When Joe Tiller arrived in West Lafayette to take over the Purdue Boilermakers in 1997, the football program was on hard times. They hadn’t enjoyed a winning season since 1984. No consecutive bowl appearances since 1978-80. The last piece of a Big Ten title had been in 1967 and the last Rose Bowl trip was 1966. Tiller immediately turned the team around and went to three consecutive bowls. The 2000 Purdue football team was the pinnacle of his rebuilding—the Boilermakers made the long-awaited return to the Rose Bowl.
Purdue has produced some good quarterbacks in its history—Bob Griese and Len Dawson were great in college and won Super Bowls in the NFL. The man at the helm in 2000 might still be the best of all. Drew Brees was behind center for the Boilermakers.
Tiller put his wide-open offense into Brees’ hands. Purdue passed 40 percent more often than anyone else in the Big Ten. Brees would blow away the conference in passing yardage (3,668) and touchdown passes (26), but it’s important to note that he also performed well in two stats that don’t necessarily benefit from high volume—his 60% completion rate was tied for the league’s best and getting 7.2 yards-per-attempt was fourth in the conference.
Brees didn’t have a single big-play option, but he could spread the ball among a balanced group of receivers. Vinny Sutherland and John Standeford combined to catch 145 passes and were second and third in the league respectively, for receptions. Seth Morales caught 35 balls and tight end Tim Stratton was the best in the conference, catching 58 passes for 605 yards.
The offensive line was anchored by future New England Patriots’ mainstay Matt Light and the running game would still be critical in the most important Big Ten games. Light’s line paved the way for Montrell Lowe to rush for nearly 1,000 yards.
Purdue wasn’t known or remembered for defense, but this unit wasn’t bad. They finished 41st in the country in points allowed, not far behind the #23-ranked offense. Freshman defensive back Stuart Schweigert picked off five passes. Up front, the Boilermakers relied on defensive tackle Matt Mitrione and edge rusher Akin Ayodele. Both were voted second-team All-Big Ten at the end of the year.
The schedule opened with the two worst teams in the MAC, Central Michigan and Kent State. Brees threw for a combined 723 yards and Purdue won 48-0 and 45-10 respectively. They were ranked #13 in the country and headed to South Bend for the season’s first real test.
For much of the game, it went well. Brees went 13/22 for 221 yards, connecting with Sutherland four times for 112 of those yards. Purdue led 21-20 late in the game. Then Brees made a critical mistake and threw an interception that set up the game-winning field goal for Notre Dame. This would prove to be a pretty good Irish team, one that reached the Fiesta Bowl, but that wasn’t apparent at the time and the loss was a discouraging one.
Purdue went into Big Ten play and beat a bowl-bound Minnesota team 38-24 at home. Brees opened up with 409 yards passing and the defense clamped down and allowed the Gophers just 55 yards rushing. But that same rush defense failed a week later at mediocre Penn State, allowing 221 yards on the ground. Brees was erratic and another tough road loss was the result. The 22-20 defeat sent Purdue out of the national rankings.
October would be the month that defined the season. It was bookended by home games with Michigan and Ohio State. Sandwiched in between were road trips to contending Northwestern and to Wisconsin, which had won the two previous Rose Bowls. What followed would be arguably the most memorable four-week run in the history of Purdue football.
It didn’t start off very memorable. Purdue dug a 28-10 halftime deficit against Michigan and it looked like another year where a rebellion against the league powers would be doomed. But Tiller didn’t abandon the run, and Lowe rushed for 126 yards, keying a Boilermaker edge on the ground. Brees went 32-for-44 for 286 yards and hooked up with Sutherland eleven times. Brees brought his team all the way back and with four seconds left they got a 33-yard field goal from Travis Dorsch to pull out a 32-31 win.
Lowe didn’t stop running the next week in Evanston, rolling up 174 yards and Purdue outrushed Northwestern 222-83 in a solid 41-28 win. The Boilermakers went up to Madison and held even with the potent Badger rushing attack. Lowe had 77 yards and he got help from Brees, who also made plays with his legs, running for 74 yards. The Purdue defense controlled the line of scrimmage and got seven sacks. The game went to overtime and the Boilermakers ultimately won 30-24 on a blocked field goal return.
There was one more game left in October and Purdue had a chance to take control of the Big Ten as Ohio State arrived. Both offenses started slowly. It was scoreless after the first quarter and the Boilermakers led 7-3 at the half. The Buckeyes took over the third quarter and moved out to a 24-10 lead .
Lowe wasn’t running well in this game, so it all fell on Brees. He put the ball up 65 times and completed 39. Sutherland and Stratton were each in double-digits for catches and went over 100 yards receiving. But the throw of the season wasn’t to either one of them.
With 1:55 left, Purdue trailed 27-24. They had the ball on their own 36-yard line with the raucous crowd imploring Brees to at least get to field goal range. Morales ran down the seam and was left completely uncovered. Brees threw a perfect strike that hit him in stride. Touchdown. “Holy Toledo!” was what ABC’s Brent Musberger said. Purdue had a 31-27 and they had control of the Big Ten race. When the polls came out, Purdue was in the Top 10 at #9.
The Boilermakers had a 5-1 conference record. Michigan and Northwestern were both 4-1, but Purdue had the head-to-head tiebreaker. Ohio State was now a game back in the loss column at 3-2. The Boilers took a deserved week off on November 4. Northwestern beat Michigan in a wild overtime game. Purdue returned on November 11 in East Lansing with a chance to lock up the trip to Pasadena.
It couldn’t have gone worse. The Spartans, in their first year post-Nick Saban, needed this game to keep bowl hopes alive. Brees threw three interceptions. There were was no running game. And the result was a 30-10 rout. With a single bad performance, the dream season looked in jeopardy.
But Northwestern lost that same day to a woeful Iowa team in their first year under Kirk Ferentz. The four Big Ten contenders were all tied again at 5-2—and Purdue was the one who had swept them all head-to-head.
There was no chance at the program’s first outright Big Ten championship since 1929, as Michigan and Ohio State would play each other and the winner would finish in a tie with someone. Michigan won, and Northwestern also beat Illinois. Purdue’s season-ending rivalry game with Indiana would be for a third of the conference crown, but more importantly, for a Rose Bowl bid.
Indiana had the versatile Antwaan Randle-El at quarterback and he eventually became a good NFL receiver with the Pittsburgh Steelers. But that was all the Hoosiers had. Lowe pounded them on the ground for 208 yards. Brees was efficient, 20-for-29 and 216 passing yards. Purdue rolled up an easy 41-13 win and was finally going to Pasadena.
The Boilermakers put up a good fight against Washington in the Rose Bowl. The Huskies were ranked 4th in the nation and when they jumped out to a 14-0 lead it looked like another long afternoon for a Big Ten team out west. But Brees rallied Purdue into a 17-17 tie in the third quarter before Washington finally pulled away one more time and won 34-24. The Boilermakers finished the season #13 in the final polls .
It had been an amazing ride for the 2000 Purdue football team. The aggravating losses in East Lansing and State College are a bit of a what-might-have-been. There was the heartbreak in South Bend. But that was more than made up for by an amazing four-week run through October, as they beat every conference contender and earned a Rose Bowl trip.