Our newest series -- best case/worst case -- continues with the Purdue Boilermakers.
For those not familiar with this series, these are not predictions. Rather, they’re meant to offer a reasonable ceiling and floor for each team. And we try to have a little fun with the narratives, so don’t take the details too seriously.
Darrell Hazell looks up to see through his well-creased brim a full -- OK, three-quarters full -- Ross-Ade Stadium partying as his players lift the Old Oaken Bucket for the first time since 2012. Hazell says afterward that he always thought eight wins was a realistic target, but few in the room around him can say they shared his faith before September.
The season starts on a strong note for Purdue, as it heads to West Virginia and outscores Marshall in a shootout. Austin Appleby cements his status as the team’s starting quarterback with four touchdown passes against the Thundering Herd. With a steady force under center, Purdue rolls through Indiana State and Bowling Green to finish September with a 3-1 record. The only loss comes against Virginia Tech, which is ranked at the end of the month.
The Big Ten season isn’t quite as smooth. The Boilermakers start with a humbling trip to East Lansing, but Mark Dantonio’s comments about not being able to take Purdue lightly gives the fanbase a reason to be optimistic. Wide receiver Danny Anthrop catches fire against Minnesota the following week and scores three touchdowns in an upset win as Minnesota’s offense sputters on an off day. Anthrop’s story -- born and raised in West Lafayette -- catches on and he becomes a fan favorite for the growing crowd that’s intrigued by the Boilermakers.
After a couple losses to Wisconsin and Nebraska, Purdue gears up for a November stretch against Illinois, Northwestern, Iowa and rival Indiana. Confidence is soaring for a veteran offensive line and the Boilermakers rip off four straight victories, effectively ending Tim Beckman’s tenure with the Illini and dealing some damaging blows to the job security of Kirk Ferentz and Kevin Wilson in the process.
Uncertainty reigns for coaches in the West Division, and as the calendar turns to December, the talk is about how far Hazell can elevate the program now that it’s turned a corner. Hazell, who grew up in New Jersey, gets one more reason to smile when he learns the team will be playing in Yankee Stadium at the Pinstripe Bowl to wrap up its year.
“Six wins here just isn’t getting the job done,” Hazell says after a season-ending loss to Indiana, referring to the total number of victories during his Purdue tenure, not the 2015 record. Hazell has to answer questions about his future with the program after a 2-10 season makes some wonder (rather loudly) whether the school is going to be able to be competitive in the Big Ten again.
The year starts with a close loss to Marshall. Appleby throws three costly interceptions in an otherwise winnable game. Redshirt freshman David Blough enters the game in the fourth quarter, but suffers some jitters. One game into the season, the three-man quarterback battle (including true freshman Elijah Sindelar) that Purdue tried to put to rest in August is more complicated than it was in camp.
Another loss to Bowling Green puts the Boilermakers at 1-3 heading into Big Ten season and exposes the lack of a reliable rushing attack. That doesn’t make life any easier for the quarterbacks, none of whom has pulled away as the definitive best option after a month of games.
Double-digit losses fill the month of October and complacency sets in as Hazell struggles to keep his team engaged. A victory over Illinois to start November offers a brief glimmer of hope, but that is quickly snuffed out by a heartbreaking loss at Northwestern. The final blow comes against Indiana. The Hoosiers arrive in West Lafayette needing one more win to qualify for a bowl game. They get it with a 31-3 drubbing.
Luckily, there were barely 15,000 bodies present as eye witnesses. An unfortunate wardrobe malfunction forced the town to outlaw the gameday costume tradition of Breakfast Club earlier in the year, snuffing out one of the few remaining reasons for the student body to get excited about football Saturdays.