WEST LAFAYETTE -- The end of the college football regular season has arrived. Fittingly, it will be a cold, gray late-fall Indiana afternoon when Purdue and Indiana meet in that most Hoosier State of football traditions -- the Old Oaken Bucket Game.
For the second straight meeting, nothing is really on the line in this game other than pride. The Boilermakers have already enjoyed their best season in 15 years and are locked into a pretty good bowl-game slot, while Indiana has been out of the bowl picture for weeks and is trying to salvage anything from what has been an entirely lost campaign.
But this game matters, especially as a reminder of what was missed a year ago.
In 2020, the Hoosiers and Boilermakers were each hit with novel coronavirus outbreaks in the week leading up to the Bucket Game, forcing the cancellation of the contest for the first time in a century and setting up the rivalry to be played twice in a row in West Lafayette, the first time that's happened since there were four straight games here from 1897 to 1900.
The last time these teams met, Indiana finished its own charmed season with a 44-41 double-overtime win at Ross-Ade Stadium against a Boilermakers team that limped to a disappointing finish.
The roles are reversed this season and Purdue is a significant favorite to win the Bucket Game for the third time in four tries in the tenures of coaches Jeff Brohm and Tom Allen, who have been at their respective schools five years apiece.
The Boilers denied Indiana bowl eligibility while grabbing it for themselves with Bucket Game victories in 2017 and 2018, and this time will try to keep the Hoosiers from enjoying any solace heading into an offseason that will be one of the most difficult in recent memory in Bloomington.
If Purdue can win, it will finish with eight victories in the regular season for the first time since 2006 and have a chance at the program's first nine-win campaign since 2003. There have been dark times in West Lafayette since Joe Tiller departed, but Jeff Brohm, shaking off injury-plagued seasons in 2019 and 2020 that threatened to torpedo his program's momentum, has begun to lead the Boilers out of college football purgatory. An emphatic victory over the Hoosiers would be a nice capper on a season that has re-established Purdue's upward trajectory.
It's difficult to discuss the personnel and matchups for this iteration of the Bucket Game because Indiana's personnel is a giant question mark. The Hoosiers have more than half a dozen starters that Tom Allen has called some version of questionable entering this game, including top quarterbacks Michael Penix Jr. and Jack Tuttle, top running back Stephen Carr, All-American cornerback Tiawan Mullen, fellow corner Josh Sanguinetti and All-Big Ten safety Devon Matthews. That's an enormous amount of production and experience that might play today or might be on the bench in favor of underclassmen and walk-ons.
Penix and Tuttle are, of course, the headliners of that group, but the corners, Mullen and Sanguinetti, might be the more important players for this particular contest.
Purdue's passing offense has exploded since Aidan O'Connell replaced Jack Plummer at quarterback at midseason, and has in the last three weeks reached a level matched in the Big Ten only by Ohio State, with O'Connell throwing for nearly 450 yards and two touchdowns per contest.
Indiana has struggled to stop even above-average passing attacks this season and gave up 419 yards to Maryland in a 38-35 loss in late October. Maryland has a decent aerial attack, but it can't match Purdue's, which features Biletnikoff finalist David Bell -- only 101 receiving yards shy of the all-time Purdue record for a single season -- and one of the country's better second bananas in Milton Wright, who hauled in eight catches for 213 yards and three touchdowns against Northwestern a week ago.
Even if Mullen and Sanguinetti can play, the Hoosiers could struggle in coverage. If one or both are out, some young IU corners might be in for a very long day.
The situation is almost as dire for Indiana on the offensive side.
The Hoosiers' offensive line has been one of the team's most consistent issues this season, struggling to open holes for the run game or keep its revolving door of quarterbacks upright. Both of those could be difficult propositions against Purdue.
The Boilermakers feature one of the country's best pass-rushers in George Karlaftis, who, like Bell, could well be playing his final game at Ross-Ade Stadium. The Hoosiers could try to chip him with a running back or tight end, but passes to those positions have been some of the more reliable offensive plays for the Hoosiers. Maybe some screens to get Karlaftis et al to back off pressure slightly would be the right call.
If Indiana tries to establish the run, it will have to deal with a Boiler defensive tackle rotation that includes former Hoosier Damarjhe Lewis, who transferred to Purdue after a season in Bloomington. Former Snider star Lawrence Johnson also mans the middle for the Boilers. Both players are dealing with nagging injuries -- Lewis missed last week's victory over the Wildcats -- but Brohm is hopeful both will play this afternoon.
On paper, this should be a Purdue victory. The Boilermakers have more top-end talent, they're healthier and they're playing with a ton of confidence late in the season, winners of three of their last four. Indiana has lost eight in a row and has been engaged in a so-far-fruitless search for answers to a growing list of problems since September.
But games, especially rivalry games, aren't played on paper. Just as Indiana did in 2019, Purdue will have to earn this victory. If it does, it can begin to imagine a New Year's bowl berth in a warm-weather destination. For now, it's cold and gray.