Purdue linebacker Joe Holland has some personal motivation to beat Notre Dame this week. Both of Holland's parents and his grandfather graduated from the school in South Bend, and though the Irish recruited Holland out of high school, "they didn't recruit me like Purdue did," he says.
Holland doesn't want to finish his Boilermakers career without beating Notre Dame, so stopping the three-game losing streak in this rivalry is a high priority. But while Holland might be the happiest guy in Ross-Ade Stadium on Saturday night if Purdue wins, he realizes this game is more than just personal. It's an important opportunity for the entire program.
"The stage is definitely set," he told ESPN.com. "It's a huge game because of the opponent, it's a huge game because of the stage we're on. It would mean a lot for our team to get this one and to get some momentum going into the rest of the season."
Forward momentum has been hard to come by lately for the Boilers. They haven't had a winning season since 2007 and failed to make a bowl game in each of coach Danny Hope's first two years. Hope's first season included an upset of then-No. 7 Ohio State at home and a road triumph over Michigan. The team beat Northwestern on the road last year with a true freshman quarterback starting.
But Purdue (2-1) comes into this week with a six-game losing streak against BCS AQ teams. The program has been beset by injuries and hasn't registered on the national radar for a while now. Simply put, Hope and the players need something positive to happen. While Notre Dame is unranked and already owns two losses, beating the Irish would provide a good start.
"A win against Notre Dame would be a signature win," Hope said. "It would create great confidence for our football team. It certainly would receive a lot of national attention, and I think it would be a great sign for the direction the program is going in. It could also impact recruiting in some ways."
It's hard to say just how good this Boilermakers team is. It beat Middle Tennessee in the opener by blocking a field goal attempt on the last play, then lost the following week at Rice when its own late field goal try was rebuffed. A 59-0 win over Southeast Missouri State was good for confidence building and saw the return of quarterback Robert Marve to the lineup, but Southeast Missouri State has about as much in common with Notre Dame as West Lafayette does with Rio de Janeiro.
"We're still developing," Hope said. "This football team has great potential. I think it's one of those teams that will get better and better."
Purdue hangs its hat on its running game, which ranks 11th nationally with 258 yards per game on the ground. The return of Ralph Bolden from a knee injury and the addition of junior college transfer Akeem Shavers has given the backfield two fast, powerful ball carriers. Junior quarterback Caleb TerBush was pressed into starting duty when Rob Henry went down with a knee injury in preseason camp. TerBush has played well enough to retain the starting job over the veteran Marve, though Hope plans to play both quarterbacks.
The defense has solid experience on the back end and is led by its interior playmakers up front. Kawann Short and sophomores Bruce Gaston and Ryan Isaac have been disruptive from their defensive tackle positions.
"The games where we've been able to completely shut down the run have been our defensive tackles' best games," Holland said. "Kawann is a monster up front, and he's stringing together a couple of really good seasons. Bruce and Ryan are younger guys who are very, very developed and very strong. Both have the potential to be great players inside."
Purdue will need to play its best game to stop a Notre Dame team that could be undefeated if not for all its turnover problems. The Boilers have had an extra week to prepare thanks to a bye last week. It came at a good time, because they got to focus their attention on what looks like a key game in the program's trajectory.
"If things don't work out right, it's not the end of the world," Hope said. "But a win on Saturday could change our world in some ways."