The Big Ten's Big Shift

Oct. 04, 2004
Oct. 04, 2004

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Oct. 4, 2004

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The Big Ten's Big Shift

In a year when the conference's traditional powers look vulnerable, Kyle Orton and explosive Purdue are leading a realignment of the pecking order

The apartment is just off the Purdue campus, over a bar called Harry's Chocolate Shop. What's up with that odd name? Allow Boilermakers right tackle David Owen to explain: "When you tell your mother you're going to the Chocolate Shop, she says, 'Isn't that nice; they're going out for sodas!'"

This is an article from the Oct. 4, 2004 issue Original Layout

Owen was on a sofa in the apartment on a recent Monday night, taking in an NFL game, stroking the goatee he's thinking of losing. "The ladies," he said with a sigh. "The ladies aren't diggin' it."

Enter B.A., an undergraduate whose departure 20 minutes earlier was not lamented, due to

the exceptionally sulphurous wind afflicting him on this particular evening. He had redeemed himself by going on a Skoal run. The second tin he tossed was caught by Kyle Orton, who'd been sitting quietly in the corner with a half smile on his face, saying little, missing nothing. A reporter asked him if it was O.K. to mention the dip. "I don't care," said Orton, installing a plug of long cut between cheek and gum. "It's who I am."

Who is Kyle Orton? He is Drew Brees, only taller and with a better arm. He is Purdue's 6'4", 226-pound senior quarterback, and the player most responsible for the Boilermakers' sizzling start this season. He is the biggest reason this team, which has steadily improved during the eight-year tenure of coach Joe Tiller, is now poking its head through the curtain separating economy and first class in the Big Ten. Purdue, which improved its record to 3-0 last Saturday with a sometimes slovenly 38-30 win at Illinois, is ranked 15th in the country and ready to join Michigan and Ohio State in the front of the plane.

"He's the difference on their team," declared Illini linebacker Matt Sinclair, the crescent-shaped welt covering his forehead a souvenir of his nine tackles. "We see a lot of physically gifted quarterbacks [in the Big Ten]. Orton has great physical skills, but he also has the ability to see what's coming and audible out of things. People talk about Peyton Manning's ability to call the game from under center--I saw that a lot today with Kyle. It felt like he called the whole game from the line of scrimmage."

Not the whole game. By Orton's estimate he changed half the Boilermakers' plays at the line, a jaw-dropping number for a college quarterback. Two of those audibles went for touchdowns; the second, a 34yard pass to senior wideout Taylor Stubblefield, was the result of an audible within an audible. After changing Stubblefield's route to a slant pattern, Orton saw his go-to receiver flashing him a three-finger sign, a hand signal for yet another pattern, a skinny post. "We decided to take a chance and go downtown," says Orton of the play, on which he threw his fourth touchdown pass of the afternoon--his third of the day to Stubblefield--and his 13th of the season. Orton completed 35 of 50 passes for 366 yards against Illinois, bringing his season numbers to 74 of 106 (69.8%). His passer rating, 188.1, is the best of any quarterback who has played three or more games this season.

Orton didn't generate much preseason Heisman buzz, but he may have more talent than two quarterbacks who did--no offense to Southern Cal's Matt Leinart or Oklahoma's Jason White. Orton's ability to manage a game is complemented by his scary-strong right arm. Twice he has torn the webbing between the fingers of roommate Eric Lilly, a football team manager who gamely volunteers to catch passes from Orton before practice. As a 17-year-old at a Purdue quarterback camp in 2000, Orton won the long-pass contest with a heave of 72 yards, about seven better than the next-best toss. The runner-up? Camp counselor Jon Kitna, then the Seattle Seahawks starter.

Earlier that year Orton had shared an idle wish with his father, Byron. Having starred in his junior season at Southeast Polk High, just east of Des Moines, Kyle was beginning to get some major D-I attention. Iowa State fancied him; Illinois was pitching some serious woo. In the back of his mind, Orton knew that Drew Brees, who'd put the Boilermakers on the map running Tiller's spread offense, had only one more college season. Tiller would be needing a successor. One spring Sunday the prospect remarked to his father, "I'd really like to hear from Purdue."

The next day Kyle phoned his dad with exciting news: He'd heard from the Boilermakers. In fact they'd seen a highlight tape, called him at school and offered him a scholarship that very morning. "I guess you did hear from 'em, didn't you?" said Byron.

Byron is a former University of South Dakota tight end whose even keel and knack for understatement were passed on to his only son. He earned his law degree at Nebraska and is now the labor commissioner for the state of Iowa. Politics were discussed at the Orton dinner table; earlier this season Kyle raised eyebrows in conservative Indiana by announcing that he would someday like to get a law degree and run for the U.S. Senate ... as a Democrat. The joke around West Lafayette is that after Orton is selected in the first round of the NFL draft and pockets a seven-figure signing bonus, he'll change parties.

But there's nothing fickle about Orton. As a true sophomore two years ago, he lost his starting job in midseason, two games after getting his bell rung against Iowa. Orton stayed in the game against the Hawkeyes but drew bewildered looks in the huddle when he started calling plays from his high school playbook. He was replaced by Brandon Kirsch, who nearly pulled out the game and was promoted to starter two games later. Relegated to mostly clipboard duty for four of the last five regular-season games, Orton did not sulk or threaten to transfer.

