Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Will Purdue return to 'basketball on grass'?

By Jon Krawczynski
The Associated Press

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - Kyle Orton has been throwing passes to Taylor Stubblefield for so long at Purdue, that it doesn't take much for them to communicate.

"He doesn't even have to give me a wink, I already know what he's going to do," Orton said of his favorite receiver.

Some think Purdue's hopes for this season hinge on this prolific passing tandem's familiarity with one another. Orton has been named preseason Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year and Stubblefield is poised to become the all-time leading receiver in NCAA history.

That's even more important because the defense lost eight starters from last year's team that finished 9-4.

Does that mean fans are going to see coach Joe Tiller return to the high-flying, "basketball on grass" made famous in West Lafayette during the days of Drew Brees at quarterback?

"Based on our graduation losses, one would suggest Purdue is going to be more offensive in nature," Tiller said.

But that's not why he's smiling.

Tiller sees a team loaded with experienced talent on offense and young, hungry athletes on defense and has just one question.

"The question is, how are we going to take advantage of the talent available because we have a lot of talent," Tiller said.

That kind of plain speak is not common for the wily Tiller, who is much more prone to complimenting Purdue's opponents than heaping praise on his team.

But Tiller has a difficult time hiding his optimism for these Boilermakers. He just sees too much to like.

"We've got some very talented players this year," he says, with a twinkle in his eye. "We'll see."

Atop that list is Orton, the 6-4, 226-pound senior with plenty of arm and even more guts. If anyone doubted Orton's heart last season, those concerns were laid to rest when he helped rally Purdue to overtime against Georgia in the Capital One Bowl while playing with a dislocated left thumb, sprained toe and a cracked rib.

"One of the truly courageous performances I've seen in all my years of coaching," Tiller said.

At least in the early going, the Boilermakers figure to need more big-time performances from Orton and the offense while the young defense comes together.

That's fine with Orton, who is Purdue's first legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate since Brees last played in 2000.

"I always strive for perfection," Orton said. "I'm always after that perfect game, knowing it's never going to come. That's what you have to shoot for as a quarterback. To me, one way you measure a quarterback is by wins, so I'm trying to win every game."

Last year, the Boilermakers had one of the top defenses in the country with experienced starters like safety Stuart Schweigert, end Shaun Phillips and linebackers Gilbert Gardner and Niko Koutouvides, all of whom are now in the NFL.

"Those guys were great players, but that's part of college football - they graduate and move on," defensive coordinator Brock Spack said. "As a coach, you move on and relish the chance of building a new unit."

Cornerback Antwaun Rogers, tackle Brent Grover and safety Bernard Pollard are the returning starters, but there is promising talent elsewhere.

"I think we're going to surprise a whole lot of people coming out the gate," sophomore defensive end Ray Edwards said. "They're going to learn about everybody real quick. Everybody thinks we're just filling a void, but we're going to make our own name."

The Boilermakers open the season on Sept. 5 against Syracuse, and their schedule sets up nicely for an early season run.

A home game against Ball State is next, followed by three road games at Illinois, Notre Dame and Penn State.

Their three toughest games come at home with Wisconsin on Oct. 16, Michigan on Oct. 23 and Ohio State on Nov. 13.

That should put Purdue in good position for their eighth straight bowl appearance since Tiller took over in 1997.

Still, Tiller is far from content at Purdue.

"I suppose when you become satisfied is when somebody sneaks up on you and sucker punches you," Tiller said. "We'll never be satisfied, but we're closer."

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