What Went Wrong: 1968 Purdue Boilermakers


Once again, we’re back for another edition of “What Went Wrong.” This column focuses on teams that came into a season with hype but didn’t quite live up to the expectation. For this edition, we take an unexpected turn in modern context to a program you might not think would be ranked at the top of the preseason poll: the Purdue Boilermakers.

Do you know how long it has been since the Purdue Boilermakers checked into the AP Top 25? They haven’t been there since 2007, even for a cup of coffee. Head coach Jeff Brohm aims to reverse that, among other negative trends in 2018, with the ultimate aim of being ranked No. 1 — a spot Purdue occupied to kick off the college football season 50 years ago.

Led by All-American running back Leroy Keyes, the Boilermakers entered 1968 considered one of the contenders to win a national title.

In 1966, Purdue, led by quarterback Bob Griese, finished a 9-2 campaign with a Rose Bowl win over USC. That served as a springboard to an even better 1967 season.

The ’67 season included victories over both Notre Dame and Ohio State, as Purdue clinched a share of the Big Ten Conference title. The Boilermakers had an opportunity to win the league outright, but lost to Indiana in the final week of the season to finish No. 9 in the AP Poll.

Optimism was understandably high for the Boilermakers going into the ’68 season. However, they weren’t the only college football team receiving hype. Both 1967 Rose Bowl opponent USC and in-state counterpart Notre Dame were considered championship contenders.

USC won the national title the season prior, beating Indiana in the Rose Bowl. Notre Dame, meanwhile, closed out its regular season in ’67 by winning five straight after going 2-2 in its first four.

Preseason voting was a bit of a challenge. In total, six teams received first-place votes in the initial poll for ’68. Of the 33 first-place votes available, Purdue received the most with 14, giving it the edge in the preseason AP poll.

USC took second in the poll as they received 10 first-place votes. Notre Dame would take third with three first-place votes. Texas (3 FPV), Oregon State (2 FPV) and Florida (1 FPV) also received votes.

Now, it can be argued that those other first-place votes could’ve swayed the poll in favor of USC. Then again, it could’ve added to Purdue’s total.

This poll was very close. Purdue, USC and Notre Dame were all separated by 25 points. The Boilermakers held their spot for the first couple of weeks of play.

The biggest win for Purdue during that stretch took place Sept. 28, when itknocked off No. 2 Notre Dame 37-22, in one of college football’s rare 1 vs. 2 matchups. Notre Dame took an early lead, but two touchdown runs by Keyes helped to get them the victory.

Purdue’s final week at No. 1 came with a trip to Columbus, Ohio to play the Ohio State Buckeyes.

In front of nearly 85,000 in Ohio Stadium, the Buckeyes pulled off the upset, shutting out Purdue 13-0.

The biggest moment on that day occurred in the third quarter, when Ted Provost picked off Purdue quarterback Mike Phipps’ pass and took it 34 yards into the end zone. Ohio State missed the point-after, but took a 6-0 lead.

Ohio State quarterback Bill Long scored the final touchdown on a 14-yard run, chipping in on a 300-plus-yard day for the Buckeyes.

Meanwhile, Ohio State’s defense kept Keyes in check, allowing him to rush for 19 yards on seven carries. It was the first time the Boilermakers were shutout since 1965.

Because of the loss, Purdue went from being No. 1 and getting 35 first-place votes to dropping to fifth and receiving none. Purdue rebounded by winning three straight. However, they sat outside of the top five in the poll.

The final straw for Purdue’s season came November 10 when they lost 27-13 in Minneapolis to unranked Minnesota. Fullback Jim Carter and Minnesota punished Purdue for 307 rushing yards. Carter had three of Minnesota’s four rushing touchdowns in the game and finished with 100.

Purdue’s loss knocked them out of the Big Ten race and it also dropped them to 15th in the poll. The Boilermakers won their remaining two games to finish the season 8-2. They placed 10th in the final AP Poll.

Ohio State, meanwhile, ran the gauntlet, finishing the season undefeated, defeating USC in the Rose Bowl and winning a national title.

It’s worth pointing out that Ohio State wasn’t even in the top 10 to start the season. They were 11th in the preseason poll. The Buckeyes had struggled in the years prior. They went 4-5 in ’66 and 6-3 in ’67. So it was probably easy for the sports writers to overlook Ohio State.

So did everyone overestimate Purdue? It’s not like they were a consensus No. 1 at the start. An 8-2 record and a top 10 AP poll finish is still a really good season, even if it meant no bowl game or conference title. In some ways, this column is a little misleading. Under any other circumstance, this is a great season. If Purdue went unranked and finished 10th, that would be a terrific season. But because of the recent success of Purdue, the ’68 season probably should’ve been the year of the Boilermakers.

The loss to Ohio State likely made the difference. If they beat the Buckeyes, maybe they’re the ones playing in that Rose Bowl game. Maybe Jack Mollenkopf has a second Rose Bowl with Purdue before retiring the next season.

We’ll never know. However, given how the sports writers put Purdue in the spotlight during the 1968 season, it’s hard not to think about how close the Boilermakers might have been to winning it all.

Of course, we’ll also never know what controlled substances sportswriters took at the time when they voted on the ’68 preseason poll.