Every win is meaningful, but for Purdue (3-2, 1-1 Big Ten), beating Illinois (1-4, 0-2 Big Ten) this past weekend was about as meaningful as they come.
On paper, it didn’t seem like a big deal. Illinois has a long ways to go before the ship gets turned around under first-year head coach Lovie Smith. The Fighting Illini’s record this season is an indication of that.
Who cares if Purdue beat a bad team? Isn’t that what the Boilermakers were expected to do?
Heading into this contest it would have been foolish to assume that Purdue was the clear favorite, though. First, it was a road game against a conference opponent. Even the best teams in college football find it challenging to play on the road in conference, so that was a factor that had to be considered.
Second, and perhaps even more important to the context of this game, was Purdue’s previous outing. The Boilermakers were absolutely stomped by Maryland on the road in their Big Ten opener. The Terps beat them 50-7, putting up 496 total yards compared to only 205 from Purdue.
It was an ugly loss for Purdue head coach Darrell Hazell. Afterward he had to take questions about job security — a sure sign of a coach on the hot seat with the flames set to high. It made sense, because it’s not as though the anger (and even apathy) was unwarranted. The loss to Maryland dropped Hazell’s record as Purdue head coach to 8-32 and he’s now in his fourth season at the helm.
Heavy is the head that wears the crown, but even heavier is the reality of a 1-11 season in 2013, a 3-9 season in 2014 and a 2-10 season in 2015.
So yes, every win matters in a big way for Purdue at this juncture of Hazell’s tenure. Given that a loss to a subpar Illinois team could have been the straw that broke the camel’s back for Hazell, the win is monumental.
Purdue came into this game feeling the pressure of the chopping block. With a tough schedule still ahead the Boilermakers were playing to keep their long-term goals afloat this season, but they were undoubtedly also playing for their head coach’s job.
“I’m really happy, and I’m really happy for those guys, because they go through so much and they hear so much, but yet they come back to work every single day,” Hazell said after the game, according to Nathan Baird of jconline.com. “They try to block it out as much as they can for an 18- to 22-year-old guy. All the do is try to please you, and that’s what you want.”
Speaking of pressure, the win didn’t come easily for Purdue.
With the game tied at 31 with less than two minutes to go, Purdue quarterback David Blough through an interception to Hardy Nickerson of Illinois. The Illini seized the opportunity to drive down to the Boilermaker 23-yard line, which set up a game-winning field goal attempt from Chase McLaughlin, who was 3-of-3 in field goals on the day up to that point.
Perhaps that’s when the desperation and pressure really set in for Hazell, because he decided to ice the Illinois kicker not once, not twice, but three times. Icing is an old desperation strategy in the coaching handbook that rarely works, but that’s generally with one timeout left in the game. Hazell had three timeouts left. He said after the contest that he wasn’t going to be able to take them with him. Why not use them to try to get into the head of the Illini kicker?
Miraculously, it worked.
The missed kick sent the game into overtime, where Purdue was able to cause and recover a fumble on Illinois’ first drive. The Boilermakers took their turn on offense, and five plays (and an icing) later, freshman kicker J.D. Dellinger got his chance to make a statement for his head coach.
The emotion from Hazell was clear in the moments immediately after the kick went through the uprights.
It was also clear in his statements after the game.
“People don’t understand how hard it is to win football games, all the pieces have to fit together and you need a break every once in a while,” he said via the school website. “It’s a culmination of all those things in that very split second that comes rushing at you.”
Hazell’s job security is still very much a pressing question for Purdue, but at least for a week, he gave Boilermaker fans something to feel good about. Purdue’s win over Illinois was thanks to the first game-winning overtime field goal in program history.
Now with three wins, Hazell has also tied his best win mark with the Boilermakers and there’s still seven games to go. Purdue is also halfway to bowl eligibility, something the program has yet to accomplish in the Hazell era.