Purdue and Wisconsin rearranging the Big Ten

When one stands at London's Buckingham Palace and witnesses the changing of the guard the air is rife with pomp and circumstance. A statement is being made for the entire world to see.

The combination of overwhelming numbers, air and ground superiority, marshal music and close order drill are impressive in football too, but the changing of the guard there usually sneaks up on the enemy rather than being on public display. There is a changing of the guard in progress in the Big Ten, and it will continue in the Purdue vs. Wisconsin game this Saturday.

Relative Big Ten newcomer Joe Tiller of Purdue showed up in 1997, hailing from the great football state of Wyoming, offering something he called "basketball on grass" when describing his fast break spread offense.

Once he got a taste of Indiana roundball he regretted his offense's fancy name and asked us to forget the moniker and just call it "offensive football". Catchy.

The Boilermakers have been in bowl games in the years since, even touching the top of the heap by playing in the Rose Bowl after the 2000 season. But they are perhaps most recognized for throwing 83 passes in a losing effort against Wisconsin in 1998.

While their success has been remarkable considering Purdue's previous three decades of struggle, it has gone virtually unnoticed on the national scene. Meanwhile, Tiller and his bright staff have sneaked up on the Big Ten in such a way that this year's team stands on the threshold of pushing some of the traditional powers out as major players in the league.

Last year the Boilermakers actually led the Big Ten in both total offense and total defense. Yes, they were ahead of the Ohio State and Michigan on both sides of the ball. The fact that their record was 7-6 obscured their excellence and taught Tiller and his coaches once and for all about the critical nature of the kicking game.

After an opening-game loss to Bowling Green in West Lafayette this year, the normally even tempered Tiller informed his veteran team that in view of the fact that they had chosen not play on Saturday he would give them an opportunity to do so on Sunday. After a 60-play, full-speed scrimmage the next day his point was made. This is a good football team and will not be allowed to squander this chance to make a change at the top of conference. The intensity has been palpable since that Sunday.

The staff has recommitted to spending coaching time and emphasis on special teams, and with good results thus far. Returns are up, blocks are down, and opponents' returns are mostly stymied. The Penn State win last week turned on Anthony Chambers' five returns for 149 yards, including a 76-yard touchdown.

All they must do now is to beat Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ohio State, all on the road and all in a row. Purdue can do it. The Boilermakers will need a bounce or two, but they can do it this time.

For the first time in the Tiller era there is experience, toughness, offensive balance, defense, special teams and leadership all at the same time.

Up in Madison, Barry Alvarez must convince his charges that Purdue is better than they think. The Badgers just ended Ohio State's 19-game winning streak and will have a very real challenge trying to get back to Earth in time to take on the physical Boilermakers.

Purdue has an advantage in games of this nature since they are still viewed by players as a passing team. This year's team averages 4.1 yards per rush while relinquishing 2.1 yards per attempt. It beat Notre Dame while attempting only 25 passes to the Irish's 59. When I visited Tiller two weeks ago the very first utterance out of his mouth was, "Did you think you would ever see us throw less than half as much as Notre Dame ... and win?" asked Joe. He was clearly delighted and no, Joe, I sure did not.

There is one remarkable irony about these two teams at this time: the Badgers came into the Alvarez era (1990-present) basing their program on smashing and knocking people off the ball then ramming it down their throats. It has worked for the most part until the last two years, and is enjoying a revival now. Purdue burst into Joe Tiller football with passes flying in every direction, and that has served the Boilermakers well.

But in order to get into this contest with just one loss each, Wisconsin had to throw the football and Purdue had to run it. And the irony is that each is pretty good at that which it has not emphasized in the past. Certainly good enough to make this a great contest.

The game within the game this week is a continuation of the irony mentioned above. Wisconsin will need to use its fine receivers, led by the great Lee Evans, and Purdue will have to use its running game, led by whoever is healthy. Neither team will prevail by simply relying on its former stock in trade.

Hidden yardage is tough to figure. With returns, net punting and penalties reasonably close, only turnover margin is greatly different. In that category Purdue has a big advantage at plus-9 over Wisconsin's zero. Simply put, if Wisconsin turns it over and Purdue does not, Purdue will win. Conversely, Purdue's superior passing game means that the Boilermakers could conceivably recover from errors more rapidly than the Badgers.

ESPN college football analyst Bill Curry coached for 17 years in the college ranks. His Game Plans for marquee matchups appear each week during the college football season.