Record: 6-6 (4-4 Big Ten)
Life hasn't been easy for Purdue in recent years, as the team struggled on the field and received no luck on the injury front. Not surprisingly, the 2011 season brought some hurdles for Danny Hope's crew, but the Boilers punched their ticket to a bowl game for the first time since 2007.
Purdue learned weeks before the opener that its projected starting quarterback, Rob Henry, would miss the season with a torn knee ligament. It forced the coaches to shuffle signal-callers, and the Boilers played two quarterbacks, Caleb TerBush and Robert Marve, throughout the fall. The offense slowly shaped its identity behind a stable of running backs and a short passing attack, and the unit had some good stretches.
The Boilers went .500 in league play for the second time in Hope's three seasons and secured nice wins against both Illinois and Ohio State, beating the Buckeyes for the second consecutive time at Ross-Ade Stadium. Defensive tackle Kawann Short and cornerback Ricardo Allen highlighted the defense. But inconsistency and major mistakes haunted a team that never won consecutive games all season. The Boilers had chances to win two more league games (Penn State and Iowa) but committed a combined seven turnovers in the losses. They were the ultimate two-steps-forward-one-step-backward type of team.
Where is Purdue headed under Hope? Detroit is the team's short-term destination as Purdue faces Western Michigan in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl. But it's relevant to ask the question in the larger sense. While Purdue took steps this season -- two more victories, its first bowl in four years -- it's important for Hope to show tangible progress and greater consistency going forward.
Offensive MVP: TerBush. Thrust into a very difficult situation, TerBush gave Purdue a capable quarterback who could stay on the field and provide continuity. Despite appearing in just one college game entering the season, TerBush started the opener because of Henry's injury and Marve's lingering knee issues. TerBush wasn't flashy but limited mistakes, throwing twice as many touchdown passes (12) as interceptions (six). Wide receiver Antavian Edison (43 receptions, 561 receiving yards, 124 rush yards, five total touchdowns) also merits a mention.
Defensive MVP: Short. Overshadowed in a league filled with outstanding defensive tackles, Short quietly turned in a superb junior season. He tied for fourth in the league in both sacks (6.5) and tackles for loss (17) and added two blocked kicks, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. Much like Ryan Kerrigan in 2009, Short earned National Defensive Player of the Week honors for his performance in Purdue's win against Ohio State (three sacks).
Turning point: Purdue really had a season of them, both positive and negative, but the Ohio State win boosted the Boilers after back-to-back blowout losses on the road. The victory put Purdue in good position to secure a bowl berth and helped Hope, who needs more signature wins to show his program is headed in the right direction.
What's next: The Boilers face Western Michigan in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl, site of Purdue's last bowl appearance and last bowl win (the game was known as the Motor City Bowl back then). Purdue can secure a winning season and some momentum for a pivotal 2012 season by beating the Broncos. A loss would continue the team's disturbing pattern (win-loss-win-loss) and raise more questions about Hope's leadership.