Yet as the Buckeyes prepare for their final game against Tiller, a running back has become the most steady offensive threat for Purdue. Fifth-year senior Kory Sheets became Purdue's all-time touchdown leader this season, and Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel is among those who think highly of the Manchester, Conn., native.
"I happen to think their running back is as good as there is," Tressel said of Sheets Tuesday at his weekly media luncheon. "I'm biased. I think Chris Wells is the best back in the conference, but Kory Sheets is good.
"He is special. He does a good job as a return man. He does a good job as a back. He's a good receiver. He's a good one."
Sheets has done it all for the Boilermakers this season. He is fifth in the Big Ten in rushing with 498 yards on 93 carries. In addition, Sheets has proven to be a capable receiving target, hauling in 17 passes for 139 yards. The senior also leads Purdue in kick return yardage with 219 yards on 11 carries, though Tiller has recently relieved Sheets of his returning duties in order to get him some rest.
"When they're looking for a play, he's usually the one who is going to make it for them," OSU linebacker Ross Homan said. "He's their playmaker and an unbelievable back."
Sheets has not always been stellar for the Boilermakers, frustrating Purdue fans and spending time in Tiller's doghouse. The 6-foot, 206-pound rusher has scored more than 10 touchdowns in each of his three previous seasons, but fumbling problems have prevented him from developing into a top-tier back. When he held onto the ball, Sheets was impressive, however. He rushed for 859 yards and 11 scores on 168 carries as a junior, and Sheets had more than 2,000 career rushing yards coming into this season.
"Ball security is a big point of emphasis," Tiller said before the season. "You can talk about something so much that a guy can become paranoid. Kory's fully aware of the issues of the past. A reckless runner (like Sheets) is subjected to situations where the ball can be knocked out occasionally."
Before the season it looked like Sheets' up-and-down may cost him playing time. It was only when fellow rusher Jaycen Taylor went down with a season-ending knee injury during preseason training camp that Sheets was named the Purdue's featured back.
Sheets has taken advantage of the opportunity, and most of Purdue's best offensive moments this season have come from Sheets. He clinched a 32-25 come-from-behind victory over Central Michigan on a 46-yard touchdown run on Sept. 20. That score moved him to No. 1 all time on Purdue's touchdown list, surpassing the 42 times Mike Alstott reached the end zone. Sheet's 40 rushing touchdowns also are best in school history, one better than Alstott.
"For him to be that good for that long he's been around a while shows he's been good a long time," Shaun Lane said. "You have to be amazing to be a good back, and he is. He can find holes, and pick them out. He's a tough runner, too."
Sheets has reached the end zone in every game this season and scored a touchdown in Purdue's last eight games, a streak that dates back to a Nov. 10, 2007, game against Michigan State. Sheets had his best game of the '08 season Sept. 13 vs. Oregon. He scored two touchdowns in the first half as the Boilermakers built a 20-6 halftime lead. The Ducks rallied to win the game, 32-26, in double overtime, but Sheets still finished with a career-high 180 yards on 29 carries.
Sheets added two more touchdowns against the Chippewas a week later and reached the end zone again in a 38-21 loss at Notre Dame on Sept. 27. In the game vs. the Irish, Sheets had to be helped off the field in the final minutes because of a shoulder injury. Tiller told reporters after the game that Sheets' shoulder was popping out of joint, and the senior did not miss a game, running for 59 yards on 18 carries and another score in Purdue's 20-6 loss to visiting Penn State on Oct. 4.
Ohio State safeties coach Paul Haynes said he has seen a more confident Sheets on film as the Buckeyes prepare for Purdue.
"He's breaking a lot of tackles," Haynes said. "He's a lot shiftier and looks a little better than he did last year. He looks good."
The Buckeyes will hope to have a repeat performance against Sheets Saturday afternoon. Ohio State stifled Purdue's running game, and the Buckeyes' 14-0 first-quarter lead forced the Boilermakers to abandon the run early. Sheets finished with a team-high 20 yards rushing on seven carries. He added three receptions for eight years. Ohio State held Purdue to a total of four yards rushing.