Why did Purdue miss a bowl for the third consecutive season?
There's an easy answer and a more complicated one.
No college football team in the country endured more major injuries to key offensive players than Purdue did in 2010. The Boilers lost starting running back Ralph Bolden, the Big Ten's third-leading rusher in 2009, to an ACL tear in spring ball. All-Big Ten receiver Keith Smith was the next to go down, tearing both his ACL and MCL after recording 18 receptions in the first two games.
More bad news arrived in Week 4 as starting quarterback Robert Marve tore his ACL against Toledo, marking the second knee ligament tear for the Miami transfer in 15 months. Since backup quarterback Caleb TerBush was ruled ineligible just before the season, Purdue had to turn to a redshirt freshman, Rob Henry, who had auditioned at other positions in spring ball.
But Henry wasn't immune to the injury bug, either, suffering a laceration on his throwing hand against Ohio State after leading Purdue to back-to-back Big Ten wins. Justin Siller, the team's No. 2 wide receiver and a former starting quarterback in 2008, was sidelined with a foot injury, so Purdue turned to true freshman Sean Robinson at quarterback. When Siller returned to the field Nov. 13 against Michigan, he started at quarterback but re-injured his foot on the first play from scrimmage.
It was that kind of season for Purdue.
The injury wave certainly qualifies as a valid reason why the Boilers missed a bowl.
But Purdue still had a chance to go to the postseason despite all its misfortune on the health front.
The Boilers played Wisconsin tough for a half and had chances to win each of their final three games, squandering late leads against both Michigan State and Indiana. They boasted the Big Ten's best defender in end Ryan Kerrigan, the Big Ten's top freshman defender in cornerback Ricardo Allen, an improved defensive front and several offensive playmakers.
Why couldn't the Boilers get over the hump?
They still made too many major mistakes at inopportune times, like getting a punt blocked near the goal line late in the Michigan State game. Purdue ranked near the bottom of the Big Ten in several special-teams categories and struggled on third downs on both sides of the ball.
The Boilers certainly have the potential to end their bowl drought in 2011, especially if all the injured players get healthy. Smith has applied for a sixth year of eligibility and should receive it, and the return of players like Marve and Bolden will spark the league's worst offense. A new-look secondary this fall becomes a more experienced unit in 2011 with players like Allen and safety Logan Link leading the way.
Purdue's biggest challenge will be replacing Kerrigan. Although the Boilers led the Big Ten in both sacks (33) and tackles for loss (91), Kerrigan accounted for big chunks of those totals (12.5 sacks, 26 tackles for loss). Coach Danny Hope needs linemen like Kawann Short and Bruce Gaston to keep making progress.
It's unrealistic to think Purdue will replace Kerrigan, but the team's depth throughout the defense should be better in 2011.
And if the offense gets healthy, the Boilers will be bowling next year.