Kyle Orton is on a tear in 2004. Off to a blistering start, the Purdue quarterback has already racked up 1,642 yards through the air and has tossed 18 touchdowns against just two interceptions (each coming last week against Penn State), in only five games. Thanks to that early success, Orton now finds himself one of the favorites for the Heisman Trophy.
"It feels the same as if I were a nobody," Orton said of the Heisman hoopla. "It's no added pressure for me and I'm just happy we've won [five] games and we are playing well."
The trigger man in head coach Joe Tiller's offensive attack, Orton is averaging more than 300 yards per game passing. The stat he cares more about, however, is the Boilermakers' perfect 5-0 record—a mark that has vaulted Purdue to No. 5 in the polls. After three-consecutive road victories over Illinois, Notre Dame and Penn State, the Boilermakers return home to play host to undefeated Wisconsin (6-0 overall, 3-0 Big Ten) Saturday.
"I think I'm playing good football right now, and most importantly the team is 4-0," Orton said after Purdue's 41-16 victory over Notre Dame. "(The road wins) are big for us. Obviously, winning is better than losing, but it's big to get a win on the road, especially in a tough place like South Bend."
Orton's Purdue career began in earnest in 2002. Then a sophomore, he started nine of the Boilermakers' 13 games, throwing for 2,257 yards, 13 touchdowns and nine interceptions. He took the next step last season, emerging as one of the Big Ten's best signal callers. After starting all 13 games and throwing for 15 touchdowns and 2,885 yards, Orton garnered honorable mention All-Big Ten honors from both the coaches and the media.
"When I think back to 2002, it seems like a decade ago," Tiller said. "I don't really remember (Kyle) struggling that much. Last season and this season so far, he's been steady, so I don't think about his struggles of three or four years ago. He's really learned the system and he's been doing a good job of managing the game."
"The thing that's so impressive to me is his awareness," Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez said. "He knows where he's going with the ball. As you watch film after a while, you know where he's going to go with the ball. You've seen about everything tried against him and quite frankly you are not going to trick him. There are only so many different schemes you can use."
Last season in Camp Randall, Orton completed his first 15 passes and finished 38 of 55 for 411 yards and a touchdown in Purdue's 26-23 win at Wisconsin.
Badger senior cornerback Scott Starks said Orton is one of the best quarterbacks he has faced.
"Kyle Orton is definitely in the top three," he said. "He is right up there with... Joey Harrington and also David Carr... He's definitely one of the best I've ever seen. Just watching him in the first five games they played he is looking real good."
Now a senior, the quarterback from Altoona, Iowa has become a bonafide star. Orton's new-found fame has made him a target of autograph seekers everywhere, something that at times has become a distraction for a college senior.
"It's tough," Orton said of his notoriety. "I know there are people who want autographs, and that's fine, but it's getting tough. (The mob) was pretty unbelievable after the [Notre Dame] game, and I tried to sign as many kids' autographs as I could. I felt bad about the ones I couldn't sign, but I also wanted to see my parents and visit with them. (The hype) is obviously picking up, and I know it's going to get bigger and bigger, but that's how it goes."
Some of Orton's success can be linked to the relationship he has formed with senior wide out Taylor Stubblefield. Already this season, the two have connected 35 times for 568 yards and 11 touchdowns.
"I'm getting more and more impressed with him when I watch him on game film," Orton said of Stubblefield. "We work hard in practice together, think alike on the field, and talk after each play and tell each other what we want the other one to do differently. We don't really talk about football off the field, but on the field, that's all we talk about."
Behind the play of their senior quarterback, the Boilermakers are 5-0 for the first time since 1945 and have achieved their highest ranking under Tiller.
"I've been in the system now for 18 years and my observation in 18 years is that it's a much better system when you have a much better quarterback," Tiller said. "And when your quarterback isn't too hot, the system doesn't seem to be too hot … Quite a bit of the success can be directly traced back to the quarterback, and we have great confidence in our system. In a quarterback, we look for competitiveness, intelligence, and a guy with a good demeanor, someone who understands the team concept. Kyle is that guy."
Orton's star burning bright
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