Why Purdue Scares Me

WITH USC, Stanford and Washington all biting the bowl dust, the burden now falls to Washington State and Oregon to salvage what's left of the Pac-10's national reputation this season.

And while most pundits see the Duck-Buffalo fiesta on New Year's Day shaping up as a donnybrook, they seem to think the No. 13-ranked Cougars will have their way in Monday's Sun Bowl (11:15 PT kickoff) showdown with unranked Purdue.

 

Oddsmakers have installed the Cougars as 8 ½ point favorites. Mike Gastineau of KJR Sports radio in Seattle has gone so far as to predict a Cougar blow out. So has venerable Jim Sweeney, the sage mentor of both of the game's head coaches. And five of six writers and editors polled at The Sporting News cast their lot with Ol' Wazzu  as well.

 

To me, that all adds up to be one recipe for trouble. USC was favored against Utah. Stanford was favored against Georgia Tech. The Dawgs weren't favored, but they did manage to blow a gigantic second-half lead and lose.

 

Shoot, the Cougars' only two losses of this 2001 season were in games they were favored to win, at home against Oregon and on the road at Montlake.

 

Bottom line, the way teams line up on paper is one thing. But the intangible fight and fury of game day in the college ranks is quite another. One big play here, one fluke there and an untimely penalty across the field can turn the tide of favoritism in an El Paso hurry.

 

If Cougar fans or even the Crimson Soldiers themselves take former Mike Price assistant coach Joe Tiller's Boilermakers lightly just because they dropped four consecutive games to close out the regular season, there will be no tenth win to gloat about come Monday evening.

 

For starters, Tiller and his coaching staff --- which, by the way, includes former WSU star Ken Greene --- are no strangers to big games or bowl games. This is Purdue's fifth-straight post-season appearance since Tiller arrived in West Lafayette from Wyoming five years ago.

 

Also, as Price pointed out recently, final exams and snow cut into the Cougars' practice time for this game. Neither of those factors hindered Purdue.

 

Moreover, facts are facts:  the Boilermakers' defense is stout, even if all-Big Ten tackle Matt Mitrone quit the team two weeks ago. Purdue ranks No. 25 nationally in total defense and No. 8 in turnover margin. WSU ranks No. 53 in total D and No. 10 in turnover margin.

 

So why all the folks jumping on the WSU bandwagon?

 

It's offense.

 

Both clubs are practitioners of the wideopen one-back offense, but in 2001 the Cougar version was vastly different than the Boilermakers'. More specifically, WSU's offense averaged 438 yards per game --- No. 17 in the nation. Purdue's averaged 306 yards per contest --- a woeful 105th of the 112 teams playing Division I-A ball.

 

But even those stats don't tell the whole story --- a whole story that again spells out why Cougar faithful ought not be too cocksure heading into Monday's game. WSU's offense clicked on all cylinders early in the season, piling up the yards and the points. But in the second half of the season against the Pac-10's best teams, the Cougar O mostly sputtered.

 

My hunch is that we'll know early on Monday whether the Cougars will be redeeming some of the Pac-10's national pride or conmtributing to the downfall. Purdue's offensive line has been suspect most of the season. Coupled with the fact the starting QB is lightly-experienced true freshman Kyle Orton, the Cougars figure to bring the house damn near every down.

If the Cougars get to him early and often, chalk one up for the Pac-10. If they don't, expect to see Yakima's Taylor Stubblefield catching up a storm of Orton's deep balls --- especially on the first-down passing plays that are so crucial to neutralizing a blitzing defense.

NOTABLE NOTE:

CBS will televise the Sun Bowl for the 34th consecutive year. It is the longest continuous telecast of a postseason football game. Earlier this year, CBS extended its Sun Bowl agreement through 2006. The announcers for next Monday's game are Verne Lundquist, former Penn State QB Todd Blackledge, Jill Arrington and former Houston Heisman Trophy winner Andre Ware.


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