Purdue hoping to put program back on national map
Purdue players quantify this season's biggest goal in two four-letter words.
Outsiders look at this once nationally prominent football school and see a program that has won only 15 games in three seasons with no clear path to Pasadena. Those inside the locker room, including the coaches, believe this is the year they can put the Boilermakers back on the map.
''The next step is winning big. We're cocked and ready,'' coach Danny Hope. ''If we have a big season, it would be a quantum leap for this program.''
Boilermakers fans have been waiting to see that jump since Drew Brees left town after the 2000 season.
Could this be the year?
Hope calls this best team he's had in four seasons at West Lafayette.
He has three quarterbacks with starting experience. He has depth on defense. He has speed all over the field. He has a schedule that includes five of the first six games at home, and no road trips outside Indiana until Oct. 20. Leaders Division foes Ohio State and Penn State are ineligible for postseason play, and December's league championship game is in nearby Indianapolis.
While some coaches discourage brash talk, Hope seems to encourage it.
It's all part of the plan for a bigger, bolder team that is brimming with confidence.
''The Rose Bowl is the biggest bowl game ever and that's what we strive for, the Rose Bowl,'' receiver O.J. Ross said. ''The Rose Bowl is basically the national championship to us, so we want to go to the Rose Bowl. Who doesn't?''
There are still issues to sort out before the Sept. 1 season opener against Eastern Kentucky, Hope's alma mater.
First, Hope must figure out what to do at quarterback.
Caleb TerBush, who led Purdue to its first bowl game since 2007 last season, is attempting to hold off Robert Marve, who opened the 2010 season as the starter before tearing the ACL in his left knee, and Rob Henry, who finished 2010 as the starter and tore the ACL in his right knee one week before last season's opener.
At the moment, TerBush still has the upper hand after completing 171 of 277 for 1,905 yards with 13 TDs and no interceptions in the final four games.
Suddenly, the injury-prone Boilermakers have depth at quarterback.
''We can keep defenses off balance and put some of our best football players on the field, so there's a lot of plusses to it,'' Hope said. ''One thing I can say is that no one is nervous when a new voice steps into the huddle because of what we've done over the last three years.''
Another potential obstacle: Sorting out the picture at running back, where the Boilermakers have only four healthy halfbacks on the roster.
Purdue probably will open the season without its top runner from last year, Ralph Bolden, a fifth-year senior, who is still recovering from his third ACL surgery since his senior year in high school. Without Bolden, Akeem Shavers appears to have the inside track. He carried 22 times for 149 yards, both career highs, en route to becoming the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl MVP. The other three halfbacks have combined for only 41 carries in college.
Shavers is not the only option. At times, Hope could use versatile slot receiver Antavian Edison in the backfield, as he did last season. He could also line up Henry in the backfield if he does not win the starting quarterback job.
''Any spot that allows him to touch the football, we'll look at,'' Hope said.
Otherwise, the Boilermakers look pretty well stacked.
Ross and Edwards are the leaders of a quicker receiving corps, returning starters Peters Drey and right tackle Trevor Foy anchor the offensive line and the Boilermakers have their two top tight ends back, too - Gabe Holmes and Crosby Wright.
Defensively, the Boilermakers return seven starters, including defensive tackles Kawann Short and Brandon Taylor. Hope knows that if Purdue is to meet his expectations, the defense must put more pressure on opposing quarterbacks and just be stouter overall.
''It's been a long time since we've been in the top half of the Big Ten (in defense),'' Hope said. ''We feel like we have the staff and players to make a big defensive jump. They'll all be on the same page, all play with one heartbeat over there and we're further along defensive wise than at any time since I've been back at Purdue.''
It's a combination that has given the Boilermakers more than Hope.
''We have a heck of a football team,'' the coach said. ''We anticipate competing not only for our division championship but a Big Ten championship.''