Joe Tiller made his Purdue coaching debut against Toledo back in 1997. Fortunately for him, it was an inaccurate indicator of the rest of his stay.
The Boilermakers lost that game 36-22, but the previously downtrodden program recovered under TIller to play in 10 bowl games over the next 12 years.
With the all-time leader in coaching wins at Purdue gone, new coach Danny Hope makes his debut Saturday against the same program. Hope remembers that 1997 loss to the Rockets well because he was an assistant under Tiller back then.
“It was a terrible feeling after the game because the schedule didn’t look any easier down the road,” Hope said. “It was a point in time in our program where we had to really pull together, and maybe a blessing in disguise in some ways because it forced the staff and the team to pull together.”
Purdue bounced back to beat No. 12 Notre Dame the next week, and the Boilermakers eventually played in the Alamo Bowl. Toledo eventually reached the Mid-American Conference championship game, but lost to a Marshall team led by Randy Moss.
Both teams would love to duplicate that level of success after last year’s misery: Purdue finished 4-8 last season, its worst finish under Tiller, and Toledo went 3-9 for its worst record in 31 years.
Both teams have reasons for optimism.
Purdue pulled in a recruiting class that Hope is high on, and many of those recruits will play on Saturday. The Rockets have 20 starters back from a team that upset Michigan.
Toledo coach Tim Beckman is also making his debut. He was an assistant coach for 21 years, most recently the defensive coordinator at Oklahoma State, before taking over for Tom Amstutz.
Beckman said the focus should be on the players instead of the new coaches.
“It’s not about Tim Beckman coaching, it’s about (Toledo safety) Barry Church being in his first senior game and wearing the Toledo midnight blue and gold,” he said. “That’s what this game’s about.”
Beckman said he believes his squad can beat the Big Ten’s Boilermakers, but his Rockets must play well.
“If we can play consistent football throughout the first 3 1/2 quarters and then be there in the fourth quarter to make a big play, that’s when you win those big games,” he said.
Curtis Painter, who passed for 11,163 yards and 67 touchdowns in his Purdue career, has moved on to play for the Indianapolis Colts. That opened the door for Joey Elliott, a fifth-year senior, to finally get his first career start.
“He’ll be excited for the game, he’ll be talking a million miles an hour like he always does,” Hope said. “The time that he spent at Purdue as a backup, he didn’t waste any of those reps or practice opportunities. He’s always worked hard and competed with the idea that he was going to be the guy, so I’m sure Joey is ready.”
One of Purdue’s strengths is its offensive line. The Boilermakers’ two-deep roster has combined for 60 career starts.
They’ll pave the way for a group of running backs Hope says is the best Purdue has had in years. Ralph Bolden will start, and Jaycen Taylor, who has 1,237 career yards rushing, will beck him up.
Toledo counters with nine returning starters on offense, including Aaron Opelt, who passed for 2,176 yards last season. The last time Opelt played Purdue, he completed just 10 of 27 passes for 69 yards and an interception during a 52-24 loss in 2007.
Now, he’s more experienced, and he has talent around him. Morgan Williams ran for 1,010 yards last season and DaJuane Collins added 700. Wide receiver Stephen Williams had 71 catches and eight touchdown receptions last season.
“They create some problems, and I think we match up well against them, but they have some experience that we don’t have,” Hope said.
Toledo also returns nine starters on defense. Church is a three-time all-conference selection who has started all 36 games of his career.
“They have one outstanding player that everybody talks about, Mr. Church,” Elliott said. “He’s going to be all over the field. We’re always going to have to know where he’s at at all times.”
Hope said he likes the way his team prepared for the season.
“I think we’ve already indicated what type of team we’re going to have this season with the commitment they made this summer and how they practiced out there in the fall,” he said. “We’ll stub our toe somewhere along the way, but I think we have a lot of guys that have the substance to regroup at any point in time that things aren’t going right.”
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