He'd grown up worshipping the Nebraska Cornhuskers, admiring in particular the moxie of former Huskers quarterback Brook Berringer, who died in a 1996 plane crash. Orton has worn Berringer's number 18 ever since. He recalled the class Berringer displayed in the wake of his demotion behind Tommie Frazier, and he sought to emulate it.

"If I hadn't gotten the job back," says Orton, "I would've just fought for it the following spring." But late in the fourth quarter on a frigid day at Michigan State, Kirsch got the wind knocked out of him. Orton tossed two hasty warmup throws before jogging to the huddle. Trailing 42-37, the Boilermakers had a fourth-and-eight on the Spartans' 40. The call was "a little hitch pass," Tiller remembers, a nice, safe play to move the chains. Orton, though, saw the defense crowding the line, preparing to blitz. With a hostile crowd screaming at him and to the pained disbelief of his coach, the sophomore changed the play at the line of scrimmage. "I'm hearing him audible," says Tiller, "and I'm thinking, I'm gonna strangle him when he gets off the field."

The Spartans blitzed, and Orton arced a pass to John Standeford, whose touchdown gave Purdue a 45-42 victory. Orton reclaimed his starting job two games later.

"The fact that he's been hurt, that he's had to watch another guy play early in his career--that's what's brought him to the level he's at," says Brees, now the starter for the San Diego Chargers. "Enduring that adversity matures you. It makes you appreciate it when things are going well." Before ringing off to attend a walk-through last Saturday, Brees prophesied the tumbling of some of his Purdue passing records: "I hope he breaks 'em all."

Vast though his potential was, Orton had plenty to work on. His occasional, ungainly scrambles called to mind the zombies from Night of the Living Dead. But last season marked his breakout. Through weight training, plyometric exercises and agility drills, Orton transformed himself into a pretty fair scrambler. "I have a lot more confidence in my feet than I used to," he says. Against Illinois he could've thrown a fifth touchdown pass; he had a receiver wide open but pulled the ball down and ran it in from five yards out.

While his coaches liked his cool under pressure--Orton is the kind of guy who doesn't look up from his book when the plane hits heavy turbulence at 30,000 feet--they sometimes wished he would be a more vocal leader. Orton has done that, but he need not raise his voice to inspire his teammates. The Boilermakers remain in awe of the grit he showed in the Capital One Bowl last New Year's Day, when he was hit by Georgia's All-America defensive end, David Pollack, and ruptured the tendon in his left thumb. The dislocated digit protruded from Orton's hand at a grotesque angle. Team orthopedist Dale Snead could not pop the thumb back in. Orton told him to keep trying. "You're going to hate me for the next 30 seconds," Snead warned. Then "he just started rippin' away at it," recalls Orton, who nearly vomited from the pain. With the thumb back in place Orton returned to the game, only to sprain a toe and crack a rib. Despite his injuries--it only hurt when he held the ball, ran or breathed--he scrambled for two TDs and threw for another, completing 20 of 34 passes in an overtime loss to the Bulldogs.

"What he did in that game," said Owen back in the apartment, "is a testament to his toughness." The guard lowered his voice to pay the compliment, not wishing to be overheard by Orton, whom he had just criticized for spending too much time with his girlfriend over the team's recent bye weekend.

There was Owen on Zuppke Field after Saturday's game, goatee still in place. Like many of his teammates, he seemed subdued in victory. "I think we're gonna get ripped [by the coaches]," he said.

The Purdue defense had been exposed a bit. It's a measure of how far Tiller has brought the program that seven starters from last year's unit are now on NFL rosters. This year's D, long on talent but short on game savvy, yielded 390 yards to the Illini, including 175 rushing. If the Boilermakers don't tackle better, they'll lose this Saturday to Notre Dame in South Bend, where Purdue has not won in 30 years.

"I didn't see what the hype was [about]," huffed Illini safety Morris Virgil, who labeled the Boilermakers "just another team."

He was still smarting from a comeback that fell short; still caught up in the heat of battle. "There was a lot of jawing out there," said Sinclair, the Illini linebacker. "Orton wasn't involved in it. He's one of those guys who puts a smile on his face and gets his job done."

It's who Kyle Orton is.

Orton's right arm is SCARY STRONG--twice he's ripped the webbing on the fingers of a roommate who gamely volunteers to catch his passes.
COLOR PHOTOPhotograph by Al TielemansTROPHY CASE With 13 TD passes, no picks and a 69.8 completion percentage, Orton has thrown himself into the Heisman race. COLOR PHOTOBOB ROSATO  TOUGH ENOUGH? Though Anthony Spencer forced a fumble with this sack, the Purdue defense gave up loads of ground to Illinois. COLOR PHOTOPhotograph by Bob RosatoSIX-POINT LANDING Stubblefield's 34-yard touchdown reception in the fourth quarter was one of two scoring strikes that came on audibles by Orton. Orton estimates he changed half of Purdue's plays--a jaw-dropping figure. Said one Illini defender,"It felt like he called the whole game from the line of scrimmage."