Orton enduring up-and-down season

Kyle Orton's last trip to Iowa City ended in misery.

The date was Oct. 5, 2002, and Orton was in the midst of a breakout sophomore season at Purdue when he returned to his home state of Iowa to face the Hawkeyes.

By the end of the third quarter, Orton was nearly incoherent in the huddle, the result of a concussion. Appropriately enough, Orton could not remember how it happened.

All he knew was that he was determined to produce a different result in his next visit to Iowa City.

That trip will come Saturday, but Orton might not be part of the show. After injuring his left hip at Northwestern, Orton won't know until later this week whether he can play.

"What I'm looking for from Kyle is a real, honest evaluation," coach Joe Tiller said. "Can he go? Can he get good velocity on the ball? If he's zinging the ball on Thursday, all of us at Purdue will have big grins on our faces."

But no one will be happier than Orton, who has experienced higher highs and lower lows in the past three weeks than most players experience in a career.

Heading into its Oct. 16 game against Wisconsin, Purdue was 5-0 and ranked fifth in the nation. Orton was the nation's top-rated quarterback after having completed 69.1 percent of his passes for 18 touchdown passes and just two interceptions.

Signs proclaiming "ORTON FOR PRESIDENT" were more popular in Indiana than Peyton Manning jerseys. He was the clear Heisman Trophy favorite.

But it all came to an end in a split-second, when the Badgers' Scott Starks scooped up an Orton fumble and sprinted 40 yards to the end zone, the decisive play in a 20-17 victory. The Boilermakers have not won since, losing to Michgan and Northwestern.

The loss to the Wildcats was especially tough as Tiller benched in the third quarter after he misread a coverage and threw a red-zone interception. Orton was just 14-of-30 for 213 yards and sat out the Boilermakers final drive.

It didn't get any better after the game. Some coaches would protect their star player, maybe use Orton's hip injury as the reason why he wasn't in there in crunch time. Instead, Tiller flat-out said: "We made the change because he was really struggling with the offense."

It's about as low as Orton could go. Orton, whose resolve is as strong as his arm, said he was "angry" after being removed.

"But looking back I see that it was a good decision," he said. "I couldn't throw the ball and I was just hurting the team."

Now, he's looking forward to helping the team again.

"Every time you lose, it's like a punch in the stomach," Orton said. "We are literally trying everything we can to win a football game. We're fighting and clawing to get a win, and hopefully we can get one this weekend."

It's been a different atmosphere for Orton. Recently, Orton and Tiller were heading to a practice field when the senior quarterback noticed something. There were no reporters, no outside observers. The bandwagon had moved on to another campus.

"We talked about what it was like two weeks earlier, when everyone was clamoring for him," Tiller said. "He smiled and said: 'That's the way it goes. When you're hot, you're hot. And when you're not, you're not.' He said it reconfirmed in his mind why you don't want to get too excited about anything or too down about anything."

Now Orton shoots for a little redemption. It couldn't come at a better time, considering he hails from the Des Moines suburb of Altoona and has cobbled together about 100 tickets for friends and family.

"I've been looking forward to this game for a while," he said. "If I can help the team, then I'll play through some pain. I'll put the team first and hopefully do the right thing."

Orton and Tiller will decide later this week whether backup Brandon Kirsch will get the call in Iowa City. Kirsch has gotten most of the reps this week in practice, but he's not the team's first option.

"If there's any way for Kyle to find his way on the field and function," Tiller said, "I think he'll be there."

Teddy Greenstein covers the Big Ten for the Chicago Tribune.