Jim Young produced a nice three-year run in his tenure at West Lafayette. The 1980 Purdue football team was the last in that cycle. Just like in 1978 and 1979, the ’80 Boilermakers finished in the Top 20 and won a bowl game.
And just like those earlier teams, the 1980 edition of Purdue football was led by Mark Herrmann at quarterback. Herrmann had an outstanding senior season. A 66 percent completion rate was off the charts outstanding in this era, especially when coupled with 8.7 yards-per-attempt. Herrmann’s 17 interceptions were high, but not unthinkable in this time period and he threw 23 touchdown passes.
When all was said and done, Herrmann was a first-team All-American and he finished fourth in the Heisman Trophy voting.
Herrmann’s favorite target was Dave Young, another first-team All-American. The tight end caught 70 balls for 959 yards. Bart Burrell was a 1,000 yard wide receiver and Steve Bryant racked up nearly 900 yards himself. Both Burrell and Young could stretch the field.
For the running game, Purdue used a three-headed attack with Jimmy Smith, John Macon and Ben McCall. They were good enough to keep defenses off balance and the Boilermaker offense collectively finished 18th in the country in points scored.
The defense was more of a problem. Individually, there was an All-Conference performer at each level of the defense—Calvin Clark up front, James Looney at linebacker and Bill Kay in the secondary. Defensive back Robert Williams intercepted five passes. But Purdue still finished 64th national in points allowed.
After a Top 10 finish in 1979, Purdue opened the 1980 season ranked ninth in the country. They were tested right out of the gate, going to #11 Notre Dame for an anticipated matchup on the first Saturday of September. The Boilermakers did not play well and lost 31-10.
The Big Ten opener at what was then a subpar Wisconsin program resulted in an uninspiring 12-6 win. Then UCLA came to West Lafayette and handed Purdue a 23-14 loss.
The season was off to a poor start. True, Notre Dame was on its way to a strong year where they stayed in the national title hunt all season. And UCLA went 9-2, even though probation kept them from a bowl game. But this wasn’t the Boilermaker team anyone anticipated.
Miami-Ohio came in for the final non-conference game and Purdue got on track with a 28-3 win. They knocked off mediocre Minnesota 21-7. Then the Herrmann-led offense kicked into gear. The Boilermakers hung 45 points on a bad Illinois team. They rolled up 36 in beating another bad team in Michigan State. A road trip to woeful Northwestern saw 52 points go on the board. And when subpar Iowa came to West Lafayette, Purdue exploded for 58 points.
None of the opponents were impressive, but the wins were needed and got Purdue back into the rankings at #17. And with both losses having come in non-conference play, the Boilermakers controlled their own destiny for the Rose Bowl with two weeks to play.
Michigan’s season had followed a similar path—two non-conference losses, including one to Notre Dame, followed by ripping through the Big Ten schedule. The Boilermakers and Wolverines met in Ann Arbor on November 15. Ohio State was also undefeated in league play, but Purdue would win a tiebreaker with the Buckeyes based on not having been to Pasadena for a longer stretch of time.
It didn’t end up mattering. Michigan was peaking and this team would not only go to the Rose Bowl, but become the first Bo Schembechler team to win it. Their defense manhandled Purdue 26-0.
There was still the matter of the Old Oaken Bucket rivalry game with Indiana. The Hoosiers were pretty good, coached by Lee Corso and coming in 6-4. They had a 1,000-yard rusher in Lonnie Johnson. The 71,000 people that showed up in West Lafayette was the largest football crowd in the history of the state.
Those 71,000 saw a heckuva football game. Purdue led 24-17 before IU scored a touchdown with 0:17 left. In this era before overtime existed, Corso had to decide whether to play it safe and take a tie or let it all hang out on a two-point conversion. He went for the win. Boilermaker linebacker Mike Marks batted down the pass in the end zone.
It turned out the game wasn’t quite over. Indiana recovered the onside kick and got a chance for a desperation 59-yard field goal attempt. Marks batted that down too. The Bucket belonged to the Boilermakers.
A Liberty Bowl bid was waiting and Missouri was the opponent. The Tigers were 8-3 and had future NFL running back James Wilder in their backfield. But they didn’t have Herrmann. The Boilermaker quarterback came out firing, hitting both Burrell and Bryant for first-quarter touchdowns.
Mizzou answered by returning a kickoff for a touchdown. But they missed the extra point. Then, after a Wilder TD, they chased the points and missed a two-point conversion. Purdue still led 14-12. Herrmann threw another touchdown pass to Young and it was 21-12 at the half.
Herrmann would finish 22/28 for 289 yards. He had a fourth touchdown pass in him, another to Burrell that stretched the lead to 28-12 in the third quarter. Missouri tried to rally, but Purdue won 28-23.
The Boilermakers finished #17 in the country. They had clearly established themselves as the third-best team in the Big Ten and were certainly closer to Michigan and Ohio State, then they were to the rest of the league.
But it wouldn’t last. After a 5-6 season in 1981, Young took the Army job. Purdue struggled for a long time to find a good replacement. The Boilermaker program only made one more bowl game between now and 1997 when Joe Tiller arrived and produced another run of success