During Coach Joe Tiller's eight seasons, Purdue has been perhaps best known for producing quarterbacks Drew Brees and Kyle Orton, who directed some of the most pass-happy offenses in college football. But in winning 40 Big Ten Conference games and playing in eight consecutive bowl games, Tiller's teams have played pretty well on defense, too.
So as Purdue begins life without Orton and Taylor Stubblefield, the all-time NCAA Division I leader in receptions, Tiller will be relying heavily on a defense that returns all 11 starters. Many of those returning starters were playing for the first time last season, after seven Purdue defenders were selected in the 2004 NFL draft. While the 2004 edition wasn't the Boilermakers' best defense -- it ranked sixth in total defense in the Big Ten and surrendered three fourth-quarter leads -- the unit figures to be a strength.
"No question, our defense has been overlooked," Tiller said. "But we don't mind that. Anything to disarm the opponent, so to speak, is fine by me."
This season, Tiller is stressing the need for his players to get tougher under pressure. After the Boilermakers won their first five games last season, including their first victory at Notre Dame since 1974, they climbed as high as No. 5 in the national rankings. But then Purdue went on a four-game losing streak, losing each of those contests by three points or fewer.
In two of those losses, the Purdue defense was unable to make stops when the Boilermakers needed them most. In a 16-14 loss to Michigan, the Wolverines scored the game-winning field goal with 2 minutes 45 seconds to play. The following week at Northwestern, the Wildcats scored on a three-yard touchdown run with 38 seconds left to win, 13-10.
Purdue beat Ohio State and Indiana in its last two regular season games to salvage a 7-4 record and a bowl invitation. But in the Sun Bowl, the Boilermakers lost to Arizona State, 27-23, when the Sun Devils threw the game-winning touchdown with 44 seconds to go.
"The experience of being in all those close games is valuable," Tiller said. "Our focus is on our ability to close, but those were tough, gut-wrenching losses. I think the fact our team stayed the course and beat a pretty hot Ohio State team says a lot about these players' character. I think the fact we're a year older, a year wiser and a year stronger might be the difference in those tight games this season."
The Boilermakers will need their defense to play well while Tiller breaks in quarterback Brandon Kirsch. The senior from Lebanon, Pa., started six games the past three seasons, but has been plagued by shoulder injuries and off-field problems. He was one of only 18 freshman quarterbacks in Division I-A to start a game in 2002, but then lost the starting job to Orton late in the season.
Kirsch, 6 feet 3 and 208 pounds, also worked his way into Tiller's doghouse after he was charged with consumption of alcohol by a minor in January 2003 and arrested in November for yelling at police and refusing to leave the scene of a bar fight near campus.
"He's done okay," Tiller said of the quarterback's play during preseason camp. "Certainly, he's not playing poorly, but we're not a well-oiled machine offensively right now. We're adding some wrinkles and the quarterback is a big part of it because we want to take advantage of his running skills."
Tiller said Kirsch's athletic ability is what separates him from Brees and Orton. As a freshman, Kirsch averaged 5.9 yards per carry, the highest rushing average for a Purdue quarterback.
"This guy is more athletic than Orton was," Tiller said. "He's got faster feet and good escapability and can accelerate from most defenders. I'm not saying he can outrun any defender, but he can outrun most linebackers, and Orton couldn't do that. But he doesn't have the arm strength Orton had, either."
Unlike Orton, Kirsch won't have to face Michigan and Ohio State, considered the strongest teams in the Big Ten this season. The Boilermakers will instead play Michigan State and Minnesota this year.
"A lot of people are saying since we don't have to play Michigan and Ohio State we're getting a break," safety Bernard Pollard said. "I look at it like Michigan and Ohio State don't have to play us, either. I could have sworn we beat Ohio State last year and lost to Michigan by two points. Those were tough games, and Minnesota and Michigan State aren't going to be pushovers, either."