Purdue faces a daunting bit of history in its quest to claim the Big Ten Conference football title and advance to the Rose Bowl.
No team in league history has won the outright championship and spent New Year's Day in Pasadena, Calif., after allowing 40 or more points in a regular-season loss at home.
The Boilermakers are coming off a 44-13 loss to Michigan at Ross-Ade Stadium, a decision that pushed roots of concern about their defense deeper into the soil.
Three games into the season, Purdue ranked in the top 25 nationally in all the pertinent defensive categories: 12th in passing efficiency (95.3 rating), 17th in total defense (294.7 yards per game), 19th in scoring defense (14 points per game) and 25th in rushing defense (110.3 yards per game).
But after allowing 439 passing yards in 51-41 non-conference win over Marshall and 304 rushing yards in the loss to Michigan, the Boilermakers are free-falling on the stat sheet. That's especially noticeable in total defense (365.4) and scoring defense (25.4) because those totals went from being second-best in the Big Ten to eighth and ninth, respectively.
Purdue seemingly has the veteran personnel to win the Leaders Division — especially on defense where it returns 10 starters — but it must regroup after allowing 5.86 yards per play the last two weeks. That would rank last in the Big Ten overall.
A big line in the sand appears Saturday when the Boilermakers (3-2, 0-1 Big Ten) host the University of Wisconsin (4-2, 1-1). The winner assumes the inside track toward representing the division at the Big Ten title game Dec. 1 in Indianapolis.
"It's a team we want to play well against, a team we want to match up well against," Purdue coach Danny Hope said Tuesday. "It's certainly an important game."
The Boilermakers have two of the best defenders in the league in senior tackle Kawann Short (42½ tackles for loss, 16½ sacks and seven blocked kicks in his career) and junior cornerback Ricardo Allen (seven career interceptions with four returned for touchdowns). The unit also shares the Big Ten lead with 13 takeaways.
But the last two games have involved specific trouble spots. Opponents are 19-for-35 converting on third down (54.3) and Purdue has yielded 10 plays of 20 yards or more after allowing 15 through the first three games.
Reflecting on the loss to Michigan that saw Wolverines quarterback Denard Robinson run 24 times for 235 yards, Hope said the problem on defense wasn't tactics or diligence.
"I don't think scheme was a factor," he said. "I don't think effort was a factor. I think execution was a factor. We didn't execute as well as we need to."
Robinson had runs of 59, 46, 38 and 23 yards a week after Rakeem Cato completed 45 of 68 passes for five TDs for Marshall. Those realities don't seem to bother Hope, though.
"I think we're capable and I feel confident about our defense lining up and performing well against any style of offense," he said.
UW has won six straight games against the Boilermakers dating back to 2004 and the last three have featured a 100-yard rusher. Senior tailback Montee Ball totaled 223 yards on 20 carries and three TDs in a 62-17 romp last season and Hope expects another game plan built around the run.
"Their offensive line has improved from the beginning of the season to where they are now," he said of the Badgers, "so I anticipate them being very similar to what they did in the past."