Purdue started out hot in the beginning of the 2010 season, but stumbled down the stretch when injuries, inexperience and mistakes overwhelmed the game plan. Purdue lost its last six games, including a 34-13 home defeat to Wisconsin in which it held the halftime lead, and didn't make a bowl game for the third season under Hope.
Now, the hope for Purdue is that the injury bug stays away and that a bowl game is in the making. After its toughest two-game stretch of the season, Wisconsin returns to Camp Randall to face a Boilermakers' spread offensive attack that gave the Badgers plenty of problems last season in West Lafayette.
Running back Ralph Bolden, transfer quarterback Robert Marve and wide receiver Keith Smith were supposed to make Purdue an offensive machine, but Bolden got hurt in the spring and the latter two both suffered knee injuries and were gone for the season. Smith is gone, but the other two key components are back. The question is how effective will they be on their surgically repaired knees?
Marve will be the key. Starting first four games of the season before injuring his knee against Toledo, the senior quarterback completed 67 of 99 passes (67.7 percent) for 512 yards with three touchdowns and four interceptions. Without him, Purdue completed just 5.1 yards per completion. With him, Purdue's completion percentage went up to 7.6 yards per game.
"It's the first time since I've been the head coach at Purdue that we have a quarterback going into the fall that played in a college football game," Hope said. "Robert Marve is a special passer, runs well. It was unfortunate that he was injured last year because I think he was starting to get it together. His game was really beginning to come on. Unfortunately he was injured.
"Last year at this time, I thought we could play well at the quarterback position, even though we didn't have anyone coming back that had played in a college football game at Purdue. This year I'm really excited about the quarterback position because we have guys that have played and they've done well and won. I think we're in a great situation from a quarterback situation for the first time since I've been a head coach at Purdue."
The other key for Purdue is getting senior Ralph Bolden in the mix. Then a sophomore, Bolden was one of the most dynamic players in the conference in his 12 starts, as he ranked second in Big Ten with 11 touchdowns (9 rushing, 2 receiving), third with average of 77.9 rushing yards per game and seventh with average of 99.7 all-purpose yards per game.
But after Bolden finished the year with 935 rushing yards and 261 receiving yards, he tore his ACL in spring practice and redshirted the upcoming season, an injury that was one of the main reasons Purdue averaged just 4.4 yards per rush.
"Ralph Bolden will be back," Hope said. "He was one of the top players at his position two years ago. Outstanding running back. He rushed for just a shade under a thousand yards. I think he caught about 300 yards of passes out of the backfield. Getting Ralph and Robert back will be huge for our football team."
The injuries at quarterback might be a benefit to Hope in planning for this year, seeing as he knows what he has in sophomore Rob Henry. Making seven starts as a redshirt freshman and earning the Leonard Wilson Award winner (given to the player that demonstrates unselfishness and dedication), Henry was the first Purdue quarterback in school history to lead the team in both rushing and passing yardage in a season, finishing with 996 passing yards and 547 rushing yards.
With both players healthy, expect the cradle of quarterbacks to trot two out there in the fall.
"We had some plans last year to utilize a two-quarterback system, especially with Rob Henry being new to the quarterback position," Hope said. "We felt like going into the season that Robert Marve was number one and Rob Henry was number two, it would give us a chance to get Rob Henry on the field some at the quarterback spot and some other positions as well.
"To be quite frank, Rob Henry was too good of an athlete to be on the bench. We had a plan last year to utilize a two-quarterback system some. We have a plan to utilize at least a two-quarterback system some this year as well. It won't be the bread and butter of our offense, but something that has potential and a style of offense that we have the personal-of-personnel to execute."
Much like the Badgers are trying to replace J.J. Watt, Purdue must find a way to replace Ryan Kerrigan, whose 26 TFLs, 12.5 sacks and five forced fumbles made him a first-round NFL Draft pick. Purdue finished first in the Big Ten in sacks and tackles for loss, finishing fourth in the nation in plays in the backfield and 14th in sacks. However, it didn't translate into production against the pass, as the Boilers still gave up 29 points per game. Purdue needs playmakers.
The one positive Purdue has going for it is experience, especially after Purdue played over 17 freshmen last season and just six seniors. Returning a young but experience football team, the healthy Boilermakers have the ability to have more firepower on offense and certainly are anxious to make amends from the failure to live up to last season's expectations.
"We feel like we are a hungry football team, that if we can stay healthy and hang onto the football and take care of football, we can be very successful this upcoming season," Hope said. "We go into the season this year with a lot of experienced players, a lot of guys that played well last year. Looking back on last season, we felt like the 2010 season made us stronger and better prepared for this upcoming season."
The Badgers should be relieved to be home after two tough games, but will need a full defensive effort if Purdue is at full strength.
Overall Record: Wisconsin leads 39-29-8
Record in Madison: Wisconsin leads 22-12-5
Last Meeting: Wisconsin won, 34-13, in West Lafayette in 2010