MADISON — It’s been nearly 13 years since Robert Brooks’ knee knocked the football from Kyle Orton’s grasp late in the fourth quarter of a top-10 matchup, but the moment remains an important piece of history in the story of two football programs. One — Wisconsin — that would go on to great things after Scott Starks picked that loose ball up and returned it for a game-winning touchdown. The other — Purdue — would go into a funk that it has yet to emerge from.
It was third-and-3 with 2:49 left in the game and a first down likely would have sealed a 17-14 victory for the No. 5 Boilermakers. All eyes were on Ross-Ade Stadium that afternoon seeing as it was hosting a pair of 6-0 teams and ESPN’s College GameDay was in town. The only thing the late Joe Tiller and Purdue needed was three yards to put themselves on a path to a Big Ten title and potentially more.
That didn’t happen, of course.
The words that night of Wisconsin’s play-by-play man, Matt Lepay, tell the story of what took place, while at the same time unknowingly describing the exact moment one school set its bright future in motion and the other its slide into irrelevance.
“Here’s the snap…here’s the boot to the right…Orton on the run…gets the first down…as he got helicoptered…ball is loose…Badgers have it…here comes Starks…at the 20, at the 10, at the five…touchdown, Wisconsin!”
It was, as ESPN’s Mark Jones pointed out as Starks was getting mobbed in the end zone by his teammates, a “cataclysmic turn of events.” While he meant that game specifically, it proved to be more than just that.
Wisconsin would turn its victory into a 9-4 season, and after going just 9-17 in the Big Ten from 2001 to 2003, the Badgers have gone 79-33 in conference play since Orton’s fumble. They’ve won three Big Ten championships, three division titles, are currently positioned as the No. 7 team in the country and are the overwhelming favorite to go to the conference title game for a fifth time in its seven-year existence.
Purdue, though, never recovered, losing its next three games in 2004 and not challenging for a Big Ten title since. In fact, since the ball squirted free from Orton’s clutches, the Boilermakers are 32-73 in the conference and have just one winning season. Prior to that year, they had four in their last seven seasons under Tiller, including a berth in the 2001 Rose Bowl.
“They were having another one of those storybook seasons,” former Wisconsin running back Anthony Davis said this week on the Wisconsin Football Roundtable. “To lose that way on that night, that derailed them. That definitely derailed them that season and possibly their program. These types of games have a lasting impact.
“They haven’t put it together since [then].”
It was a monumental shift, one that essentially ended Orton’s Heisman Trophy chances, something he didn’t soon forget. According to several former players, Orton went out of his way to ignore them at a variety of events in the months and years after the game.
“I can remember seeing Kyle Orton afterwards at different functions and that guy would not speak to us,” said Davis, who ran for 66 yards and a touchdown that night. “He would not look in our direction. He got off the elevator one time. We were on the elevator, he got off the elevator. Wouldn’t ride the elevator with us. He just despised us after that.”
If Orton had known what would become of the Purdue program, one that let Tiller go in 2008, sent his replacement, Danny Hope, packing in 2012, and then fired his successor, Darrell Hazell, last year, he probably would have been even more upset with the Badgers, who certainly aren’t apologizing.
“It was a great feeling,” Davis said of Orton giving them the cold shoulder.
But there is optimism in West Lafayette this year, more so than at any point under Hope or Hazell. Former Western Kentucky coach Jeff Brohm has brought energy and toughness to the Boilermakers, who are 3-2 as they prepare for a visit to Wisconsin on Saturday. The two losses came against ranked teams and were tight affairs for the most part, with Brohm’s group losing by a touchdown to Louisville in the opener and leading Michigan at halftime before losing 28-10.
Those games, even though they were losses, have some believing that Brohm is the man that can help bring back the excitement around the program last seen in the early 2000s. Heck, a win Saturday against a top-10 Wisconsin team could very well be looked back at in a few years and pointed to as the day that Purdue football made itself relevant again. But at this moment, as the Badgers look for a 12th straight victory in the series, that cool and wet October night in West Lafayette is nothing but a horror story for the Boilermakers, while at the same time serving as one of the more important games in Wisconsin football history.