The Boilers can win the Big Ten's Leaders Division and get to the conference championship game. They are experienced enough, talented enough and deep enough to do it, especially with the woeful state of the division.
Yes, Purdue lost a winnable game at Notre Dame. It was a couple of plays away from being 2-0 and on the verge of a top-25 ranking.
Instead, Saturday's 20-17 heartbreaker confirmed what we knew — this is a team capable of going far.
Now it has to do it.
Why are the Boilers 1-1 instead of 2-0? Credit Notre Dame's ability to hit a few end-of-game passes (veteran Tommy Rees replaced freshman Everett Golson in what coach Brian Kelly calls a “closer” role) and, for those with a certain Boiler bias, conspiracy.
Still, Purdue showed it can thrive in a hostile environment. It can make game-winning plays. Its defense, under new coordinator Tim Tibesar, displays signs of dominance. The offense can move the ball.
It needs better quarterback play and …
Hold on. We'll get there.
The Boilers made the Irish's diverse offense one-dimensional. They knocked off nearly 250 rushing yards from Notre Dame's 295-yard total against Navy in the season opener. Notre Dame averaged just 1.4 yards a rush on 36 attempts (six more attempts than Purdue), which indicates how much the Irish wanted to impose their running will. Given their line's size, strength and maturity, Purdue's effort was impressive.
Less impressive was allowing 324 passing yards, including seven completions of at least 21 yards.
For the record, all-conference cornerback Ricardo Allen didn't play during Notre Dame's game-winning drive, during which Rees hit three passes for 35 yards. Frankie Williams and Normondo Harris did.
Allen said he sprained his ankle slightly earlier in the fourth quarter, wanted to return, but the coaches decided otherwise. Hope said it was a “coaching decision.”
During that last drive, facing third-and-10 from Purdue's 41-yard line, Rees appeared to call a timeout the Irish didn't have with the play clock expired. Officials let him snap the ball and he completed a 21-yard pass to set up the winning field goal.
The Boilers also thought cornerback Josh Johnson was interfered with during that pass completion, but nothing was called.
“I'm not saying officials were really with Notre Dame,” Allen said, “but it kind of showed that they were.”
Speaking of Johnson, he had a big game with a team-leading nine tackles and four pass breakups, plus had the fumble that led to Purdue's late game-tying touchdown.
If Allen's injury lingers for a few weeks, it's no big deal considering the Boilers host Eastern Michigan and Marshall, then have a bye week, before opening Big Ten play on Oct. 6 against Michigan at Ross-Ade Stadium.
That, is a big deal.
“(The defense) did a good job,” defensive tackle Kawann Short said. “We stopped the run. It was just the pass game that they executed. We need to get back more to that.”
Figure they will. Figure they'll have to. Defense still wins championships (see Alabama).
Speaking of championships, the Leaders Division title is there for the taking. Penn State is reeling with a pair of should-have-won losses, and is ineligible. Indiana is not a threat without quarterback Tre Roberson (out for the season with a broken leg). Illinois is not a contender. Favored Wisconsin, surprisingly, has no offense. Ohio State under Urban Meyer is playing well — although you won't hear that from him — but is also ineligible.
That leads us to the quarterbacks. Robert Marve's status is uncertain after hurting his left knee against Notre Dame. If he's healthy, he should start Saturday against Eastern Kentucky. He out-played Caleb TerBush on Saturday (11-for-18 for 119 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions to TerBush's 8-for-19 for 79 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions), although TerBush delivered a clutch 15-yard TD pass to Antavian Edison late in the fourth quarter.
Regardless of who plays, the overall 19-for-37 accuracy with two TDs and two interceptions must improve.
Questions continue about Hope's multi-quarterback rotation plan, but Hope won't change. He'll play Marve, TerBush and Rob Henry, although Henry didn't get action against Notre Dame.
“We're going to play the guys who help us win,” Hope said. “If it's one quarterback, that's fine. If it's two, that's fine. If it's three, that's fine. If it's four, we'll do whatever it takes for us to win.”
As long as they do, who cares?