CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – Danny Hope hustled toward the victory spotlight with a smile on his face and a bounce to his step.
“You guys missed a heck of a celebration,” the Purdue coach said from the Memorial Stadium visiting locker room.
Of course the Boilers celebrated. You had Saturday night's 20-17 victory at Illinois that positioned them for a second straight bowl bid if they can beat arch-rival Indiana in next Saturday's regular season finale.
You had tailback Ralph Bolden, he of the three torn ACL's, hobbling his way for a 63-yard run, a 93-yard night (giving him 195 in the last two games) and, ultimately, the game ball.
You had a defense that stuffed Illinois when it mattered most, an offensive coordinator (Gary Nord) who made the trip despite a back injury so severe he couldn't get off the team bus to join in Friday night's team meal at the Beef House in western Indiana, and a running resolve that wound up producing 207 rushing yards, the second straight game of more than 200.
“We'll have a lot of fun on the ride home,” Hope said. “They know what's at stake (next Saturday). It will be a great game with IU. Having them at home, with postseason play on the line, there's a lot to be excited about. I'm happy for our team. We're gaining momentum and energy.”
Two weeks ago Purdue was 3-6, 0-5 in the Big Ten and wondering how a season that began with such promise could be falling apart. Now, with three-point victories at Iowa and at Illinois, bowl eligibility will come with an Old Oaken Bucket win over Indiana.
“That will be a huge game,” quarterback Robert Marve said. “It's a must-win game that we have to fight for. We have to have the same mindset with had here -- scratch, fight and win. Scratch, fight and win.
“When your backs are against the wall, you have to keep swinging. We're not done by any means. We know how good IU can be. We have to step up on offense. I know that's what I can control. We have to score more and keep fighting. The defense is playing phenomenal.”
Start with cornerback Josh Johnson, who forced two fumbles and broke up two passes. Safety Landon Feichter, a former Bishop Dwenger standout, had a game-high 10 tackles. Linebacker Robert Maci had eight tackles and a fumble recovery. Defensive tackle Kawann short had one sack and a fumble recovery.
In all the Boilers forced three turnovers and never let Illinois (2-9) get in a groove.
“It was great play by our defense to get the takeaways,” Hope said.
Purdue overcame a sluggish first quarter to win its second straight game. Bolden (93 yards) and Akeem Shavers (99 yards) sparked the running game.
Marve was 18-for-26 for 173 yards and a touchdown.
Illinois was led by quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase's 22-for-38, 160-yard effort.
Purdue forced two turnovers in the first quarter and got nothing out of them. It had just eight total yards in nine plays in the quarter.
The Boilers picked up the offensive pace and got a 31-yard field goal from Sam McCartney for a 3-0 second quarter lead. It added a 29-yard field from McCartney to negate a 54-yarder from Illinois' Taylor Zalewski.
Purdue forced another fumble in the second quarter and, again, failed to score. The result was a 6-3 halftime lead. The Boilers totaled 156 yards on 36 plays. Marve was 13-for-17 for 79 yards.
Everything changed in one stunning third-quarter play. Marve rolled to his right, then threw back to his left to Hunt on a screen pass. The entire Illinois defense was fooled and Hunt bolted 63 yards for a touchdown to make it 13-3.
“We had a busted coverage on that one,” Illinois coach Tim Beckman said. “One of our linebackers just lost his man.”
Illinois came back on Dami Ayoola's 16-yard TD run to cut the lead to three.
Then Bolden, coming off his third ACL surgery, bolted for a 63-yard run. It would have been a 78-yard touchdown, but he began limping because of a slight hamstring injury and went out of bounds at the Illinois' 15-yard line. Two plays later, Hunt scored on a 6-yard run for a 20-10 score.
Scheelhaase scored on a 2-yard run to cap a 95-yard drive with 3:29 left to make it 20-17. The Boilers recovered the on-side kick to clinch the win.
“We cannot turn the ball over and win,” Beckman said. “That was the difference.”
Nord's appearance with the team ( receivers coach Patrick Higgins was the main play caller) was more for morale than for actual coaching, Hope said.
"Gary is really having a tough time," Hope said. "His role was to be with us as part of the family. I think it's a boost for our players and a boost for Coach Nord."
As for the players, Hope said, “(Our guys) work and want to win and have fun. They want to be successful. They have paid a heck of a price. They paid the price to win. We had a tough spot in the season. We fell behind from a manpower standpoint. We lost to some great teams.
“We're healthier now and playing well.”