WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. (AP) — Purdue isn't desperate, but the Boilermakers know what's at stake against Wisconsin.
The Boilermakers were crushed 44-13 at home by Michigan last week, making Saturday's game against the Badgers critical. Purdue had become a fashionable pick to win the Big Ten in recent weeks after a strong showing in non-conference play that included a close loss to Notre Dame. Now, the Boilermakers (3-2, 0-1 Big Ten) need a win with a trip to Ohio State coming next week.
With Ohio State and Penn State ineligible for the postseason, the winner of Saturday's game becomes the front-runner to win the Leaders Division and advance to the Big Ten title game.
"Well, it certainly would be a key win as far as the Leaders Division goes," Purdue coach Danny Hope said. "Again, there's a lot of football left to be played and a lot of parity in the league, and on any given Saturday there are a lot of surprises."
The Boilermakers face an improving Wisconsin squad that could return to the Big Ten title game after winning it last year. The Badgers (4-2, 1-1), coming off a 31-14 win over Illinois, are bouncing back after scoring just seven points in a loss to Oregon State and 16 points in a win over Utah State.
Since then, Wisconsin is averaging 32.7 points per game. Running back Montee Ball has rushed for 569 yards and eight touchdowns this season after totaling 1,923 yards and 33 scores last season. He ran for 116 yards and two touchdowns last week against Illinois.
"He's a great player, and someone that you have to wrap up and be physical with when you tackle him because he can break tackles and make you miss," Hope said. "And he's excellent as far as reading the blocking schemes and having a feel for where the holes will be, based on the fronts and just has great vision and great feet and is just an outstanding player."
Wisconsin receiver Jake Abbrederis missed the Utah State game with a chest injury, but since he's returned, he has 20 catches for 406 and three touchdowns in three games.
Coach Bret Bielema said the most significant improvement has been in the offensive line. The Badgers changed their offensive line coach after the loss to Oregon State, and Bielema said the team is starting to get adjusted.
"I knew at that point it wasn't going to be something to change overnight, but I knew there would be change, and it's been going in the right direction," Bielema said.
Purdue's defense, expected to be its strength, has faltered the past two weeks. The Boilermakers have allowed a combined 85 points and 943 yards against Marshall and Michigan.
Bielema still believes Purdue's defensive line, featuring defensive tackle Kawann Short, is formidable. Short has four sacks and eight tackles for loss.
"I think defensively Purdue might have the best front four in our league right now," Bielema said. "I think Short is just — he's powerful, he's quick, he's athletic, he's tall. He's got the ability to jump and explode and make big plays."
Caleb TerBush will start at quarterback for Purdue. Hope said TerBush does a better job of executing the game plan and making the proper reads before the snap and during plays.
Hope said he understands why the fans want the athletic, risk-taking Robert Marve to start, even though he hasn't fully healed from damaging the ACL in his left knee against Notre Dame a month ago.
"The good things stand out in your mind," Hope said. "The big plays certainly stand out in the minds of the fans and mine too. That's why we are committed to getting him ready and playing him in the ball games. But I'm not perplexed as to why some of the fan base would prefer Robert Marve. That's a tendency on a national level. The number two quarterback is always the favorite."
Hope expects his team to be ready.
"Obviously, the magnitude, or the potential magnitude of this game will get our team's attention and obviously, we'll need all of our focus to be toward getting ready to play a Wisconsin team," Hope said. "I would be disappointed if we were so weak-minded that we would let a loss linger and affect the potential of the outcome of our team in the season."