Purdue senior linebacker Joe Holland said the team’s season is defined by its final game.
“Some ups and downs and the ebb and flow of everything, it made it a lot of fun,” he said. “To come out on top means a lot to us, especially the senior class.”
The Boilermakers capped off their 2011 campaign with a 37-32 win over Western Michigan in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl in Detroit.
Purdue trailed 8-0 early, but responded by recovering two onside kicks, taking a kickoff 99-yards for a touchdown, and forcing seven turnovers to claim its first bowl victory in four seasons and first under head coach Danny Hope.
“Our football team knew the magnitude that (a win) could have,” said Hope. “We came into the ball game six-and-six and we were going to leave here with either a 6-7 record or 7-6 record and even though it’s only one game difference, it’s a huge difference.”
The bowl victory was the crescendo to a year that had a little bit of everything.
The Boilers ended the 2010 season on a six-game losing streak and they were determined to erase that black cloud immediately. But, before they even played their first game of 2011, the Boilermakers lost their starting quarterback, Rob Henry, to a torn ACL.
Once the season got underway, the successes and tribulations were about even.
The team needed a blocked field goal to survive its first game against Middle Tennessee State and then lost the following week when their game winning field goal try was blocked at Rice. The Boilers suffered blowout losses at Michigan and Wisconsin, but also pulled off upset wins against then-ranked Illinois and Ohio State.
Purdue had to win two of its last three games to even qualify for a bowl. They did, including a road victory at rival Indiana on the final week of the season.
Junior running back Akeem Shavers was named the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl Most Valuable Player. He said the team’s struggles and challenges throughout the year prepared them physically and mentally to come away with a win Tuesday in Detroit.
“We’ve been through a lot on this team,” he said. “We are really made for things to go this way. I think just being in this predicament, it was really nothing different for us (because) we have been through it plenty of times and we knew how to handle ourselves.”
That kind of determination and focus made of one of the Boilermakers’ most successful alum proud.
Cliff Avril now calls Ford Field home when he plays defensive end Sundays for the Detroit Lions. The NFL star was on the sidelines Tuesday to watch his alma mater capture the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl trophy. He says their grit and ability to bounce back from setbacks proves they are making progress.
“They’ve got something to build on for next year, and the years to come, so (the win) definitely means a lot” said Avril. “They did really well. The intensity was here. The guys came out here and played. They had a couple of rough spots, but they played well.”
Purdue Athletic Director Morgan Burke is encouraged, as well. He showed his confidence in the job Danny Hope and his staff is doing when last week he extended Hope’s contract two-years.
Burke said the Boilers performance against Western Michigan is evidence Purdue is moving in the right direction.
“We’ve been to the postseason eleven times in the past 15 years, but we had a dip and now we are climbing back out and you’ve got to do it the old fashioned way. You’ve got to slug and keep going and that’s what they did. They didn’t give up,” he said. “It’s a start. To a lot of those kids, they haven’t been to a bowl game and it’s very contagious once you start to get there.”
The victory is special for Purdue on many levels. For seniors like Joe Holland, who was named the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl lineman of the game, he will leave West Lafayette as a winner. For younger guys like Shavers and freshman Raheem Mostert, who was responsible for the 99-yard kickoff return, the win in Detroit is a building block moving forward.
Although it was the first bowl win for Danny Hope as a head coach, he has been a part of bowl wins as an assistant and he believes a postseason win can have ripple effects for the program’s future.
“You can have a great season and then lose your bowl game and go into the offseason with a loss and I am really happy for our team to be able to go into the offseason with a win. I think it builds great momentum for our team,” he said. “It’ll certainly be a shot in the arm in the recruiting process and certainly re-energize our fan base in a lot of ways.”