painter, who had thrown for a lot of yards without really doing much. Purdue took Oregon to double overtime before losing at home, beat Central Michigan yet again, then injuries to its top two quarterbacks led to 7 losses in the next eight games. Purdue would beat a horrid Michigan and Indiana, but it scored only 22 total points in losses to Penn State, Ohio State, Michigan State, and Minnesota. Tiller’s final season was a dismal 4-8.

2009: Danny Hope takes over with the long-term rebuild of the program in mind. He even improves overall to 5-7, but mental mistakes and turnovers cost this team dearly. There can be a legitimate argument that this team should have gone 10-2. A blocked extra point and two defensive touchdowns led to a 38-36 loss at eventual Pac-12 champ Oregon. Penalties and two fumbled punts meant a 28-21 loss to Northern Illinois. A bizarre timeout gifted Notre Dame a 24-21 win. Six Purdue turnovers, including three in three plays, gave Northwestern a 27-21 win. A defensive touchdown on the first play from scrimmage meant a 40-37 Michigan State win. Purdue did some good things and even won at Michigan for the first time since 1966, but overall it spiked itself too many times and the slide continued.

2010: This was the season of injuries. Purdue finished 4-8, losing its last six games, mostly because every major contributor got injured. In turn, that squandered the positive momentum of Hope’s first season. The recruiting struggles really showed here because once the front line guys were gone there was no depth. Purdue ended up starting four different quarterbacks and that doesn’t even count Caleb TerBush, who was suspended for the entire season. Purdue closed the season by losing its last 6 games.

2011: Purdue had a small rise to 7-6 with a bowl win, but again, it took advantage of a weak schedule. It’s best win was over Illinois, who finished 7-6 and was 6-1 at the time with a No. 25 ranking. To date, that is Purdue’s last victory over a ranked opponent. In most games against good teams Purdue is now getting absolutely blown out, such as Wisconsin (62-17) and Michigan (36-14).

2012: The 2012 season was basically the 2011 season run back. Purdue got to a bowl again, but with six wins over virtually no one (5-7 Marshall was the best win). With chances for big home wins over Michigan, Wisconsin, and Penn State the Purdue offense did virtually nothing. Purdue came extremely close to beating the only two teams that had an undefeated regular season, both on the road, but it wasn’t enough. Hope was fired and Purdue was absolutely destroyed 58-14 by Oklahoma State in the Heart of Dallas Bowl.

2013: The Darrell Hazell era began with a ton of promise. Purdue had opened up the checkbook to pay for a better coach and better assistants. He inherited a team that had been to a bowl game and had a lot of experience returning on the lines. Even Rob Henry at quarterback had played quite a bit and looked like he could step in and pull a Billy Dicken. Hazell had us all excited and the pep rally on the circle had us thinking it would only be a matter of time before Hazell, a miracle worker who had won a Kent State of all places, would take us back to Pasadena. What followed was a complete disaster and probably the worst offensive team in Purdue history at 1-11. Purdue lost. A Lot. It wasn’t even competitive most of the time. By this point we had rolled downhill since Orton went into the end zone. Now we found the hill ended at a cliff.

2014: It was a little better, but not really. Purdue beat Western Michigan and Southern Illinois in the non-conference, but lost an ugly game to a bad Central Michigan team and played Notre Dame close for a half. There was a small moment of hope where Purdue beat Illinois, then pushed Michigan State and Minnesota. Once Danny Anthrop went down the offense stopped as Purdue went 3-9.

2015: Once again, there was hope. Purdue had taken its licks, played freshmen to give them experience, and now it was all supposed to come together with talent and experience. This was the year it was supposed to take off. Naturally, Austin Appleby threw a pick six on the first play of the season. Purdue played well only to undo itself with bookend pick-sixes to the same guy in a 10-point loss at Marshall. The Boilers never recovered and, aside from pushing Michigan State in East Lansing and benefitting from a Ryker Fyfe meltdown against Nebraska Purdue was worse overall in a 2-10 finish.

2016: And so here we are. Purdue started 3-3 under Hazell and the offense was much better, but the major defensive issues that were there in year one were still there. Purdue was still a joke, managing to only show it was marginally better than Illinois in conference, and the Illini played with three different coaches in the 3.5 years Hazell was in charge. The splat at the bottom of said cliff in 2013 killed off all remaining hope for the program. The Boilers cratered in a 50-7 loss at Maryland and an Iowa team that was offensively challenged in Big Ten play easily opened up a 35-7 lead by halftime with little trouble.

It was a combined effort of failure to get to this point. Those improvements that probably could have been made in 2008? They weren’t even started until 2016. Morgan Burke failed the program by not investing in the future along with the rest of the conference, not convincing the Board of Trustees that an investment was necessary, and by failing to market it in any meaningful way. He swung and missed on two coaching hires, completely undoing all of the hard work put in during the Tiller era.

The good news is that this has to be the bottom. It can’t really get worse. The Football Performance Facility will pay dividends in time. Mike Bobinski did more good in his first 7 weeks on the job, convincing the Board of Trustees that lights were needed and Purdue needed to bite the bullet and buy out Hazell, than Burke had done since the completion of the Ross-Ade Pavilion in 2002. He constantly sold short what could be accomplished as evidenced by his famous “$5 million opportunity” statement.

The dust may finally be clearing from the crater impact. It is telling that under Burke both Mitch Daniels and the Board were adamant about not getting into an athletics arms race. Now, under Bobinski, they are saying there will be a financial commitment. The difference? Bobinski over Burke. He seems to have convinced them that the investment is necessary (with a big assist from the Big Ten itself).

So even though Purdue will probably lose tomorrow, those in charge are at least finally saying the right things. That is the biggest change from the previous 12 years. I don’t know how the road out of the crater will be traveled or how long it will take, but after several false starts it looks like we’re finally back on track.

(For now)