WEST LAFAYETTE — What is it about Purdue and bad knee injuries?
Receiver Keith Smith is the latest Boilermaker to go down, and it could be for the season. He'll certainly miss Saturday's game against Ball State. Given his All America-caliber talent and impact, this is bad.
How bad? Smith will have an MRI in the next day or so. Coach Danny Hope said he's “not optimistic.”
Smith was hurt early in the fourth quarter of Saturday's 31-21 win over Western Illinois when a Leatherneck player's helmet smashed into his right knee following Smith's sixth and final catch. He was immediately taken to the locker room. He returned to the sidelines on crutches.
“We'll have to move on and get other guys ready to play,” Hope said. “That's why we recruit. It's why we work 80 to 100 hours a week and why we go at it all the time working hard to bring in the next good player to develop to get ready to play.”
Purdue already has lost tailback Ralph Bolden to a torn ACL. He had surgery last spring, and it's doubtful he'll return this season. The basketball Boilers lost Robbie Hummel to a torn ACL in February, although he's on pace to return this season. They also lost David Teague and Carl Landry to knee injuries in recent years.
In two games Smith had 18 catches for 123 yards. He was, by far, the favorite receiver of quarterback Robert Marve.
“It's tough losing anybody,” Marve said. “When you lose a good player like Keith, it hurts the whole team. We're going to find out our true character.”
Linebacker Jason Werner feels Smith's pain. He missed two seasons because of back injuries and was granted a sixth year of eligibility.
“He's a fantastic player and leader,” Werner said. “He brings so much to this team. You can't replace him. I hope for the best.
“This is a physical game. These things happen. The team has to rally. If he can't come back as soon as we'd like, we'll have to fill his spot and move on.”
Veteran receivers Cortez Smith (eight catches, 66 yards) and Justin Siller (seven catches, 71 yards, one touchdown), plus freshman O.J. Ross (four catches, 24 yards) will have bigger roles.
Freshmen Antavian Edison, Gary Bush and Xavier Reese (a combined one catch for four yards) will get more playing time. Tight end Kyle Adams (five catches, 36 yards) is another receiving possibility.
Other than the victory, Saturday's performance was unimpressive. A Western Illinois team not known for passing threw for 286 yards and completed 25 of 38 passes. It also ran for 120 yards.
Such struggles aren't surprising, Hope said, given all the new players being used. The Boilers (1-1) had to replace all the secondary, half the defensive line, a couple of offensive linemen, plus the quarterback. Marve is in his first season as a Boiler after sitting out last year after transferring from Miami of Florida.
“Right now, as a team, we lack some continuity,” Hope said. “We have a lot of new faces and new people. Some positions we're still not sure who the best players are. We have talented players, good players, and it's hard to create continuity when you're rolling people in and out like we do.
“We practice well. Sometimes we practice better than we play. We're more comfortable at practice.”
Still, Purdue got strong games from All-Big Ten defensive end Ryan Kerrigan and tailback Dan Dierking. Kerrigan totaled a career-best 12 tackles, including four for loss, a sack and a forced fumble. Dierking rushed for a career-high 102 yards on 14 carries.
“There were some things we'd like to do better and fix, and we'll do that,” Werner said, “but the main thing is you want to win, and that's what we did.”