Purdue learns lessons from narrow losses in '02

Veteran team stays cool in close call vs. Wisconsin

National notebook

College Football

October 24, 2003|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

When Wisconsin ran back a punt for a touchdown against Purdue late in last week's game in Madison, Wis., and subsequently tied the score at 23, some of the Boilermakers and their fans might have reflected back to last year. The team's six defeats were by a total of 26 points.

One who didn't think about some of those agonizing last-minute losses was Purdue coach Joe Tiller.

"It didn't bring back any memories from last year," Tiller said on this week's Big Ten teleconference. "I think I've gotten over that. I think we have as a team. I thought our team executed [at Wisconsin] like a veteran team down the stretch, the way you want them to respond."

It showed when junior quarterback Kyle Orton led the Boilermakers on an 11-play, 82-yard drive that resulted in a game-winning field goal by sophomore Ben Jones with three seconds remaining. It gave Purdue its sixth straight win after opening the season with a shocking, 27-26 loss to Bowling Green.

The win over Wisconsin kept Purdue in second place in the Big Ten behind Michigan State and provided the 10th-ranked Boilermakers with momentum going into tomorrow's game at No. 13 Michigan. They haven't won in Ann Arbor since 1966, when the Boilermakers' quarterback was a fellow named Bob Griese.

"Anytime you experience success on the road, it's valuable the next time you go out," said Tiller, whose Boilermakers also have to play at Ohio State next month. "This is the most mature team we've had, including the 2000 team."

The strength of this year's team is its defense. Five of the starters have been in the same position for four years together, having started as either a true or redshirt freshman on the 2000 Rose Bowl team.

"It was scary putting them all out there," recalled Tiller, who has taken the Boilermakers to bowl appearances in each of his first six seasons. "The one common thread that those five guys have had was that they were all high-energy guys, and they played real hard."

They still do. With a veteran group anchored by linebacker Gilbert Gardner and free safety Stuart Schweigert, the Boilermakers lead the Big Ten in overall defense and are fifth in the country. What has helped the defense is the offense leads the conference in time of possession.

"The team has changed and for the better," said Orton, who has thrown 14 touchdowns and only two interceptions over his past 35 quarters. "Any team that's going to contend for a Big Ten championship is going to have to get something out of their defense, and we have."

Utah's turnaround

One of the biggest turnarounds this season has occurred at Utah, where first-year coach Urban Meyer has led the No. 24 Utes to a 6-1 start and the school's first national ranking in seven years. Utah was 5-6 last season, and Ron McBride was fired after 12 years.

What Meyer has done is even more remarkable considering the team's injuries and suspensions.

The Utes have lost several key players, including two-time All-Mountain West defensive end Jason Kaufusi with a season-ending shoulder injury and quarterback Brett Elliott after the second game for more than a month with a broken wrist.

Four Utes have also been suspended, two of them for the season, including starting tailback Marty Johnson after a driving-under-the-influence incident. Two of the suspensions have come in the past week.

"It's a complete, absolute distraction," Meyer said by telephone from Salt Lake City on Wednesday. "It's not going to be tolerated. If you're a player that you really need to make a decision that's selfish and not for the team, you're not going to survive here. We're learning it, but we're learning it the hard way."

Though Elliott is now back, Meyer will stay with sophomore quarterback Alex Smith, whose first three starts resulted in victories over California (the only team to beat Southern Cal), Oregon (the week after the Ducks beat Michigan) and reigning Mountain West champion Colorado State on the road.

Meyer, a former assistant at Notre Dame, Ohio State and Colorado State who came to Utah after two winning seasons as head coach at Bowling Green, has tried to instill a more no-nonsense approach.

From contender to spoiler

Third-ranked Virginia Tech's 28-7 loss at West Virginia on Wednesday put a major crimp into the Hokies' chances of playing for the national championship in the Sugar Bowl, but they can still have a major impact on the race.

Next week's game in Blacksburg between the Hokies and Miami - a team that nearly lost to the Mountaineers last month - will determine if the Hurricanes stay alive.

A Virginia Tech win would open the door for several teams. The four teams with the highest Bowl Championship Series ranking after Oklahoma, Miami and Virginia Tech (Georgia, Southern Cal, Florida State, Ohio State) all have one loss.

Three games to watch

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