It had been 1,456 days.
On November 30th, 2013 the Old Oaken Bucket took a ride south with a 1-10 Purdue team that went down as maybe the worst in school history. Indiana rolled to a 56-36 win that day that was never as close as the final score indicated. The Bucket stayed in Bloomington, and never really came close to coming back. The constant ineptitude of the Hazell era meant that it established near permanent residence. It even only visited once, as the schedule makers made sure that three of four Bucket games in a row were in Bloomington. The closest was 2014, when Zander Diamont’s late touchdown sealed the second of the four Hoosier wins.
As Purdue fans, we waited. We waited for Hazell to show improvement, but he went 0-for-November in his Purdue tenure. We waited for him to be let go when it became obvious no improvement was coming. We waited through his interim replacement in Gerad Parker, who gave it a game effort last year before falling short. We waited as the length of I’s grew to their longest continuous stretch ever.
We waited until today. Yes, Purdue could and probably should have clinched bowl eligibility before this day with close losses to Rutgers and Nebraska. There was something about everything being on the line though. A National title was not decided today, nor was a conference title or a divisional title. A pair of 5-6 teams meeting with a bowl bid on the line rarely turns heads in this era of a bloated 40-game bowl season. For Purdue and Indiana though, today was everything. Indiana wanted to continue its recent dominance and incremental growth. Purdue wanted a deserved capper to a season of tremendous improvement. In a way, it wouldn’t have felt right to reach a bowl, but lose to Indiana. We needed this game. It needed to be all-or-nothing, just like this.
That waiting paid off.
I love that this game was bookended by seniors who went through the pain. Garrett Hudson, a fifth-year senior who came to Purdue when his dad was hired as defensive coordinator and stayed for two years after his dad was fired, started the game with an interception on Indiana’s first offensive play. He returned it to the 5 yard line and Purdue was up 7-0 on the next play on a score from Jackson Anthrop.
The other bookend came from Danny Ezechukwu. The fifth-year senior has been with the program so long that he committed in October 2012 when Danny Hope was still coach. That makes Jeff Brohm technically his 4th coach, and he is the only player that can say that. Ezechukwu recovered Indiana’s final desperate onside kick with a minute left and Purdue only needed to kill the clock after that.
These seniors went through so much. Yes, there is the typical trope of 4-5 years of sacrifice, but it feels like more than this. It was the losing. It was the embarrassment week-in, week-out at the hands of the Big Ten. It was 9-39 over the previous four seasons. It was so bad that few that stayed when so many left over the summer. Their waiting paid off. Purdue is back in a bowl game, and the Old Oaken Bucket, something these young men never possessed, is back home from a 1,456 day exile.
Other seniors did so much. Anthony Mahoungou hauled in his 4th touchdown of the last three games. Ezechukwu added 10 tackles and a sack. Gelen Robinson had 7 tackles and a sack. T.J. McCollum had a touchdown called back on a replay review. Da’Wan Hunte had 6 tackles, two pass breakups, and a huge 3rd down stop. He also chased down Ricky Brookins on his lengthy run before halftime and saved four points by tackling him, forcing the Hoosiers to settle for a field goal instead of a touchdown.
There was youth too. Markell Jones turned in the biggest rushing day for a Purdue running back since Ralph Bolden rushed for 234 yards against Toledo to start the 2009 season. Anthrop had two touchdowns. Even some of the little used players contributed. Isaac Zico caught two passes and had a TD after not catching a single pass since the Rutgers game (and he only had 4 receptions on the season). Mike Little, a little used defensive back, caught a critical fake punt pass from Joe Schopper. That play helped break a 7-7 tie and seemed to get the Purdue offense on track.
It was a day for everyone. The defense mostly kept the running game in check and Richard Lagow had to go to the air often. He was constantly going to Simmie Cobbs Jr., the biggest mistake of many from Hazell, and it was a wise choice. Even then, Purdue mostly kept him in check.
Now, after 4 years, the waiting is over. It feels like the stink left by Hazell and Burke has finally been aired out because Brohm came in and, with mostly the same roster, made Purdue immediately competitive. We now get the benefit of bowl practices and more time to keep building, too.
And that is where the excitement truly begins. This is merely step one. Brohm more than overachieved in season one, and the seeds have been planted for even more in year 2. A 6-6 season is great in year one after what we have endured, but it looks like it has set the stage for even more. Purdue has not won as many as 8 games since 2007, 9 since 2003, and 10 since 1979. Suddenly, those all seem possible in the near future.
As the fans flooded onto the field to celebrate at first I was kind of embarrassed. Beating a program like Indiana should be the status quo and not cause for a field rush unless we’re winning the Big Ten or something. After I thought about it, I was reminded of when the students rushed the floor during the 2007-08 basketball season after beating Wisconsin. That was a spontaneous event and signified not that Purdue was back at the top, but that we were ready to challenge again. I even wrote the following about it:
Saying that this victory marked a return to the mountaintop is not right because it implies we can go no higher. I prefer, instead, to call it a return to the mountain. We announced that we are back as a program and ready to contend for the conference championship. We must now climb this mountain that we are back on, as there are three other teams out there that would certainly be glad to throw us off.
Welcome home, Old Oaken Bucket.
Welcome back to the mountain, Purdue.