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Published: Thursday, 10/21/2004

Tiller has hands full preparing for Michigan

Toledo native Joe Tiller and his Purdue football team have been suffering through one nasty hangover this week.

The Boilermakers had a seemingly comfortable 10-point lead against Wisconsin on Saturday, playing at home with just eight minutes left in the game.

They appeared to be on their way to their first 6-0 start since 1943, and poised to take over the driver's seat in the Big Ten race.

But before you could say Kyle Orton, the Purdue quarterback likely fumbled away his Heisman chances.

He lost the ball after getting hit while lunging for a first down, and Scott Starks ran it back 40 yards for the game-winning touchdown for Wisconsin.

The Badgers scored 13 points in the final 5:29 for a stunning 20-17 victory.

Despite their late folding act, the Boilermakers' Ben Jones had a chance to force overtime with 24 seconds left, but his 42-yard field goal attempt was wide right.

So instead of being one of the biggest wins of the Tiller era, and his 100th victory as a head coach, it turned out to be one of his most excruciating losses.

Purdue's Joe Tiller Purdue's Joe Tiller
Enlarge

The damage done by this colossal collapse makes you wonder if Purdue can recover in time to face unbeaten Big Ten co-leader Michigan, which visits Ross-Ade Stadium in two days.

Not even Tiller knows for certain.

"I think we'll get tested to the max this week by the Wolverines,'' he said. "In my opinion, they are the most talented team in the Big Ten on both sides of the ball.

"This is the first time this year we've really been challenged. I don't think you really know how your team will react until you turn the page, move on and get on with it.''

As impossible as it has been, Tiller has tried his best to put the Wisconsin loss behind him.

He has reminded his team several times that the season is a long way from over, even though Saturday's game has a little less luster now that the Boilermakers (5-1, 2-1) are no longer unbeaten.

He also has pointed out that although the Wolverines (6-1, 4-0) have owned the series, winning three in a row, 13 of the last 15, and 17 of the last 20, they have struggled in West Lafayette, Ind., where they lost in both 1996 and 2000, when Purdue rallied from an 18-point deficit to win by one.

But even Tiller knows the reality of the situation: A loss to Michigan Saturday would all but knock the Boilermakers, who dropped from No. 5 to No. 12 in the Associated Press poll after losing to Wisconsin, out of the Big Ten race.

"This is a big game,'' Orton said. "I'd like to beat those guys.''

For all the success he has had at Purdue - Tiller is 60-33 overall, good for a .645 winning percentage that makes him the second-winningest coach in school history - he is just 1-4 against Michigan, but 37-17 against the rest of the conference.

Tiller's record is nothing to be ashamed of.

A lot of coaches have struggled to beat the Wolverines over the years.

"We need to play our best football game of the season against Michigan,'' Tiller said. "That's what we are going to set out to do.''

Regardless of what happens Saturday, Tiller has turned Purdue into a very respectable program.

From 1997 to 2003, only Michigan and Ohio State won more Big Ten games than Tiller's team. The Wolverines were 46-10 during that stretch, the Buckeyes 40-16 and the Boilermakers 36-20.

It's a far cry from the situation the 61-year-old Tiller inherited when he first arrived at Purdue eight years ago.

Tiller, a Rogers High School graduate who used to sneak into University of Toledo football games as a youngster and interviewed for the Rockets' coaching job when Nick Saban was hired in 1990, took over a Boilermakers program that had just one winning season, thanks to a forfeit, and no bowl appearances in 14 years.

He promptly turned a 3-8 team into an Alamo Bowl-winning 9-3 squad in his first year. From there, it's been a steady climb to the top of the Big Ten, with an average of almost eight wins a season and a Big Ten championship in 2000.

"Coach Tiller, obviously with his record here, he's brought a lot of respect to this program,'' Orton said.

Purdue is one of only two Big Ten schools - No. 13 Michigan is the other - and one of 11 nationally to have played in a bowl game each of the last seven years.

The Boilermakers have been ranked in the AP poll 73 out of a possible 128 weeks during Tiller's tenure. They had nine players selected in the most recent NFL draft - Ohio State led the way with a record 14 - and the Boilermakers won at Notre Dame earlier this season for the first time in 30 years.

Purdue, a one-time whipping boy in the Big Ten, is no longer sneaking up on teams. And it's all because of Tiller.

Contact Ron Musselman at:

mussel@theblade.com

or 419-724-6474.



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