- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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If any team can play the "nobody-believed-in-us" card this bowl season, it's Purdue.
The Boilermakers are the biggest underdog in the 35 bowls, according to the oddsmakers, in their matchup against Oklahoma State in the Jan. 1 Heart of Dallas Bowl. It's the kind of thing players say they don't pay attention to, except that they do.
"I don't really look at that stuff," senior defensive tackle Kawann Short told ESPN.com. "But a lot of people around here have told me that the spread is highest in the bowls. So it's on us to go out there and make a statement. We feel like we can play with any team in the nation right now."
People are understandably low on the Boilermakers, who had to win their final three games just to finish 6-6. Even that wasn't enough to save the job of head coach Danny Hope, who was fired one day after the regular-season finale. Receivers coach Patrick Higgins is coaching the bowl game before turning the program over to Darrell Hazell.
Purdue also got blasted in some big games this year, losing 44-13 to Michigan, 38-14 to Wisconsin, 44-28 to Minnesota and 34-9 to Penn State. No wonder, then, that Oklahoma State is a big favorite with an offense that averages 44.7 points per game.
But there are a couple of reasons to maybe believe in the Boilers. They only lost by a field goal on the road to Notre Dame, now the nation's No. 1 team, in September. And they had undefeated Ohio State on the ropes in Columbus before the Buckeyes made a miracle comeback in the final minute and won in overtime. So this team has some experience rising to the occasion.
And Purdue has something going for it now that was absent during its five-game losing streak in the middle of the season: health on the defensive line. That unit was expected to be one of the best in the Big Ten but didn't play like it when several key members of the group were banged up in midseason.
"Kawann and Bruce Gaston are two of the best defensive tackles in the Big Ten; I'd still argue that," said defensive end Ryan Russell, who was a member of the walking wounded. "As a whole, the D-line prided ourselves on having lot of depth this year, and when those injuries happened, there wasn't as much depth. So I'm glad we finally got an opportunity to rest, heal up and show what we're really about."
Short, an all-Big Ten performer and potential first-round pick next April, dealt with a high ankle sprain in the middle of the year. By the Minnesota game, he said, he was "not even 80 percent." He battled through it though and said quarterback Robert Marve -- who played on a torn anterior cruciate ligament without undergoing surgery -- jokingly gave him a hard time whenever Short tried to complain about his ankle.
Short regained his effectiveness toward the end of the season, and with a month off to heal expects to be fully healthy for the bowl game. He was dominant against Notre Dame and is a difference-making force inside when right.
"I'm very excited that a lot of people are back and healthy," Short said. "We're going out there with a chip on our shoulder. Things didn't go our way this season, but right now I feel like we can bring a lot of stuff to the table."
Purdue's best chance of slowing down the Cowboys' spread offense -- which gained nearly 550 yards per game this season, fifth-best in the country -- is probably to disrupt its timing right at the line of scrimmage.
"You have to get lined up and know your assignments quick and fast," Russell said. "They definitely have a lot of weapons. It's about matching their pace and enforcing your will, instead of going with the flow and letting them do what they love to do."
And while Oklahoma State has a prolific offense, the Cowboys went just 7-5 and lost their last two games of the regular season. Purdue players don't quite see why they're being painted as giant underdogs to an opponent whose best victories came against Texas Tech and Iowa State.
"People are not respecting us very much," offensive lineman Trevor Foy said. "I'm looking forward to taking advantage of that, because I know they're going to look over us and we're going to come after them."
And if the Boilermakers do pull off the upset, they can correctly make the "nobody-believed-in-us" claim.
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1dAndrea Adelson and Austin Ward