They formed the customary line and high-fived fans, but there were no smiles to be seen. Hardly a word was uttered. It was the typical scene of a grim defeat.
But coach Darrell Hazell knows better than to downplay the Boilermakers' 20-14 escape from FCS opponent Indiana State—his first win as Purdue's head coach. When asked if he can savor the win, he cut off the question.
"Absolutely," Hazell quickly answered. There wasn't the slightest bit of hesitation.
Hazell built up the Kent State program into a winner in just two seasons, and he's now vying to make Purdue a perennial contender. When reshaping a program like this, there will be great challenges along the way. It will be a work in progress; games like this one prove that.
"There are a lot of times where you win ugly or lose pretty," Hazell continued. "But you learn to appreciate the wins."
Hazell's Boilermaker players didn't quite see the silver lining. The win offers slight satisfaction, but the taste isn't so sweet. There's plenty of work to be done.
"It's the strive for perfection, the strive for excellence," said senior quarterback Rob Henry. "When you don't play the way you know you're capable of, there's going to be some disappointment there."
Purdue was far from polished in earning its win. There was the sequence where the Boilermakers failed to score on three plays at the 1-yard line. And the time it happened again.
There was the first-half clock expiring as the Boilermakers tried to set up a field goal with no timeouts.0 And there was Rob Henry snapping the ball with 10 seconds on the play clock as Purdue attempted to run out the clock late in the game.
There's even more that could explain the look of anguish rather than jubilance as the Boilermakers left the field.
"This is a win business and we're happy about [getting a win]," senior cornerback Ricardo Allen said. "But we know we have strides to make."
It all ended with a quiet knee and a loud exhale from the Purdue faithful. Allen's interception of Indiana State quarterback Mike Perish—the lone turnover of the game—sealed the victory, bailing out Rob Henry and the offense for failing to run out the clock.
Henry was far from perfect, completing 15 of 24 passes for 150 yards, but it was an improved effort from his blunder-filled showing against Cincinnati, the one which led him to his public self-chastising.
From start to finish, Henry paced the offense without any terminal errors, but with an overly-cautious approach. His longest pass went for just 25 yards, and that was on a screen pass to running back Akeem Hunt. Overall, Henry played well enough to win—at least on this Saturday.
"I felt it was better," Henry said. "But it's still not good enough—not good enough to get to where we need to be, to where we want to go, to where this team can go."
The game opened with Hunt taking a handoff on the opening kickoff and reversing field for a 99-yard touchdown run. Then, it figured to be a minimal moment in the game. In the end, it was the difference in victory. The design was rehearsed in practice and Indiana State played into Purdue's hands.
"We had a script drawn that ran it just like ISU did," Hunt said. "I came off the edge and no one was there, so I went all the way down for the touchdown."
Purdue's offense scuffled throughout the game. The most vivid memories from this game were the six—count ‘em, six—failed plays from the 1-yard line. After the final play, the clock expired on Purdue as it attempted to set up a field goal before halftime. Those points would have completely changed the game. The Boilermakers left to loud boos as the fled to the locker room.
Finally, the offense broke through that invisible wall at the goal line, when receiver B.J. Knauf took a sweep 16 yards to the end zone for Purdue's first and only offensive score of the game. That came late in the third quarter, giving the Boilermakers a 17-0 lead. After that, they shifted to survival mode.
In the fourth quarter, after Paul Griggs hit his second field goal of the game, the Sycamores responded with a 17-yard touchdown connection from Mike Perish to Demory Lawshe. It was part Perish's 29-of-45 and 256-yard performance. A message was sent that the Sycamores weren't going down easily.
Nerves filled Ross-Ade Stadium throughout most of the fourth quarter. Fans didn't feel safe until Allen's late pick secured the victory.
"Our coaches called [the coverage] out and told me to go make a play," Allen said of the interception. "If you go with what the coaches coach, it'll always turn out positive."
The focus turns to rival Notre Dame, a team which played for the national championship last season. But first, some time for Darrell Hazell to enjoy this victory. It wasn't a pretty win, but the coach knows never to take triumph for granted.
If Hazell leads Purdue to the top, he'll see his first, sloppy victory as the start of something special.