The question, as ludicrous as it sounds, is posed to Akin
Ayodele with a straight face: Might the junior linebacker be as
valuable a player to the Boilermakers as quarterback Drew Brees?
"Come on...me?" says Ayodele. "I can only hope to have the
success I did last year. But having Drew means everything.
Because of him the whole team has that confidence you need to
win in the Big Ten."
This is all true enough, but for Purdue to have a serious shot at
going to its first Rose Bowl since 1966, the Boilermakers must
avoid the shootouts they so often lost in '99, when they gave up
more than 28 points a game to Big Ten foes. Enter Ayodele, who
finished last year with 11 sacks and 19 tackles for a loss
despite having to learn a new position: defensive end. During the
spring, coach Joe Tiller moved Ayodele back to outside
linebacker, his natural position. "On D, everything starts with
Akin," says Tiller.
On offense everything, of course, starts with Brees, who followed
a stellar 1998 (3,983 yards, 39 touchdown passes) with an
impressive '99 (3,909 yards and 25 scores). Big numbers, however,
won't come easy this fall. Purdue's receiving corps is the
weakest it's been since Brees arrived in West Lafayette, and then
there's the schedule. The Boilermakers face a nasty five-game
stretch that includes Penn State and Wisconsin on the road and
Michigan and Ohio State at home. During a similar stretch last
season, Purdue saw a 4-0 start give way to a hellish 2-3 October.
The Boilermakers weren't the same after that, blowing a 25-point
lead to Georgia in the Outback Bowl, the biggest meltdown in
Division I-A bowl history. "That game pains me more than any
other in my career," says Tiller.
Ayodele shares his coach's pain. "This year, though," he says,
"we'll be finishing people."
1999 record: 7-5 (4-4, T6 in Big Ten)
Final ranking: No. 25 AP, NR coaches' poll
Seasons that Purdue (1954) has led the nation in passing offense.
An opposing team's coach sizes up The Boilermakers
"Their offense does a great job of spreading you out, but they
have trouble in the red zone. It sounds funny, but you want to
keep their offense on the field. In other words, avoid the quick
strike....Brees presents problems; he never throws a bad ball.
You've got to pressure him, but you can't sacrifice too much
coverage to do it....Their running game is spotty....The defense
plays as hard as any in the Big Ten, but the secondary is a bit
Strength: 27th of 115
Sept. 2 CENTRAL MICHIGAN
9 KENT STATE
16 at Notre Dame
30 at Penn State
Oct. 7 MICHIGAN
14 at Northwestern
21 at Wisconsin
28 OHIO STATE
Nov. 11 at Michigan State
["TELLING NUMBER" COMPILED BY DAVID SABINO]