Michael Conroy, Associated Press
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Purdue believes it has the pieces to make a Big Ten title run this season.
The defensive line is big and deep. The secondary is quick and experienced. At quarterback, the Boilermakers have three players with starting experience, and receivers and running backs with enough overall speed to challenge opponents.
The only thing they've been lacking is a national reputation.
Purdue (3-1) can change that Saturday against Michigan (2-2).
"We've been thinking about this since the beginning of the season," defensive tackle Kawann Short said. "We feel, right now, we're in a better position. We did what we had to do (in the non-conference season), we just need to live up to the hype."
So far, those large expectations have been relegated almost exclusively within the program.
Beating the Wolverines could change everything.
The Boilermakers are uniquely positioned to chase the Leaders Division crown thanks to their first 3-1 start since 2007, the fact that perennial powerhouses Ohio State and Penn State are ineligible to win the division title and each of the three other division foes — Wisconsin, Indiana and Illinois — have already lost conference games.
Should the Boilers survive Saturday and the next two weeks — at home against the Badgers (3-2) and at No. 12 Ohio State (5-0) — Purdue would suddenly and surprisingly have the inside track to play a Big Ten title game barely an hour away from its campus.
Purdue's players and coaches never doubted they could get here, and now the outsiders are beginning converts.
"We thought a year ago they were a good football team. I think the week before they played us, they beat Illinois and really got after 'em pretty good," Michigan coach Brady Hoke said. "So from a skill standpoint and up front defensively, they've got some playmakers."
The Wolverines had big plans this year, too, but like the rest of the Big Ten, have struggled.
Michigan started the season ranked No. 8 before getting thumped by No. 1 Alabama, needed a late field goal to close out a victory over Air Force and after a rout of Massachusetts, committed five first-half turnovers in a 13-6 loss at Notre Dame.
The second loss knocked the Wolverines out of the rankings and sent them into a bye week with plenty to ponder.
Denard Robinson, who has rushed for 441 yards and four scores in the first four games, used the extra week to contemplate what he's doing wrong after throwing two interceptions per game this season and at least one pick in 11 of his last 12 starts.
"I felt like I let my teammates down," Robinson said, referring to his sub-par performance against the Fighting Irish. "I had to be accountable to the team, and that's not throwing interceptions, that's playing my role on the football team and knowing it's OK to throw the ball away, knowing it's OK to take a sack sometimes, knowing it's a good play to punt sometimes, knowing it's a good play if I have to run the ball. I got to start making better decisions as a quarterback."
While Robinson spent last week's bye trying to correct his own mistakes, Hoke prodded his team to go back to the basics. And with an extra week to prepare for Purdue, Hoke may have some new looks Saturday.
"They'll have time to look at what we do and come up with some new wrinkles to try to exploit some of the tendencies that we may have and some of the plays that we call throughout the course of the season," Hope said.
But the real test for Robinson & Co. comes Saturday against a Purdue defense that already has 11 sacks, leads the Big Ten with eight interceptions and had two interception returns for scores last week. Short, a 315-pound defensive tackle, may be the best interior linemen in the Big Ten.
Michigan's defense faces a stiff challenge, too, against an offense that is just starting to get in sync and play like a contender.
"I think (Caleb) TerBush is better," Hoke said, describing Purdue's starting quarterback. "I think this guy has come in and been very — percentage pass-wise done a good job with the football."
Which puts the Boilermakers in perfect position to achieve one of their biggest goals this season: Putting the Cradle of Quarterbacks back on the national college football map.
"A win this Saturday would be huge for our football team, and I think it would be an excellent step in the right direction in our pursuit of returning our football program to national prominence," Hope said. "Michigan won 11 games last year and they're an excellent football team. It's a great opportunity, but we've positioned ourselves to be in this position."
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