Oct. 31, 2004
SportsLine.com wire reports

EVANSTON, Ill. -- Three short weeks ago, Purdue and Kyle Orton were on the verge of one of those magical seasons.

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The Boilermakers had climbed to No. 5 in the country, their best start in almost 60 years, and fans were thinking Orange Bowl, not the Rose Bowl. Orton was on the fast track to the Heisman Trophy, piling up touchdowns and yardage with dizzying ease.

Now Orton's starting job is in jeopardy and the Boilermakers are in shambles, on the wrong end of a three-game losing streak and wondering how things became so bad, so fast.

"We're disappointed. We're trying to get a win, we're trying to play well," Orton said after being benched in Purdue's latest loss, a 13-10 upset at Northwestern on Saturday afternoon that dropped the Boilermakers out of the Top 25.

"We just have to get a win and try to get back on track."

But what derailed the Boilermakers (5-3, 2-3 Big Ten) in the first place?

Purdue looked almost invincible as it raced out to a 5-0 start. Orton threw 18 touchdown passes in those first five games, and the high-octane offense churned out more than 500 yards and 45 points a game. The young defense looked as nasty as its predecessor, which sent seven players to the NFL.

But something happened in that fifth game. The Nittany Lions clamped down tight on Purdue's receivers, clutching and grabbing and getting as close to pass interference as they could without drawing a flag. Purdue still won 20-13, but other teams now had a blueprint for how to attack the Boilermakers.

Wisconsin did it to perfection two weeks ago, smothering the receivers and harassing Orton all afternoon. When he fumbled late in the fourth quarter, the Badgers scooped it up and returned it for the game-winning touchdown. Michigan was equally tough, allowing top receiver Taylor Stubblefield only one catch and limiting Orton to 213 yards passing.

Northwestern wasn't supposed to be nearly so difficult. Not only had Purdue won its last seven against Northwestern, but the Wildcats were giving up more yardage in the air than a frequent-flier program.

"We were thinking coming in we were going to throw the ball down the field," Orton said.

Instead, the Wildcats (4-4, 3-2) made Orton look ordinary. Hobbled by an aching left hip flexor -- not to be confused with the right hip pointer he suffered against Michigan -- Orton had his worst day of the season and was yanked for Brandon Kirsch late in the third quarter.

Orton was just 15-of-33 for 143 yards. He also threw an interception and had a fumble in the first quarter that set up Northwestern's first score.

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"I couldn't really move around, I couldn't twist my hips," Orton said. "I couldn't get anything on the football and offensively we were stagnant, so we decided to make a switch."

But coach Joe Tiller said Orton's problems went beyond his health, and won't say who will start next week.

"We made the change because he was really struggling with the offense," Tiller said. "It's one thing to not be at your best physically, but it's another thing to not be at your best mentally. If you're not at your best mentally, then open receivers aren't spotted and we had a number of those."

And unlike earlier games, Purdue's defense couldn't bail the offense out. Instead of coming up with big plays, the Boilermakers made inexcusable mistakes at the most inopportune times.

Northwestern hadn't crossed midfield in the second half when the Wildcats had the ball back at their own 16, trailing 10-7 with 1:50 left in the game and no timeouts. But Brett Basanez surprised the Boilermakers with a couple of quick throws underneath, and the Wildcats were suddenly not just across midfield, but at the Purdue 21.

Cornerback Antwaun Rogers made the situation worse, getting called for pass interference after he shoved Kim Thompson in front of the end zone. An offsides violation followed, and Northwestern was now at the Purdue 3.

Basanez pitched the ball to Noah Herron, and he sprinted into the end zone, untouched.

"It's hard to take," Purdue defensive coordinator Brock Spack said. "Our youth is showing up defensively in critical situations. At this time of year, it's time to grow up. You've got to make plays."

It doesn't get easier from here, either. Purdue travels next to Iowa, which has won 16 in a row at home. After that comes a game against Ohio State.

"It's tough. It's three weeks in a row and it's the way we're losing," tight end Charles Davis said. "Hopefully you come in the next day humbled. We understand we're not as good as we think we are. But we've got to find a way to pick it up."

And try to salvage a season that once held so much promise.