WEST LAFAYETTE -- This isn't what Purdue tailback Akeen Shavers signed up for. He was a Danny Hope guy with a vision. The vision remains; Hope is gone; and Tuesday's Heart of Dallas Bowl opportunity is a chance to mesh the two.
“Everyone takes it differently,” Shavers says about Hope's firing last month. “For me, it's kind of a motivation-type deal. I wish he was at the bowl with us. He's the coach who brought me here. I want to end it with him, but it's not going to happen that way, so me and the team want to leave a good print here for the Hope era.”
Shavers' print took off the last three games of the regular season. He rushed for 64 yards against Iowa, 99 against Illinois and 126 yards (on a career-high 27 carries) against Indiana. That gives him a team-leading 788 rushing yards and six touchdowns.
The 5-11, 203-pound Shavers' improved production reflected the change from offensive coordinator Gary Nord to receivers coach Patrick Higgins as play caller. Nord, who missed the final three games with a severe back injury, preferred to spread around the running duties. Higgins focused on Shavers and Ralph Bolden. Against Iowa and Illinois, they combined for 358 rushing yards while averaging 6.1 yards a carry. Bolden missed the IU game with a hamstring injury.
Shavers doesn't figure his role will change in the bowl game against Oklahoma State (7-5).
“I'll probably do the same thing I've done the last few games -- a little bit of receiving, and running and blocking. That will be my job.”
In fact, Higgins said, when it comes to Shavers, as it is for most running backs, more is better.
“We decided that instead of having four backs carry the ball, let's pick a couple of guys and go with them. That will give them a rhythm. Like any back, you need to get in the flow of things.
“Akeem was getting a little disjointed about being in, being out. One of the things about creating an offensive identity was we were going to limit the people who touch the ball and put them in the right spots.
“We've told him to use his natural ability, and he's done a great job. He's done nothing to suggest he can't handle the load. He's like, 'Give me the ball.' So we will.”
Shavers and the Purdue rushing attack will be challenged by an Oklahoma State defense that ranks No. 36 nationally against the run at 140.56 yards allowed.
“They're fast, and they're built to stop the spread offense,” Shavers says. “In the Big 12 they pass a lot and have fast running backs so they built to stop that. They've got rangy linebackers, really rangy safeties and have two good corners. That's what we're looking at.”
With Hope gone and new coach Darrell Hazell focused on his Kent State team's Jan. 6 GoDaddy.com Bowl opportunity, Higgins is running bowl preparation as the interim head coach.
“Practice is a little different,” Shavers says. “The atmosphere is what has changed the most. You're used to having Coach Hope out here every day. He's not here, and we're missing his energy, but Coach Higgisn is doing a good job of stepping up and running practice. It's basically the same, but maybe a little more efficient.”
Purdue (6-6) is an 18-point underdog against Oklahoma State. That's the largest spread of any bowl game. The Boilers don't care.
“Just getting to a bowl isn't enough for our team,” Shavers says. “We want to show the world we're competitors. That we can compete with anybody when we're ready to play.
“We know we can play with anybody in the country. We proved it before (with closes losses to unbeaten Notre Dame and Ohio State). In certain games we don't show up, but when we do show up, we're ready to play with anyone. We have to make the most out of this opportunity.”