“We feel a lot more comfortable about playing Ralph this weekend,” Hope said, “and I think Ralph is a lot more comfortable, as well.”
Bolden hasn't played since tearing his up his knee during last season's regular-season finale against Indiana. It was the third torn ACL for the former All-Big Ten performer, and while he's told coaches he's ready to return (he's been practicing since preseason camp started last month, although he hasn't been hit), they haven't turned him loose yet.
That could change Saturday.
“We knew that he was close (last Saturday against Michigan), or maybe ready,” Hope said, “but we wanted to see him get a few more reps in practice. He got some of that done last week.”
While Bolden hasn't been tackled live, he has taken hits during pass protection blocking. His first true hit will come in a game, where he'll rotate with Akeem Hunt and Akeem Shavers. Shavers leads the team with 274 yards and three touchdowns.
Bolden has rushed for 1,637 yards in his career, averaging 4.5 yards a carry and totaling 17 touchdowns, 15 on the ground. Assuming he's fully healthy, his big-play speed could be a boost for a team that has averaged less than 3 yards a carry in the last two games. Purdue rushed for just 56 yards on 26 carries in Saturday's 44-13 loss to Michigan.
“I don't anticipate putting Ralph in for 25 or 30 players, or even for 20 carries,” Hope said. “That would be a lot for a guy who hasn't played in a game in almost a year and who hasn't had many live reps. But he does look fast and quick and confident and sure in practice.
“I'm comfortable with Ralph going in. I'm sure he can help us win. The number of plays has yet to be determined.”
Bolden has three games of more than 100 yards rushing, with a career-high 234 against Toledo in 2009. That was the year he rushed for 935 yards and nine touchdowns.
“He's one of the better running backs I've been around,” Hope said. “He's a dynamite player, a make-you-miss player who catches passes, who's physical, who's an excellent blocker.
“He's a tough guy, old-school in some ways. He can do it all on the field.”
Purdue (3-2 overall, 0-1 in the Big Ten) might need that against Wisconsin, which has beaten the Boilers six straight times, including four straight at Ross-Ade Stadium. But the Badgers (4-2, 1-1) have struggled this season, barely getting past Northern Iowa, Utah State and even Texas El Paso. They are coming off a 31-14 win against struggling Illinois.
Purdue and Wisconsin are the Leaders Division favorites with Ohio State and Penn State ineligible, and Indiana and Illinois struggling. That means Saturday's winner will have a big edge in the race to qualify for the Big Ten title game.
The lopsided loss to Michigan won't shake the Boilers' confidence, Hope said.
“The magnitude of this game will get our team's attention. We'll need all of our focus geared toward playing Wisconsin. I'd be disappointed if we were so weak-minded that we let a loss linger and affect the outcome of our season. I believe we've weathered the storm.
“We'll bounce back. We have to play better. We're capable of doing that. We're excited about the opportunity. This is certainly a game that could springboard our team and program, and put us in position to do some really great things.”