Jim Young was in his second year as the Purdue head coach, taking over a program that had fallen off the radar and producing very good teams from 1966-69, including a Rose Bowl entrant in ’66. The 1978 Purdue football team would have a breakout year and start a short run of success for the program.
Young’s quarterback was Matt Herrmann, who ranked in the top three of the Big Ten in all the key passing categories—yards, completion percentage, yards-per-attempt. Herrmann was backed up a good running game. John Macon ran for 913 yards, second in the run-heavy Big Ten. Russell Pope was a quality second option in the backfield and his 35 catches led the team.
Herrmann effectively spread the ball around, to wide receivers Mike Harris and Bart Burrell. Freshman tight end Dave Young would eventually become a second-round NFL draft pick and he quickly became a part of the offense this season.
Purdue was unranked to start the season and had a difficult test right out of the gate. They would play Michigan State, who had the Big Ten’s best receiver in Kirk Gibson, a man who would go on to considerable notoriety in his baseball pursuits. Spartan quarterback Ed Smith was the only passer more prolific than Herrmann in the conference. Michigan State jumped out to a 14-0 lead.
But the Boilermakers, playing at home came back and tied the game. Then a 33-yard touchdown run from Macon won it 21-14 and gave the first indication this season could be a good one.
Purdue followed it up with a shutout of Ohio University and even a tough 10-6 loss at Notre Dame wasn’t bad—the Irish were the defending national champions, had Joe Montana at quarterback and would win the Cotton Bowl this season. A shaky 14-7 home win over a horrible Wake Forest team closed the non-conference schedule.
Ohio State came to West Lafayette for the first Big Ten game of the season. The Boilermakers trailed 7-3 at the half, but Herrmann played well and finished 22/34 for 210 yards. Purdue led 20-16 in the fourth quarter when they got a turnover deep in Buckeye territory and scored the touchdown that sealed the 27-16 win. This wasn’t a vintage Ohio State team and 1978 would be the final year for the legendary Woody Hayes, but it was still big and Purdue got themselves into the national polls for the first time at #19.
Victories over Illinois, Iowa and Northwestern, all terrible teams, lifted the Boilermakers to #12 in the rankings and more important was that they were in sole possession of first place in the Big Ten with three weeks to go. Purdue was 5-0 in the league, with Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State all a game back. And the Boilermakers had already beaten two of those teams.
But a visit to mediocre Wisconsin was disappointing. Purdue led 24-16 with 1:33 left in the game, when the Boilermakers allowed a blocked punt deep in their own end. The Badgers got the touchdown and two-point conversion. Overtime in college football didn’t exist until 1996, so this game ended in a 24-all tie.
The tie didn’t cost Purdue control of first place, but what happened the following week in Ann Arbor did—the Boilermakers were manhandled by Bo Schembechler’s Michigan, 24-6. Purdue, at 5-1-1 in Big Ten play, trailed all three rivals by a half-game and with Michigan and Ohio State going head-to-head in the finale, the Rose Bowl dream was out of reach for the Boilermakers.
Purdue still accepted a bid to the Peach Bowl and still had their rivalry game with Lee Corso’s Indiana for the Old Oaken Bucket ahead of them. Despite losing Macon and Pope early in the IU game with injuries, the Boilermakers got 100-plus yards on the ground from both Mike Augustyniak and Wally Jones. They won 20-7 and headed to Atlanta ranked #17 in the country.
The Peach Bowl was a de facto road game against Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets had a terrific NFL-bound running back Eddie Lee Ivery. Georgia Tech, like Purdue, had played Notre Dame tough in a losing effort. By rights, this Christmas Day game should have been a good one.
It wasn’t and that suited the Boilermakers just fine. They were ready to play and the Yellow Jackets were not. Jones, who would emerge as the program’s featured back in 1979, gave fans a taste of what was to come with a couple early touchdown runs. Herrmann then threw for one touchdown pass and ran for another. All this went down by early in the second quarter and it was 28-0.
Herrmann later threw a touchdown pass to Burrell and the lead grew to 41-7 late in the fourth quarter. Georgia Tech got a couple of touchdowns in the final two minutes, but even the 41-21 final does not indicate how thoroughly Purdue dominated. The Boilermakers finished #13 in the final polls and Jim Young had two more good years ahead of him in West Lafayette.