WEST LAFAYETTE – Let's start with what matters most for Purdue University's football team: The Boilermakers are 1-0.
It doesn't matter that Purdue needed a late-game drive and a blocked field goal to escape with a 27-24 win over Middle Tennessee State on Saturday at Ross-Ade Stadium. It doesn't matter that Middle Tennessee State, for all of its tenaciousness, is far from Big Ten competition. Ask Notre Dame if it would have taken a close win over a supposedly weaker opponent. Ask Indiana. Actually, no one needs to ask that question.
Purdue ended last season with six consecutive losses.
Any win would bring relief after that kind of drought.
“From a growth standpoint, this football team needed to win,” Purdue coach Danny Hope said. “We have a lot of guys who try hard, who have character, who have lots of talent. We have to learn how to win as a football team. It's just like anything else. You have to learn to block, you have to learn to tackle, you have to learn to win.”
It's in that light that Purdue can take the faults of opening day, and there were more than a few, and learn from them. Next up is a road trip to Rice this Saturday.
For Purdue's mental state – for its confidence – it can take a handful of positives from opening day. The offense, led by quarterback Caleb TerBush, staged an 11-play, 85-yard scoring drive in the fourth quarter to take the lead with 49 seconds left. That offense included big plays from TerBush, a healthy Ralph Bolden (120 yards rushing) and receivers Justin Siller (five catches) and Antavian Edison (game-winning catch).
Purdue's special teams lived up to their names, particularly in play from kicker Carson Wiggs (50- and 47-yard field goals; 42.7 yards per punt), punter Cody Webster (50 yards per punt, all perfectly placed) and versatile player Ricardo Allen. Allen, who fumbled after fielding a punt early, returned to make the biggest special-teams play of the day, blocking Middle Tennessee's field-goal attempt as time expired.
Trouble spots? Yes, there were a few. Purdue's defense, which was supposed to be a strong suit filled with veteran players, allowed 460 yards in offense, including 330 through the air, and allowed Middle Tennessee to convert seven of 16 third downs. Yet even the defense had its moments, most significantly in regaining the ball before the Boilers' final drive.
Purdue trailed much of the game, which ought to be lesson in remaining persistent and undeterred, if nothing else.
“In the long run, it was probably better for us to come from behind to win and be backed into a corner and come out swinging,” Hope said. “That was probably better than to come out and beat Middle Tennessee by a significant margin.”
Somehow, I'll bet Hope would have taken a rout, but I understand where he's coming from.
TerBush, the unexpected starter after injuries to Rob Henry and Robert Marve, has some learning to do in terms of decision-making, but he completed 19 of 33 passes for 219 yards and a pair of touchdowns. He has the requisite quarterback trait of being able to discard his mistakes and move forward on the next possession. As Marve heals from his knee issues, the two may end up sharing time. Sean Robinson might get his chance, too.
Hope said “Caleb is our quarterback” but I sense that is open to alteration if future circumstances arise. And that's as it should be. Competition among healthy quarterbacks at Purdue would indeed be a welcome sight and a huge step forward.
Perception might be that Purdue should have throttled Middle Tennessee State the way, say, Nebraska took care of Chattanooga. Understatement of the day: Purdue is not Nebraska.
After nearly 11 months without a football win (last Oct. 16 over Minnesota), Purdue wasn't in need of style points. A simple, satisfying ‘W' was achievement enough for Week One.