WEST LAFAYETTE -- The questions come in machine-gun fashion. What's really up with Purdue's Robert Marve? Is he hurt? Is he fine? Does a college athlete need an ACL? Could he have a NFL future? Has he become, with one regular season game remaining in a six-year college run, the quarterback he was meant to be?
At last, it seems, we have answers
“Despite of all the injuries,” coach Danny Hope says, “he's become the player he should have been. It's unfortunate he hasn't been at this level for three to four years, hasn't been an All-America-type player. If he had stayed healthy, it would have been a different story.”
This story finds Marve playing his best heading into Saturday's make-or-break Old Oaken Bucket battle against rival Indiana. He's more efficient, more accurate, more capable of delivering big plays.
Oh, yes. He's also less prone to turnovers.
“I get a little confused about the whole, 'quarterback I was supposed to be' thing,” Marve says. “I'm happy where I'm at on and off the field.
“I understand what Coach is talking about. It's been a roller coaster with injuries. I'm hurt now, but I'm not hurt, which is confusing. I feel good. It's the first time since I've been here that I really understand what they want from me and what I can do in the system.”
The system finds Marve playing without an ACL in his left knee. He's torn it three times, the last time two months ago at Notre Dame, and the ligament is gone.
And yet, if you see him play, it's as if ACLs have the relevance of a tail. He's fast and elusive and, more and more, pain free.
In his last four games Marve has thrown for five touchdowns and no interceptions. In his last two games, both wins, he's completed 43 of 59 passes (72.9 percent) for 439 yards and three touchdowns. For the season, he's thrown nine touchdowns and just two interceptions. That's huge given that, before this season, he'd thrown 16 touchdowns and 22 interceptions.
“Physically and mentally I'm in a place where it's pretty even,” he says. “When I first got here, you could watch me throw in the gym and think I was doing well, but on the field it wasn't translating very well. I didn't know the offense well. When you're making decisions in 1.5 to 2.0 seconds, you've got to understand what you're doing.”
Understanding was difficult because the injuries limited Marve's practice time. But he got plenty of reps in spring practice and fall camp and, in the last month, during the week.
“It's all coming together,” he says. “I wish I had more games. I'd love to get us to a bowl game and get the W.”
Adds Hope: “His story is remarkable. He's making good decisions with the ball. He's taken his game to a different level. His quarterback efficiency is way higher than it's ever been. He raises the level of play of the people around him.”
How is this possible without an ACL?
“(Director of sports medicine) Doug Boersma was 100 percent behind me,” Marve says. “I thought the season was over (after the Notre Dame game) until he said other players have played with this. Once he started saying it, that it wasn't some crazy idea to do it, it sunk in. He said there's a 50-50 chance where this works and your body accepts it.
“I guess my body accepted it.”
Acceptance took time. Marve missed two games, came back in limited action against Michigan and Wisconsin, then didn't play at all against Ohio State.
“The trainers did a great job,” Marve said. “I was trying to come back quick, quick. They were slowing me down. It worked out.”
He came in off the bench in the Minnesota loss and did well enough (11-for-19, 97 yards, two touchdowns in the second half) to convince Hope to scrap the quarterback rotation with Caleb TerBush and make him the full-time starter.
“Every week I'm getting better,” Marve says. “The Iowa game I was really hurting at halftime. The knee got cold and stiff. I couldn't throw in warmups. I got nervous, but I warmed up during the second half. At Illinois I felt normal at halftime. I was jumping around.”
Marve says he'll have surgery after the season. The end could come Saturday if Purdue (5-6) doesn't beat Indiana (4-7) to become bowl eligible. If the Boilers do win, he'll push surgery to January.
“I know I have to have it soon,” he says. “I'm trying to use the body as long as possible.”
Like all college players, Marve has the NFL dream. Unlike most, he has a family example. His father, Eugene, was an NFL linebacker for 12 years. The fact players with damaged knees don't often get pro opportunities is just another challenge to overcome.
“One thing I've learned is anything is possible,” says Marve, who is a law and society major. “If I have the opportunity, I'd like to. I think I'm playing pretty good football right now. Hopefully somebody will recognize that and give me an opportunity.
“Either way, I'll be fine. I'll talk to a couple of doctors and see what's the best situation for my knee. I know players have played years, not at quarterback, without the ACL. So I'll see what the doctors say and if opportunities come.
“Right now the only thing that matters is beating IU.”