WEST LAFAYETTE | Purdue's high-scoring offense may be about to get a big boost.
Coach Danny Hope said Tuesday that quarterback Robert Marve and running back Ralph Bolden are close to playing and could be on the field as early as Saturday against Michigan. Both are recovering from torn anterior cruciate ligaments.
"They're closer to being ready, and I think Robert could be ready physically," Hope said. "I think we'll have to assess what his role would be going into the game because he's not taken a lot of snaps (in practice)."
When asked later about Bolden, Hope said: "I'm not exactly sure, though I think he's getting much closer and I think in his mind he feels like he's ready now."
Akeem Shavers and Akeem Hunt have been Purdue's two top runners this season. It's the first time since Marve or Bolden sustained their most recent knee injuries that Hope has indicated either was close enough to even consider playing.
Marve, now in his sixth college season, tore the ACL in his left knee for the third time during the Boilermakers' 20-17 loss at then No. 22 Notre Dame on Sept. 8.
Bolden, a fifth-year senior and last year's top rusher for Purdue, hasn't played since tearing the ACL in his right knee during Purdue's win at Indiana last November.
Hope doesn't want Marve or Bolden to rush back and he really doesn't need them to do that, either, given that Purdue's offense has productive as any in the Big Ten this season.
As expected, Purdue heads into this week's conference opener ranked second in the league in scoring offense (42.5 points) and second in passing offense (262.0 yards).
The surprise has been the efficiency of the running game, which is ranked fourth in the Big Ten at 201.5 yards per game. Hunt and Shavers have already combined to run for 409 yards and four touchdowns and are averaging 5.4 yards per carry between them.
That's pretty good for a team that has traditionally lived and died with the pass.
Yet the emergence of what may be the best ground game of Hope's tenure has changed the expectations at Purdue. The Boilermakers head into Saturday's contest with their first 3-1 record since 2007 and a chance to prove that they belong in the Big Ten title talk.
"We've got some pretty good backs back there who help complement our play-action passes," quarterback Caleb TerBush said. "I'd say right now, we're sitting pretty."
And Purdue has excelled despite what Hope described as a "disjointed" start to the season at quarterback. On Tuesday, TerBush acknowledged he's just now rounding into form.
The senior was suspended for the season opener, then struggled after a solid start against Notre Dame and had to contend with migraine headaches leading up to a two-touchdown, one-interception performance in a 54-16 rout of Eastern Michigan.
On Saturday, TerBush delivered his best game of the season by going 27 of 37 for 294 yards with four touchdowns and one pick — numbers that might have been better if a few penalties hadn't wiped out some big throws. Still, it was enough to get Purdue past Marshall 51-41 and a few more looks from Top 25 voters.
"I'd say after the bye week, I was able to regroup and that was a big thing," said TerBush, who noted he can't afford to look over his shoulder and wonder whether another quarterback, such as Marve, may be trying to beat him out.
Nobody doubts the skills of Marve or Bolden.
Hope has repeatedly called Marve a "special talent" and said Tuesday that if Bolden didn't play this season he would "get on my knees and beg him" to return for a sixth season.
But with the offense playing so well, the question Hope faces is this: Would the return of either Marve or Bolden or both mess up an offense that is in sync as it embarks on its three toughest weeks of the season? Purdue hosts Michigan (2-2) and Wisconsin (3-2) before visiting No. 12 Ohio State (5-0).
"It's really the first time we've had any continuity at the quarterback position," Hope said. "So we may not go into this week with a predetermined plan (for Marve), but he could certainly come in and make a difference if he's playing well. (Quarterback) Rob Henry is coming off an ACL injury and is just now getting back to where he's fully recovered."
As for Bolden, the concern is the same.
"You have to look and see exactly where he's at," Hope said. "What you really have to look at is if you put him in a game, is he going to be more effective than Akeem Shavers or Akeem Hunt or the other guys who are healthy?"