WEST LAFAYETTE – One by one, teammates walked over to Keith Smith on the sidelines.
Smith, Purdues leading receiver and best offensive player, was hunched over crutches with his right leg wrapped from mid-calf to mid-thigh, covering a suspected knee injury.
Players patted him on the head, on the back, shook his hand, half-hugged him, leaned close and whispered into his ear.
The Boilermakers may have gotten their first victory this season – 31-21 over Western Illinois on Saturday – but that didnt seem important afterward.
Though coach Danny Hope and players wouldnt speak to the severity of Smiths injury, none seemed hopeful.
Im not optimistic, but obviously the medical people will do their examinations and let us know the official results, said Hope, who didnt give a time frame for those examinations.
Smith wasnt made available for comment – injured players typically arent – but theres no question the offense will take a major hit if hes out for an extended period.
Smith was injured with about 12:30 left. Quarterback Rob Henry entered for Robert Marve and found Smith for a catch near the left sideline. Western Illinois Kieron James went head-first and low to tackle Smith. It appeared that James helmet hit directly on Smiths knee.
Smith stayed down on Western Illinois sideline, and WIU staff immediately started waving for Purdue trainers. Smith eventually was helped up and then put onto a cart.
Normally when you get hurt on the other sideline and take him into the locker room and not bring him back to our sideline, its not a good sign, Hope said. Well have to wait and see what the doctors say.
Smith returned to the field – via the cart – with about 7:30 left and his leg wrapped.
He popped some pills then had a woman wearing a replica Smith jersey come out of the stands. She handed him a cell phone, and Smith made a call. When she returned to the stands, teammates started to gradually make their way over.
Often, he simply appeared to shake his head. Sometimes he spoke, though carefully and only closely into teammates ears.
After the game, sixth-year senior Jason Werner said he asked whether Smith was OK, and Smith said, Probably not, so far.
Defensive end Ryan Kerrigan, who dominated with 12 tackles, four tackles for loss, a sack and a forced fumble, called Smiths injury terrible.
We just have to rally around Keith, Kerrigan said. We cant be sad, and we cant dwell on the loss of Keith. Its a huge loss, no doubt, but other guys are going to have to step up.
No. 2 receiver Cortez Smith tweaked his ankle Saturday, too, which left Purdue with freshman O.J. Ross, redshirt freshman Gary Bush, sophomore Antavian Edison and converted quarterback Justin Siller getting most of the action at receiver. Ross showed some promise catching four passes for 24 yards, but Purdue may have to rely more on its experienced tight ends, seniors Kyle Adams and Jeff Lindsay, if Smith is out for an extended period.
Smith was one of the Big Tens best receivers, catching 91 passes for 1,100 yards last season. He had 12 catches in the opener against Notre Dame and had six for 43 yards before getting hurt Saturday.
Purdue (1-1) led 24-7 when Smith left the game. In the next three drives, the Boilermakers had eight plays for 48 yards. Al-Terek McBurse broke free for a 40-yard touchdown run late.
The offense already is without leading rusher Ralph Bolden, who tore his anterior cruciate ligament last spring.
Dan Dierking rushed for 102 yards – his first 100-yard game with the Boilermakers – and two touchdowns.
Its tough losing anybody. When youve got good players like that (who get injured), it hurts our team, said Marve, who completed 23 of 34 passes for 171 yards and a TD. But were going to find out the true character of our team.
I thought (Saturday) we took it up another level. Did we play exactly as good as we want? No. But I thought we felt more comfortable in the system.