It could have been their year. After all, if not now, when?
With Penn State and Ohio State sanctioned and ineligible for postseason play, a rare opportunity fell onto the collective lap of the Boilermakers. Purdue, which hasn’t won a Big Ten title in the past 10 years, had to finish ahead of only the remaining three Leaders Division squads to land a date at the Big Ten championship game on Dec. 1.
And after the first four games, it appeared coach Danny Hope’s team — losing just once in that stretch to now No. 3-ranked Notre Dame, 20-17 — was primed and ready to do so.
Yet, the imminent future suddenly appears grim for both Hope and his program, which Penn State takes on at 3:30 p.m. Saturday in West Lafayette, Ind. The Boilermakers have had four-straight demoralizing conference losses, most recently getting blown out by Minnesota, 44-28, last weekend.
After losing to three of the better teams in the Big Ten, Purdue allowed the Golden Gophers to go on a 44-0 run in what became their first Big Ten victory this season.
Hope’s squad is now desperate for a win and quite possibly playing for the fourth-year coach’s job.
Purdue’s Director of Intercollegiate Athletics Morgan Burke released a statement Monday that more or less gave Hope and his players an ultimatum to improve.
“Currently, our performance has kept us from reaching our goals,” Burke said in the statement.
“We need to press forward, converting potential into results and having fun playing Boilermaker football.”
According to the statement, it was expected of the program to improve upon its 7-6 season last year and “take a step up the postseason ladder” (the Boilermakers faced Western Michigan in the Little Caesars Bowl last season).
Mike Carmin, a beat reporter for the Lafayette Journal & Courier, said the statement didn’t refer to Hope by name, but its intentions were still quite clear.
“Anytime the athletic director is issuing a statement in the middle of the season,” Carmin said of Hope’s current status, “yeah, your job is in question a little bit.”
The statement wasn’t warmly received by Hope, who said he “didn’t pay a whole lot of attention to it.”
Hope chose to focus, rather, on improving the state of his team heading into a matchup with Penn State. The coach said turning around the season will not be a simple transformation, but he feels he has the right people in place to make it happen.
“You have to be aware to stop any negative momentum or a downward spiral,” Hope said.
“This is a time for extraordinary people, not ordinary people. I believe we have enough special people, extraordinary people around us to still manufacture a good season. There’s still a lot to play for.”
Hope said the team is now setting its sights on a seven-win season and a bowl game, which would require the Boilermakers to win its final four games.
With a newly announced starting quarterback in Robert Marve, who tore his ACL just seven weeks ago, Hope’s players will likely be playing inspired football in order to reach this goal.
Meanwhile, Penn State’s postseason aspirations have long been a goal of the past, due to the NCAA sanctions levied upon the program in July.
The Lions are also fresh off an emotional, 35-23 loss to Ohio State, which greatly diminishes the Lions’ chances to win the Leaders Division regular season title — something players have often said is their main goal this season.
So with Bill O’Brien’s team coming off such a devastating loss and facing a Purdue team very hungry for a win, how will the Lions react?
O’Brien answered this question at Wednesday’s press conference with very little hesitation and a stern look on his face — there will be no shortage of motivation for this program under his watch, he said.
“This team only has four games left, and every single game is a bowl game for us,” O’Brien said.
“So, regardless of whatever is going on, on any team that you play, and visa versa, we’ve got to go out there and our players, I believe, understand that we only have four more opportunities. We only play once a week. That’s all we have. So we’re going to put it all out there hopefully on Saturday.”
O’Brien said his seniors especially understand the importance of the last four games and will ensure the Lions aren’t emotionally overmatched.
Redshirt freshman defensive end Deion Barnes said he isn’t concerned about matching the Boilermakers’ energy Saturday due to the losing outcome of last weekend’s showdown with the Buckeyes.
“I don’t think we’ll have to [struggle to] compete with their intensity, because we’re coming off of a loss, too,” Barnes said. “We’re expecting them to play as hard as any other team would, so we’re going to have to be on our horses all day.”
Despite the Boilermakers’ winless conference record, O’Brien and his players said they view the road trip as a huge challenge that cannot be overlooked.
Offensive lineman John Urschel said, whether the Boilermakers’ tumultuous situation plays a factor in Saturday’s game or not, he expects them to pose a daunting challenge.
“This is a good football team, despite their record,” Urschel said. “We’ve been watching the film and they’re going to playing tough, physical football. And we need to focus on making sure that we’re prepared for this football game.”