It’s not often Purdue has had seasons like this.
A quick glance through the Boilermaker annals shows that it’s been nearly a quarter of a century since the program had a combined at least 17 wins in back-to-back seasons, when Joe Tiller did – shockingly – during his first 2 years on the sideline of Purdue. But the Boilermakers are once again on the precipice, needing 1 more win to get to 17 after 9 wins last season. Purdue will have its first chance to do that against rival Indiana on Saturday in Bloomington as the schools compete for the Old Oaken Bucket.
But 17 is perhaps the least important of the things the Boilermakers are playing for, including a shot at a share of a Big Ten West Division title and an outside chance to play for the championship in Indianapolis. They need Nebraska to upset Iowa on Friday afternoon in Iowa City, coupled with a win against the Hoosiers, to pull that off. Heck, if that happens, Purdue might only have a shot at its 2nd 10-win season ever, though it would be at least a 2-touchdown underdog to Ohio State or Michigan in the title game, then possibly an underdog in the bowl , also.
Purdue’s path to the Bucket game hasn’t been a straight line. The Boilermakers started the season 1-2 after missing opportunities vs. Penn State and Syracuse, with late missteps that allowed the opponents to take a lead and then hold on. Purdue bounced back to win 4 straight, including back-to-back victories as underdogs vs. Minnesota and Maryland. But with control of the West in their hands, the Boilermakers couldn’t keep up the momentum, losing in Wisconsin – seemingly for the 100th straight – and falling home, as the favorite, to Iowa. The latter left Purdue fans feeling despondent, thinking the chance to play in Lucas Oil in Indy had passed. Perhaps so, but Purdue responded the following week, earning its third win of the season as the underdog on the road, upsetting Illinois. Under Jeff Brohm for the past 6 years, Purdue has been great when pushed against a wall. A dull victory against Northwestern Saturday, at the chilly Ross-Ade Stadium, brings the Boilermakers back to the present.
Purdue has an overwhelming lead in the Bucket Series, starting in 1925 and winning 61 of 96 games (with 32 losses and 3 ties), but lately it’s been more even. The Boilermakers won 13 of 16 from 1997-2012. But since ’13, the Hoosiers are 5-3, including a 4-game winning streak from 2013-2016. That said, Purdue have won 3 of the last 4, and another win on Saturday would be a big step in re-establishing themselves as the top Big Ten team in the state.
For programs that have struggled in recruiting, and that has been especially true recently, as both Brohm and Tom Allen have emphasized prospects in the Indianapolis area (and each have had large recruits) during their tenures, the series trends.
Even if the Boilermakers don’t get help from the Cornhuskers this weekend, a share of a Big Ten West title would be a prized result, especially considering the divisions are likely to disappear next season as USC and (presumably) UCLA join. the conference in ’24.
But Saturday’s game probably won’t be easy. Purdue haven’t made it much easy this season, with 7 out of 11 results coming through possession alone. The Boilermakers are a 10-point favorite, but Indiana appears rejuvenated after last week’s stunning 39-31 comeback overtime win at Michigan State. The Hoosiers can’t get to 6 wins, but a win would be win No. 5, a step back in the right direction for Allen and Co. after only winning 2 games last season.
So Purdue faces a challenge and does so with a ton at stake.