WEST LAFAYETTE - If it was up to Purdue coach Joe Tiller, and given the way this football season has gone, don't hold your breath, quarterback Curtis Painter would be healthy enough to run the two-minute offense Saturday at Iowa.
Tiller isn't asking for a complete return to health for Painter and his injured throwing shoulder. He wants just enough to take the extra pressure off the inexperienced Justin Siller as the Boilers (3-7) face a 6-4 Hawkeye team coming off an upset win over previously unbeaten Penn State.
“Perhaps Curtis' best moment as a Purdue quarterback was last year's Motor City Bowl when he took the ball down the field at the end, and with the exception of the first call, all the rest of his calls were his,” Tiller said. “That's what you need in your quarterback during a two-minute game.
“Justin isn't prepared to do that. It's not that he can't do it in the future, it's just how much are you going to heap on this guy now? What are you going to expect him to do and give the guy a chance?”
Siller spent most of the season at running back before switching to quarterback the last few weeks after Painter and backup quarterback Joey Elliott went down with injuries. He's scrambled to learn the position as well as how to read defenses designed to confuse him.
Tiller said there's a chance Painter, who has missed the last two games, could play against Iowa. Painter threw 50 practice balls on Monday and is gradually increasing his work load.
“I'm the most optimistic I've been,” Tiller said. “There's a dash of hope he'll be able to play.”
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A relentless string of injuries ruined Purdue's chances to finish with a winning record in Tiller's 12th and final season. It started last spring and continued throughout this season.
“It's been difficult and frustrating,” Tiller said. “We're not used to this. It's been very challenging.”
Besides quarterback, the battered offensive line has seen six different starting combinations. Jason Werner, the team's best linebacker, has missed the season because of a back injury. Tailback Jaycen Taylor was lost for the season in August with a knee injury. Tight end Kyle Adams has been sidelined with an injury.
“Here's an illustration,” Tiller said. “Warner, Taylor and Adams, we didn't get a down out of any of those three guys. Not one down out of them. They were our top three returning players on our punt team a year ago. That's maybe a microcosm. Maybe that's just a small look at the season as a whole.”
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Siller started out as a Purdue quarterback, but struggled so much last spring that coaches decided the position wasn't for him. Then, when Taylor suffered a season-ending knee injury in August, coaches moved him to running back to provide depth. But his quarterback play, specifically earning Big Ten player of the week honors by throwing for 266 yards and three touchdowns and running for 77 yards and a TD to lead the Boilers over Michigan, convinced Tiller that Siller should stay at the position.
The problem - Tiller is retiring after the season. Offensive line coach Danny Hope will take over.
“I like a lot of things Justin does and I think Coach Hope will leave him at quarterback,” Tiller said.
“Justin has upside at the position. He's very crude as a quarterback, but he's a very bright young man. He has the qualities it takes to be successful in the position. I think he will bring something to the field that no quarterback has had had since we've been here - that ability to create outside the system.”
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Tiller faces retirement in a couple of weeks. What's become the most difficult part of being a college head coach?
“It's managing expectations,” he said. “I say that not just for me or Purdue, but for all of college sports. Who doesn't expect you to win every game any more? People used to take a realistic look at a team and look at the talent level and experience and create an expectation level. Today none of that is factored in. The expectation from Day 1 is, if you don't win 12, you're a bad person. That's the most challenging part of it.”