WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- A late scoring flurry helped Purdue keep the Old Oaken Bucket.
Now it's up to school officials to determine whether coach Danny Hope keeps his job.
Akeem Shavers scored three times during a 4½-minute span in the fourth quarter, breaking open a tie game to send the Boilermakers past archrival Indiana 56-35 on Saturday and likely back into a bowl game.
"We felt this team was good enough to advance to the postseason and we weren't going to let nobody stop us," defensive tackle Kawann Short said. "So as far as rallying up these last couple weeks and getting these wins, it was very big for us."
Bowl talk was all the rage among players and coaches. Everyone else was talking about Hope's future in West Lafayette.
There has been rampant speculation about Hope's job since a once-promising season unraveled during a five-game losing streak that started with blowouts against Michigan and Wisconsin at home. Then came a late-game collapse at Ohio State and two more blowouts -- at Minnesota and at home against Penn State. There was so much debate that athletic director Morgan Burke even issued a midseason statement saying he would wait until the end of the season before making his decision.
Since then, all the Boilermakers (6-6, 3-5 Big Ten) have done is win.
Purdue closed the regular season with wins at Iowa and Illinois and now over the hated Hoosiers to retain the trophy in the highest-scoring game in the 115-game series. The 91 combined points broke the previous record of 87 in 2004, a game the Boilers won 63-24. And it was enough to make Purdue bowl eligible in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 2006-07.
Purdue's strong finish certainly could make the case that Hope should stay. But was it enough at a school that has struggled to fill seats for its home games?
Even Hope didn't seem to know. After the game, he paced slowly from the Purdue sideline to the middle of the field, shook hands with Indiana coach Kevin Wilson and hugged one of his players before walking to the student section, where he pumped his fist and led the traditional singing of the school's fight song. Then he raised both hands as players hoisted him briefly on their shoulders for the first time in his career.
Burke did not speak to reporters following the game. Hope did.
"We've made great progress in the program in every phase. We've done great things over the last four years," Hope said. "We started off really strong, played very well early in the season, we had some setbacks in the middle, I think we lost five straight and we bounced back. I don't think there's many teams in the country that can bounce back from 3-6 and get themselves into postseason play."
If nothing else, it was an emotional win for Hope and his seniors.
Sheets ran 27 times for 126 yards and one touchdown -- a 1-yard plunge that sealed the victory with 6:14 to go. He also caught two passes for 99 yards, a 73-yard tackle-breaking TD reception that broke a 35-35 tie with 10:40 left in the game and a 26-yard scoring pass that made it 49-35 with 7:55 to go.
"Shavers has been running like a different man the last five weeks," sixth-year quarterback Robert Marve said.
The oft-injured Marve finished with a flourish, too, throwing for a career-high 348 yards and four scores. Backup quarterback Rob Henry also threw a TD pass and ran for another. And the much-maligned Boilermakers defense forced four turnovers.
"A big day for Akeem Shavers, a big game for our entire football team," Hope said.
The Hoosiers (4-8, 2-6) were led by Stephen Houston, who had 28 carries for 158 yards and three first-half touchdowns, becoming the first Indiana player to score on three runs in one game since Bryan Payton in October 2007. Cameron Coffman was 31 of 53 for 348 yards, threw for one TD and ran for another, and threw three interceptions.
"We turned the ball over four times on the road, you're not going to win," Wilson said. "We've been pretty good all year, but ... 11 turnovers over the last three weeks is not winning football, especially on the road and the way we are defensively."
The teams combined for 1,060 yards in total offense in a game that typified a season full of miscues and misfortune -- for both teams.
Shavers had a scoring run of 71 yards called back because of a holding call. The Boilermakers blew one scoring chance after taking over at their own 45, another when Marve was picked off in the red zone and a third when Raheem Mostert's chance at a 96-yard kickoff return was upended when teammate Chris Quinn inadvertently tackled him at the Indiana 37 while trying to make a block. That was all in the first half.
Indiana had its own trouble with turnovers in the second half.
Between the mistakes, the two pass-happy teams traded big-play jabs. It was that kind of day.
But Shavers turned the game with the late scoring flurry -- and the Boilermakers are hoping another strong finish may save Hope's job.
"(Hope) was the first guy that came to me and said, 'We're still going to give you a chance if you want it,' and that's when I came out in the media and said I'm going to be back," Marve said. "If it wasn't for him, I wouldn't have been playing the rest of the season. I think he's a heck of a guy. He's the reason I came to Purdue. We had a rough season. That wasn't on him. But now we've bounced back."Copyright © 2014 Paddock Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.