Purdue surprised quite a few experts on Saturday night in Eugene, Oregon. The double-digit underdog Boilermakers made the long cross-country trek, ignored a hostile crowd, survived a rainstorm (perfect weather for Ducks), rushed the ball effectively, and dominated most of the ballgame.
If not for two crucial Joey Elliott turnovers, a second-quarter interception and a third-quarter fumble that were both returned for touchdowns, Purdue played almost perfect football.
Which is like saying, “Other than the assassination, how was the play, Mrs. Lincoln?”
When the dust…er, water…had settled on the west coast, the Boilers found themselves on the short end of a 38-36 thriller, due in large part to that oh-so-crucial “points off turnovers” statistic. Purdue gave the football away three times, and Oregon made them pay by converting the miscues into 17 points, giving Ducks coach Chip Kelly his first win at the helm.
Credit Purdue for hanging around and not simply climbing on the bus after the Elliott blunders; the Boilermakers fought all the way to the final whistle, using a dramatic fourth-down wide receiver pass from Keith Smith to Aaron Valentin to close the Ducks’ lead to 38-36 and set up a two-point conversion attempt for the tie.
The trick play gave Purdue new life. It was yet another example of excellent play-calling by offensive coordinator Gary Nord and the coaching staff. Smith, a quarterback-turned safety-turned wide receiver, showed he still had some passing touch on a beautiful rollout and delivery, creating a highlight Purdue fans will remember for quite some time.
Unfortunately for the Old Gold and Black, the conversion attempt (a pass from Joey Elliott to Kyle Adams) was unsuccessful, and when Purdue couldn’t recover the ensuing onside kick, the Ducks had escaped by a narrow 2-point margin.
The loss leaves Purdue to wonder what might have been, especially considering the blocked Carson Wiggs fourth-quarter extra point attempt that could have tied the score at 31-all.
If Wiggs—who made a 59-yard kick a week ago—converts on that 20-yarder, the Boilermakers’ last-minute touchdown probably ties the game, sends the visitors into overtime with the momentum, and…well…who knows?
Instead, Coach Danny Hope and company return home to West Lafayette with a 1-1 record that, all things considered, can be regarded as a success. The Boilermakers have answered many of their offseason questions by discovering a star running back (hello, Ralph Bolden!), apparently settling on a solid number-three wide receiver (nice to meet you, Keith Carlos), handily defeating a better-than-expected Toledo team (just ask Colorado’s Dan Hawkins), and nearly pulling a monumental upset in one of the country’s toughest venues, Oregon’s Autzen Stadium.
The play of Bolden in particular has been a revelation. The sophomore tailback merely leads the nation in rushing with 357 yards, eclipsing the school record for best two-game start in the process.
If the 5’9” speedster keeps getting seven yards every time he touches the football, Purdue will be going “bowlin’ with Bolden” in a few months. Mark it down.
But first things first. The Boilermakers need to turn their attention to protecting home turf with three straight games in Ross-Ade Stadium coming up. Last year’s Purdue team seemed to fold after dropping a 32-26 double-overtime heart breaker to Oregon, proceeding to lose five of the next six contests. This year’s edition of the Boilermakers has a much better vibe, seeming to play with the intensity and confidence of its first-year head coach.
Purdue is saying all the right things about learning from the season’s first two weeks that they can play with anyone…however, they still need take care of business on the field. The Boilers can begin to prove things are different in 2009 by disposing of Northern Illinois, a MAC team that played Wisconsin tough in Week One before falling, 28-20.
Beat the Huskies, and Purdue will have all the momentum in the world when their longtime rivals from Notre Dame come to town the following Saturday. Slip up against a MAC team, and the season could turn ugly in a hurry.
Let’s “Hope” that doesn’t happen.
Week Three prediction: Purdue 42, Northern Illinois 26
For more Big Ten football coverage from Bleacher Report writers Tim Cary, Kristofer Green, and Kevin Paul, visit www.FirstandBigTen.com.