Jim Young enjoyed a breakthrough season in 1978, his second year as the Purdue football coach. The Boilermakers posted their best season in a decade, contended for the Big Ten title, won a bowl game and finished ranked in the Top 20. 1979 Purdue football made incremental progress—they stayed in the hunt for the Rose Bowl until November, won a bowl game and finished in the Top 10.
Mark Herrmann continued his growth at quarterback and the junior posted numbers of 58 percent completion rate, 6.8 yards-per-attempt and threw 16 touchdown passes. The completion percentage in particular, was good for this era. Where Herrmann had problems was that he was still too mistake-prone. Throwing 19 interceptions wasn’t as unthinkable then as it was today, but it was still too high.
Herrmann’s favorite target was Dave Young, one of the nation’s best tight ends. Young caught 58 balls for nearly 600 yards. On the outside, Burt Burrell and Ray Smith were the wide receivers.
The running game was led by Wally Jones. A versatile back who caught 27 balls out of the backfield, Jones rushed for over 750 yards. John Macon and Ben McCall were good change-of-pace backs who combined for over 900 yards themselves. Fullback Mike Augustyniak picked up tough yardage inside behind an offensive line led by second-team All-American Steve McKenzie.
Purdue’s defense was led by three good players up front. Ken Loushin was another second-team All-American. Keena Turner, who went on to play with the San Francisco 49ers, was All-Conference, as was Calvin Clark. But the Boilermaker defense wasn’t as good in the back seven. While defensive back Bill Kay intercepted seven passes, there were no All-Big Ten players beyond the front four. The result was the Purdue defense would rank 63rd in the country, compared to 36th for the offense.
Expectations were high in West Lafayette after the strong ’78 season and Purdue was ranked #6 in the preseason polls. They hosted what was then a subpar Wisconsin program to open the season and coasted to a 41-20 win. But a visit to UCLA punctured some of the early optimism.
The Bruins were a traditionally good program in this timeframe, but the 1979 edition would only go 5-6. That makes the 31-21 road loss disappointing in retrospect. Even in the moment, it dropped Purdue all the way to #17 in the polls. And the schedule wasn’t going to get easier.
Notre Dame came to town. The Irish were only two years removed from a national title and had finished in the Top 10 in 1978. Even with Joe Montana departed for the NFL, Notre Dame was still ranked #5 coming into West Lafayette.
For the better part of three quarters, Purdue still looked in a funk. They allowed one touchdown off a fake field goal and another on a flea-flicker play. The Boilermakers trailed 20-7 when they got things turned around.
Herrmann passed for 110 of his 158 yards in the second half. Jones and Macon each rushed for 80-plus yards. With the Boilermaker offense clicking, they rallied and won 28-22. The win moved them back to #10 nationally.
Purdue closed out the non-conference schedule with a pedestrian 13-7 home win over mediocre Oregon. That ho-hum performance led to a worse one in Minnesota a week later. Gopher quarterback Mark Carlson was the only one in the league who threw as much as Herrmann did and Carlson carved up the Boilers for a 31-14 win.
This season of optimism was slipping away. The good news was that a soft schedule run was coming up. Illinois and Northwestern were both terrible teams that would come to West Lafayette. Michigan State and Iowa were road trips, but both were mediocre. The Boilermakers didn’t dominate this stretch. The 28-14 win over Illinois wasn’t noteworthy and the three other wins were all by a touchdown or less. But they were all wins. And Purdue was in contention for the Big Ten crown with two weeks left.
Ohio State and Michigan were, as per usual for this era, setting the tone, with 6-0 league records. Purdue was 5-1. Archrival Indiana was having one of its best seasons and was 4-2 in conference play. The Boilermakers wouldn’t play the Buckeyes this season, but they had a path to Pasadena—beat Michigan, beat Indiana and hope the Wolverines turned around and knocked off Ohio State in Ann Arbor.
One could be forgiven if they weren’t taking the prospect of beating #10 Michigan very seriously. But Purdue stepped up with their best game of the season. Kay intercepted three passes and recovered a fumble. McCall ran for two touchdowns. And the Boilermakers gave the home fans a 24-21 win. They were still alive.
The battle for the Old Oaken Bucket was in Bloomington and Purdue fans surely had one eye on the scoreboard, with Michigan-Ohio State going on simultaneously. After a scoreless first quarter, Augustyniak ran for a couple short touchdowns. The Boilermakers led 21-7 at the half.
Indiana rallied and closed to 27-21 going into the fourth quarter. In the meantime, Michigan was carrying a three-point lead into the fourth quarter further north. Purdue finished their business—another short TD run from Augustyniak and a field goal led to a 37-21 win. Michigan couldn’t finish theirs—a blocked punt gave Ohio State the winning touchdown and the Rose Bowl bid.
Purdue got a bid to the Bluebonnet Bowl, played down in Houston. In the more trimmed-down bowl schedule of the time, this was a nice spot, prime-time on New Year’s Eve. The opponent was Tennessee, a 7-4 team who came in unranked.
For three quarters, the Boilermakers put on a show for the national audience. Herrmann threw a TD pass to Young and Purdue led 21-0. Then everything came apart, the Vols rallied and took a 22-21 lead with just under four minutes to play.
Enter Herrmann. He calmly led a drive into the red zone, then went to Young one more time—a 17-yard touchdown pass with 1:30 left. This time the lead stood up. Purdue won 27-22.
When the final polls came out, the Boilermakers were ranked #10. It was their best season in what was a nice three-year run under Young before he took the Army job. And the 1979 team is the last edition of Purdue football to deliver a Top 10 finish.