Veteran Boilermakers look to pounce on Leaders in transition
It would be difficult for Danny Hope to completely ignore the feeling, even if he wanted to. Coming off a 7-6 season and the Boilermakers' first bowl berth and win since 2007, Purdue's head coach sensed an unusually positive vibe this offseason. Hope was sorry to see last season end after his team won three of its final four games, including a 37-32 momentum-building win over Western Michigan in the Little Caesar's Bowl, but the positive effects of that strong finish built as winter turned to spring.
"It carried right into spring practice," the fifth-year coach said. "We ended the season with some momentum last year, a winning season and a bowl game. So it was one of the better springs I've been around."
Last fall Purdue showed flashes during Big Ten play, knocking off 23rd-ranked Illinois in October before toppling Ohio State in overtime in November, the first consecutive home wins over the Buckeyes in Purdue history. A win over rival Indiana in Bloomington in the regular-season finale lifted the Boilermakers into bowl eligibility. But an inconsistent roster undermined that success at inopportune points throughout the season, most notably during consecutive losses to Michigan and Wisconsin (by a combined 67 points) between the wins over the Illini and Ohio State.
Even that spotty success helped spark the loftiest expectations of Hope's Purdue tenure. But the hope for Hope might finally be warranted in West Lafayette, as Purdue returns nine starters on both sides of the ball, including three quarterbacks with starting experience. Caleb TerBush started all 13 games last season in place of injured starter Rob Henry, throwing for 1,905 yards and 13 touchdowns, and remains QB 1 heading into fall camp. The Boilermakers also return Robert Marve, who scored the game-winning touchdown against Ohio State.
"That's the first time we've had that since I've been the head coach at Purdue," Hope said of his deep group of signal-callers. "We've never started the season off with a quarterback that has any game experience at all."
That depth is a common thread across the entire roster. Purdue's two leading rushers, Ralph Bolden and Akeem Shavers, both return, and wideouts Gary Bush and O.J. Ross combined for 666 yards and six touchdowns in 2011. On defense, meanwhile, the Boilermakers return All-Big Ten defensive tackle Kawann Short, who led the team with 17 tackles for loss last season, good for 13th in the nation. Short opted to return for his senior season despite being graded as a third-round pick; early predictions for the 2013 draft already have him cracking the first round.
The veteran defense will be challenged to respond to new direction. Hope brought in Tim Tibesar from the Canadian Football League as his defensive coordinator after the Boilermakers finished ninth in the Big Ten in total defense last fall. Tibesar's Montreal Alouttes boasted the top run defense in 2011 in a league Hope describes as "the epitome of a spread offense," and the team hopes the same system will translate to success in the Big Ten.
"For the defense in general, I feel it's been one of the most productive offseasons we've had," said Short. "That's a big first step."
The state of the Big Ten also falls in Purdue's favor, positioning the Boilermakers as potential darkhorse contenders in their division. Purdue finished third in the Leaders Division in 2011 -- just ahead of Ohio State -- and hopes to match or improve on that finish while its competitors adjust. Ohio State and Penn State are both building around new staffs and are dealing with NCAA sanctions and the Jerry Sandusky scandal, respectively. Reigning champ Wisconsin will be breaking in a new quarterback.
That window of opportunity is a welcome sight for Hope, whose job security was a topic of debate last season despite Purdue's bowl berth. Hope received an extension on his contract through 2016 in December, but the coach still needs to prove last season's results are the new norm for the Boilermakers and not simply an anomaly.
Hope knows good things happen when that winning feeling persists, though. "At the rate we're going," Hope said, "we think we can compete each and every Saturday. And that should put us in a position to contend for a division title."