Reakwon Jones got a crash course in the Indiana-Purdue rivalry two years ago.
The Indiana linebacker was on the sideline in West Lafayette when Boilermakers’ players raced across the field, snatched the Old Oaken Bucket from the Hoosiers and started celebrating their first win in the series in five years. It made quite an impression on the Florida native, one he still cites as motivation today.
“You know that belongs here,” Jones said after recounting what he witnessed in 2017. “We want it here and we've got the case all clean for it. We just want to go get the Bucket back.”
On Saturday, Jones and the other Hoosiers seniors will have a chance to rewrite that scene in their first trip back to West Lafayette since then.
And the contrast could not be starker.
Despite losing its last two, Indiana (7-4, 4-4 Big Ten) remains one win away from its first eight-win season since 1993, its first five-win season in league play since 1993. A win Saturday would get the Hoosiers within striking distance of matching the single-season school record for wins (nine), last achieved in 1967, and in position to keep climbing the bowl bid pecking order.
But the more immediate goal is bringing the Bucket back to Bloomington for the first time in three years.
“I can't stand not having it here in Bloomington, not seeing it in that trophy case,” receiver Nick Westbrook said. “So I'm doing everything in my power to get it back here because that's where it belongs in my eyes.”
Injuries have forced the Boilermakers (4-7, 3-5) to play most of this season without their starting quarterback, their top two receivers and their top two defensive players. They even lost their backup quarterback with a season-ending injury.
So coach Jeff Brohm compensated by going with a young lineup, which has produced big numbers — but not enough wins to become bowl-eligible. So instead of trying to reach their third straight bowl game under Brohm, the Boilermakers hope to salvage their season with a third consecutive Bucket win.
“It's always good to win that last game, especially when there's a lot riding on it,” said Brohm, who will miss the postseason for the first time in his six seasons as a head coach. “That's what made the last two seasons very fun, it came down to win and you advance or you lose and you go home. “
Brohm is a perfect 2-0 in Bucket games. Indiana coach Tom Allen is 0-2.
And both understand what it means to get their hands on that cherished trophy.
“That’s a huge priority here in our program,” Allen said. “Our guys understand that. All of our new guys are growing to understand that. We'll have to play our very, very best on the road to get this very important win for our program.”
Don’t expect to see Brohm use too many more newcomers now that the Boilermakers are out of bowl contention.
Actually, he’s almost out of options.
Receiver David Bell was just named Big Ten freshman of the week for the fourth time this season and running back King Doerue earned the honor once.
And while Doerue leads the Boilermakers in rushing, Bell leads the team in receptions and receiving yards, freshman defensive lineman George Karlaftis leads Purdue in sacks and tackles for loss and redshirt freshman defensive back Cory Trice leads the team in interceptions.
BY THE NUMBERS
The Hoosiers lead the Big Ten in passing offense (306.1 yards) and are second in time of possession (33:43), completions (278) and passing attempts (400).
Indiana also is tied for second-fewest sacks allowed per game (1.64) and is third in total offense (436.5) and needs one more 30-point game to match a single-season school record (nine).
And the Hoosiers are one of only two teams with five receivers who have caught 20 or more passes and posted 350 or more yards. Washington State has seven.
Injuries gave quarterback Aidan O’Connell a chance to make his first career start four weeks ago, and he’s played well.
O’Connell engineered late comebacks against Nebraska and Northwestern to keep Purdue’s slim bowl hopes alive and kept them close at No. 14 Wisconsin last weekend.
He’s the third Purdue player since 2000 to produce two game-winning drives in the final two minutes during the same season, joining Drew Brees and Elijah Sindelar.