Welcome to a brutal run of Penn State, No. 16 Illinois, No. 11 Michigan and No. 4 Wisconsin, with Penn State, Michigan and Wisconsin on the road. Those teams are a combined 22-1. Unranked Penn State, which hosts Purdue on Saturday, has the worst record at 5-1, but it is 2-0 in the Big Ten.
The Boilers are 3-2, 1-0 in the conference. They have a potent rushing attack, improving quarterbacks and defensive potential. They also have a coach, Danny Hope, who believes in them.
“We want to be competitive for one of the top spots in the league,” he said. “That's where our focus is. We'd like to have a better record, but some of that was part of the growth and development of our team.
“We feel good about where we're at and what we can do. There are always going to be naysayers when things don't go the way you want them to go. We try to emphasize to our players not to do that.
“You can't read something about how bad you're going to be, read your own obituary. We've mentioned that to the guys. They're tone deaf to it, for the most part.
“You've got to be strong and give them a reason to believe they can win, and we do that.”
Hope's optimism comes from improved quarterback play. Caleb TerBush and Robert Marve are evolving into a solid tandem that gives defenses plenty to think about. TerBush completes 64.1 percent of his passes for 787 yards, five touchdowns and two interceptions. He also ranks fourth on the team with 120 rushing yards. Marve completes 55.1 percent of his passes for 197 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. He's only played three games because of injury.
“Our quarterbacks are getting a lot better and that makes the team a lot better,” Hope said. “That gives all our playmakers a chance to be great playmakers.”
The Boilers will need greatness to overcome one of the nation's top defenses. Penn State holds opponents to just 93.2 rushing yards and 2.7 yards a carry. The Nittany Lions rank 17th nationally against the run and fourth on defense overall.
Purdue counters with the nation's No. 20 rushing attack at 215.0 yards a game. It has thrived with balance. Ralph Bolden leads with 273 yards. Akeem Shavers has 242. Akeem Hunt has 141.
Purdue is 3-0 when it rushes for at least 200 yards this season, and is 9-1 with more than 200 rushing yards under Hope.
The Boiler key could come with its defense. Against Notre Dame, it allowed 551 total yards. In its next game, against Minnesota, it allowed 213.
“It's not about redemption,” Hope said. “It can't be we didn't play (well) the week before, so we get angry and prove what we can do. That should be the standard of play for our defense.”
Of course, Notre Dame has a far better offense than Minnesota. Penn State's offense isn't a juggernaut, but it does have a veteran offensive line (five senior starters) that helped produce 231 rushing yards and 5.0 yards a carry in last Saturday's 13-3 victory over Iowa.
The Boilers' defense, Hope said, has to respond.
“They can look at the quality of the opponent (Penn State) and realize they'd better pick it up,” he said. “It's a great challenge. The fact they rebounded and responded (against Minnesota) is a good sign.”